300 Years of Distance Learning Evolution [INFOGRAPHIC] | LearnDash

History of distance education timeline

Education / August 10, 2017

Credit to Geoffrey WhitewayWhile planning your next semester, you begin to consider taking a few online courses. You realize that the flexibility of the classes will help alleviate your tight schedule, and saving on your commute means a little extra money for shopping! You begin to wonder who created this marvelous invention. Believe it or not, distance learning was not developed when universities received access to the Internet. In fact, the Internet was invented over 100 years after distance learning’s humble beginnings.

Birth of Distance Learning

In “Serving the System: a Critical History of Distance Education” Jennifer Sumner writes, “Although its beginnings are disputed, the history of distance education is well documented, especially in the 20th century” (Sumner). Though there is some discrepancy when determining the origins of distance learning, there are countless sources informing what happened next! Let’s take a look at some major occurrences and dates in the evolution of distance learning.

When did it Start?

Some sources trace distance learning as far back at the 1700s. Soon after this time, distance education was practiced through a method called correspondence education. This form of education grew without bounds, and swept across countries.

Correspondence Education

According to Mike Erwin of the University of Advancing Technology, “The process was very simple: students received instruction via mail and responded with assignments or questions to the instructor. The process was very slow and could take several weeks for a response from the instructor. Correspondence courses grew in spite of the drawbacks, in large part thanks to maturation in postal service that allowed correspondents to study across long distances” (Erwin). As tedious and useless this form of learning might seem under today’s standards, students were so compelled to learn that they did not mind they delay.


Some argue that the beginning of distance learning was “in 1840, [when] an English educator, Sir Isaac Pitman, taught shorthand by mail” (UFL). Pitman would mail text on postcards to students, and students would mail their assignments back to him. Correspondence courses continued to catch on, and the Museum of Distance Education timeline reveals that, in 1858, the University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees.

Radio, Television, and Development

As time went on, technological advances played a pivotal role in distance education. The introduction of the radio allowed universities to broadcast information and courses to students. According to this infographic, in 1922, “Pennsylvania State College became the first college to broadcast courses across radio networks.” About a decade later, the University of Iowa followed suit, becoming the “first university to employ television as a learning tool” (Distance Learning). The difficulty with these methods, however, was that they are one-way forms of communication. Pupils were not able to ask the professors questions or interact with other students, because everything was broadcasted directly to them.

Source: www.fnu.edu