Surely if you’re on our website, you’ve been active in your research about online education, with an exceeding amount of thoughts and fears swirling around inside your head. “What school is right for me?” “How much will it cost?” “Do I have enough time?” There’s plenty enough on your mind as it is. But imagine not being able to even have these options. The Internet made education more accessible, but it is not the first form of distance learning. In fact, the earliest known examples of distance learning date back to the early 18th century. So you have a bad internet connection? Try waiting a week to receive your test results in the mail! Here is a brief timeline of distance education that has culminated in what you know today.

The Early Days

The first recorded instance of distance education dates back to 1728. An advertisement in the Boston Gazette promoted the first recorded instance of distance learning, in which students would learn short hand by mail. This concept was expanded on in the 1840s by Sir Isaac Pitman. He would mail shorthand texts to students on post cards, who would then mail back their transcriptions for him to grade. In the 1850s, the Phonographic Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio (which was founded by Isaac’s brother, Benjamin Pitman) offered certified secretarial training through the USPS.

Academic Recognition

In 1858, the University of London established the External Programme. This program was lauded by Charles Dickens as it was a way of spreading intellectual growth amongst those who couldn’t traditionally afford higher education. It is considered the first program to offer a distance learning degree to students, and still exists today at the University of London International Programme. In the 1890s, University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper developed satellite courses for the university as a way to educate farmers and those that didn’t live near an institution of higher education.

Around this time also saw the development of night school, as well as private correspondence schools. The first correspondence school in the U.S. was the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, founded by Anna Eliot Ticknor in 1873. The Society accepted women of all economic backgrounds and was taught through the mail. A relative boom of correspondence schools was happening on a global scale too. The University of Queensland in Australia established its Department of Correspondence Studies in 1911, while the University of South Africa began creating distance education in 1946.


The 1920s saw the development of college courses being broadcasted on the radio. The University of Salt Lake City, The University of Wisconsin, The University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State College, and over 200 other school systems participated in this way of study throughout the 20s and 30s. Typically, students that signed up would receive study materials in the mail and then listen to live classroom discussions that were held on campus.

With the advent of television, and breakout of World War II, radio broadcasting courses began to decline. In 1933, the University of Iowa was one of the first schools to use television as an instructive medium. The format remained popular throughout the next couple decades, with universities such as Stanford and California State University broadcasting courses on television, as well as the development of general non-commercial television programming promoted by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The University of Wisconsin even created a statewide telephone based distance learning program for physicians in 1965. The founding of the Coastline Community College in 1976 marked the first college to have no physical campus, as all of their courses were televised. But surely, none of this was as wide-reaching as what was just around the corner.

Modern Era

In the late 60s and early 70s, schools that focused primarily on distance learning such as the Open University and Walden University were founded. The invention of the Internet saw increased communication between students and professors. In 1993, Jones International University was launched, and would eventually become the first fully online university to be accredited by a regional accrediting committee.

In 2012, 96% of traditional universities were offering online courses, with programs ranging from business and economics, to quantum mechanics and archaeology. Enrollment in online courses is only expected to increase, and developments in the field, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are happening constantly. Distance learning has come a long way from learning shorthand by mail. Keep it in mind whenever you’re feeling stressed and remember that things could be much more difficult.