A Brief History of the Online Classroom and Virtual College Courses

Attending online colleges and universities has become somewhat of a trend within the past decade and every year more and more students are packing into virtual classrooms in order to open additional doors in their future.  There are still far too many out there that do not believe that a quality education can be obtained over the Internet, however, because they were exposed to some truly bad experiences back in the early ‘90’s when this type of education first started becoming mainstream.  Let’s take a quick look at the evolution of distance learning throughout the ages-

The First Distance Learning Schools

Believe it or not, the very first distance learning schools were founded way back in the early 1700’s and generally called “correspondence courses.”  Of course, there was no World Wide Web back on those days so students learned solely from small pamphlets and textbooks that were sent from the college through the US Postal Service whenever a student registered.  There were no tests involved and students were free to study completely at their own pace; once they finished one lesson plan then all they had to do was mail the college and request the next one.

Some of the finer schools even had on-site instructors that could be contacted through the mail if any questions happened to arise…which would generally take weeks or even months for a student to get a simple question answered.  Although this may sound completely ridiculous to some, it is important to remember what life was like almost 300 years ago and how slim the advanced learning opportunities were.  If a man could learn an additional skill by studying in the evenings after finishing his daily profession, then that was thought of as a noble thing.

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Early Online Colleges and Diploma Mills

Of course, we have to fast forward about 290 years to where this story picks up again.  The first online degrees started becoming available around 1995 but there was little incentive for students to consider this route.  In the mid 90’s the personal computer was still in its infancy, the world was still dealing with dial-up, and government financial aid could not be applied to this type of education.  There were a few pioneers even back then, of course, that were not afraid to brave the trials of distance learning but the graduation rates were low and employers did not seem even a little bit impressed with this new type of learning.

Businesses wanted absolutely nothing to do with a prospective employee that attended an online college because nine times out of ten, the diploma came from some type of paper mill where a “student” mailed in a few hundred dollars and a graduation certificate would show up in the mail a few weeks later.  Fake diplomas became so popular, in fact, that employers were forced at one point to ignore any type of college education that did not come from a well-known traditional university.  Even graduates of small state colleges were looked at suspiciously.

The Big Draw of Online Classrooms

Even so, there were still many scholars who saw the value in a distance learning education and they enjoyed the numerous freedoms that such an education provided.  The idea of not having an actual class time was mind-boggling at first but as students quickly realized that the lectures were stored online and available whenever they had a chance to view them, it was almost if all of the boundaries of the traditional college campus were removed.  In fact, many institutions graded students solely on their classwork and their quarterly essays; there were not even tests.  Students simply loved the concept.

Over the years, online colleges have been able to really fine tune the idea of a distance education and things like online discussion boards, chat programs, and eBooks made the process even more streamlined.  This learning method also offered a unique opportunity to the schools as well because since they were charging about the same for a four-year degree (with a fraction of the overhead), this learning method was also extremely profitable.

The Pioneers of Modern Online Educations

It took close to another decade before the sentiments regarding an online degree started to shift and Americans can largely thank foreign students for today’s popularity.  Schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University were among the first to receive regional accreditations and with their accelerated learning programs where students could complete a Bachelor’s Degree in as little as two years, foreign students were flocking to virtual classrooms because of the prestige that a US-based education carried within their home countries.  In many cases, their salary outlook would almost double overnight and they were suddenly in high demand within the workforce.

Meanwhile, DeVry University and many other online colleges were spending millions of dollars per year advertising what a distance learning experience could do for Americans and eventually the trend started to catch on in the most unlikely of places; with middle-aged professionals who were already involved with a career.  Ashford University was another pioneer in this field and these colleges helped hundreds of thousands of working-class students complete their degree in the early 2000’s and the numbers kept increasing exponentially every year.  Eventually, even the government gave in and started offering Federal financial aid for online students…and that changed everything.

The Rise of Electronics

Boston.com estimates that as many as four million students are enrolled in online classes annually and that number is expected to keep growing well into the future.  Besides the obvious reasons, many scholars expect this trend to continue thanks to the way that technology has absolutely flourished and given almost everyone multiple ways to connect to the Internet and study.  Suddenly we see things like people taking buses to work simply to be able to relax and take in a Chemistry lecture or to study for an upcoming exam…none of this would have been remotely possible even a few years ago.

While no one can put an exact number on where online classrooms will go in the future, many high schools are already in the process of mimicking this learning process to make educating children more affordable.  Eventually there will be online college courses designed for specific employers and technical jobs as well; there is absolutely no telling how far distance learning will go.