Distance learning is not a new phenomenon. In fact, correspondence-based courses date back to at least 1840, when Isaac Pitman used mailed postcards to teach his now-ubiquitous shorthand system. Radio- and television-based courses followed in the 20th century, but it is during the Digital Age that distance learning has not only moved into the mainstream — it has become increasingly indistinguishable from on-campus experiences. Distance is no longer a barrier with online learning, and students now have the opportunity to gain a quality education wherever they are in the world. Let’s take a look at the origins of this evolution and find out why its growth is set to continue.
Online learning: the origins
In 1989 the first online MBA was delivered. There was no real-time instruction or digital classroom to speak of — assignments and course materials were emailed back and forth — but the proposition was powerful: those without the time or budget to pursue a traditional on-campus degree could now earn an MBA on their own schedule for a lower cost.
In the 1990s, a number of established, traditional institutions — including New York University — attempted to follow suit, but they weren’t always successful. Digital courses were often too far removed from the campus experience, with educators failing to account for the difference between learning online and in face-to-face environments.
But technological innovations began to close the gap. In 1999, Blackboard and eCollege launched, creating far more robust online environments for course communications, materials, assessments and more. The open-source Moodle platform followed in 2002, with its focus on interaction and collaboration moving the online classroom closer to its current form.
Where are we now?
In 2016, online learning is no longer an add-on or an afterthought: it is an integral part of the education mix. Brick and mortar universities are in fact one of the main providers and to make sure their reputation and quality are untouched, they need to make sure the overall quality and standards of their digital degrees are as rigorous as their on-campus courses. Universities are hiring professors fully dedicated to the digital environment, and thanks to web-conferences and the rise of high-speed internet, one on one conversations and online tutorials through web conferences are becoming the norm.
Leading educators understand that learning models need to be digitally native — not simply repurposed from offline programmes — offering learning methodologies and content that are specifically designed for the online space. State-of-the-art, multi-device technology is enabling online students to share ideas with each other, collaborate on projects and build real-world networks in their field of interest. Benefits like these were previously the preserve of on-campus learners. Additionally, through the use of such technologies, online learners gain digital fluency – a skill that is critical in today’s job market.
Online learning providers are positioning themselves to meet changing demands in higher education. It is increasingly clear that a growing number of mature students and lifelong learners are looking for more flexible options to balance their existing commitments; international students are looking for ways to earn global credentials — and engage with peers and instructors in real time — without relocating; working professionals are more aware of the long-term value of their investment in education, prioritising programmes that are career-focused, frequently updated and carry the same weight as their on-campus equivalents — all of which are hallmarks of a quality online education.
The future of education
We’re haven’t reached an end state yet, of course: the digital classroom will continue to evolve long into the future. It is widely expected that machine intelligence and adaptive systems will enable greater personalisation of learning, while virtual reality is set to have radical effects on the teaching of science, mathematics, technology and engineering.
Assessment methods are also likely to diversify as artificial intelligence, simulations and games, and real-world challenges take a more prominent place alongside traditional methods. It all reflects higher education’s gradual shift beyond the classroom towards real-life applications — and meeting the needs of students all over the world.
Above all, digital education is making education more accessible and more affordable. More importantly – thanks to new technologies – it is scalable. It is a rapidly developing, innovative solution that breaks down barriers to access. It will only continue to bring quality education to those who have not been able to access it in the past.