Though it may seem that online education had its beginnings in the late 1900s, the concept of distance learning first came into practice in the mid 19th century when the U.S. Postal Service was developed. The notion of reliable, long-distance correspondence led to the development and implementation of what were called commercial ‘correspondence colleges', where instructional missives would be distributed through the postal service between students and professors. Today, at-distance education programs have become more sophisticated and accessible due to the proliferation of the web and digital technology. Elite institutions around the world now offer open courseware, online degrees, and online classes that are both legitimizing and popularizing the idea of education from a computer.
A few significant advancements have shaped and pushed distance learning forward since the late 1800s. In 1873 the the first official correspondence education program, called the “Society to Encourage Home Studies”, was established in Boston, Massachusetts by Ana Eliot Ticknor. The University of Queensland in Australia founded its Department of Correspondence Studies in 1911, which also relied on Australia's postal system. The University of South Africa, today known as one of the world's open distance learning mega colleges, became a champion and innovator of distance learning when it reshaped its mission and focus in 1946.
In 1953 the University of House made distance learning history when it began offering the first televised college classes on KUHT (today called HoustonPBS), which was the first public television station in the United States. Referring to itself as the “The Channel That Changes You”, KUHT ran 13-5 hours of educational material each week, accounting for approximately 38% of the channel's total broadcast time. Many of the courses aired in the evening so that learners who worked during the day had time to view the material.
After the television, the personal computer and the personal web were the next major inventions to revolutionize distance education. In 1989 the University of Phoenix became the first institution to launch a fully online collegiate institution that offered both bachelors and masters degrees. In 1996, entrepreneurs Glen Jones and Bernand Luskin launched Jones International University, which became the first accredited and fully web-based university. Since the creation of these fully online programs and schools, distance learning has continued to grow in many different directions. In 2003 the Blackboard Learning System staff announced that 40,000 instructors were teaching 150,000 online courses to more than 6 million students, across 55 countries.
Today it is estimated that 1 out of 4 college students are enrolled in at least one online classes. In 2009 there were over 4.5 million students taking online classes, with a Master of Science in Business Administration (MBA) being the top degree offered in the United States. This trend seems like to continue into the future: currently, 83% of all U.S. institutions that offer online courses say they expect an increase in online enrollment in the coming decade.
The growth of distance learning programs has many important side-effects on higher education. For example, the profile of a typical undergraduate student has changed significantly. The average age of students enrolled at the University of Phoenix is around 33, and more than 50% of all students taking online classes are currently female. Online education has also spurred changes in traditional colleges: now, 93% of all brick and mortar colleges offer online courses. An increasing number of universities, like the University of California Berkeley, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer free online classes called open courseware that feature video lectures and quizzes taken directly from class discussion.
As technology improves and online programs become respected, education experts predict that the distance education will continue to expand and complexify in the future. Some leaders in the realm predict that the number of online students will grown to almost 19 million by 2014. To encourage this, President Barack Oabama has pledged over $500 million for the creation of new online course materials to fuel the industry.
If you want to play a role in the growing field of online education, the study of computer science can provide you with a strong foundation in the technical and theoretical aspects of computer technology, giving you the skills you need to create innovative tools for distance learners. However, if you are interested in the business aspects of running a profitable online college, a degree in business administration will teach you about the different elements that go into running a successful company, from marketing and management to finance and accounting. Finally, if you want to help make distance learning programs more effective, you can learn about methods and theories for creating quality instruction by enrolling in an education or instructional psychology degree program.