Online Education: From the Mailbox to the Internet

'By the end of 2018, more than six million students were taking up online courses through various devices.'

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Online Education: From the Mailbox to the Internet

Online education has become a common learning method in recent decades. Many students, particularly those who are working and studying at the same time, prefer the convenience of accessing classes through their computers. Today, online education is the mainstream form of distance learning. Before the invention of the World Wide Web, distance learning had been already established.

Mailbox Lessons

One of the earliest known pre-internet distance learning lessons was through the mail. This learning activity started in the 1720s, when school teachers used the mail to send lessons to remote students. Although a student could be waiting for an extended period of time to receive each lesson it was a step in the right direction for learning. Students could now be educated by teachers from a great distance and not miss out.

Radio Broadcast

In the 1920s with the invention of the radio, around 200 colleges and universities started to broadcast lessons. This was conventional at the time because of the limitations caused by the World War. What set radio lessons apart from the mailbox ones was the ability to feel like you were in a classroom by listening to a teacher. Combined with a text book for reference this was a powerful method of learning for the times. The only downside was lack of visual stimulation that a real classroom provides.

Televised Courses

With the advent of television in the 1950s after the Second World War, some universities started to televise courses and teach students in their homes. Many of these courses were extra credit activities used by institutions like the Open University. The Open University even arranged with the BBC to televise the courses on their network in the UK.  Although it never caught on to be a mainstream method of learning like online courses today, the ability to project the visual an aural senses away from the classroom was something new.


In 1960, intranet systems ware developed along with the invention of desktop computers. An intranet system for servicing distance learning called the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) launched in the 1960s. It first began life in the University of Illinois but then in time became supported by graphics terminals worldwide. PLATO was indeed revolutionary, it became the building blocks for modern concepts in multi-user computing including forums, message boards, online testing, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and even multiplayer video games!

Educational Games

The first educational game, Lemonade Stand developed in 1979 by Bob Jamison of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC). It marked the start of a new generation of computer learning. This kinesthetic learning practice with computers became a unique venture never seen before. Apple Computers even decided to port the game to their Apple II machine to reach even more people. It’s popularity grew so much that it became bundled with a number of computers out of the box.

Educational Expansion through the Internet

With the rise of the internet in the 1980s, reaching and teaching students from far away became easier and faster. Online courses also became accredited in the 1980’s but only a few universities delivered.  Then in the 1990s, more colleges and universities started to put up their ‘online campuses’. In these online campuses teachers and professors taught whole courses at different levels.

The OpenCourseWare project launched at the start of the new millennium. This made hundreds to thousands of lesson materials available to all students who desired to learn about different subjects. Just before the next decade started, there were already more than five million students taking classes online.

In 2010 onwards, online education continued to expand into mobile. Now, even students who don’t have computers or laptops can access online classes through mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. By the end of 2018, more than six million students were taking up online courses through various devices.

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