It’s the first day of school and you’re looking out at your new elementary class. Some of the kids look nervous sitting in their little desks, wrestling with those endearing first-day jitters that will certainly melt away in a few hours. You introduce yourself and get to know their faces, noticing the little girl whose head is all but plastered in barrettes, and the little boy who clearly has a passion for camouflage. As you look at their eager faces, you wonder . . . how many of them will grow up to go to college?

In our current job market, a college degree is the new high school diploma. And because of the demand for education felt across the country, college itself is adapting. Distance learning programs are making education more accessible than ever. Arizona State University, one of the top ranked online programs in the country, enrolled 17,589 undergrads and 6,261 grad students in their 2016 fall semester alone. That’s over 23,000 students who wouldn’t have earned a degree otherwise. And that’s just from one school. Imagine: kids who otherwise would have had to choose between taking over the family business and getting a degree are now able to do both.

Flash Back to the 1800s

Don’t let the recent rise of online education fool you into thinking that distance learning is a new thing. It’s far from it; like nineteenth century Europe far. Sure technology has been a game changer, but its success is due to the fact that educators have been refining it for hundreds of years.

Distance learning can be traced back at least 160 years to an advertisement in a Swedish paper encouraging students to study “Composition through the medium of the Post.”  Even before that, in 1728, a similar advertisement ran in the Boston Gazette. By 1840, a British academic by the name of Isaac Pitman began offering correspondence courses that would later grow into its own institution, known as Sir Isaac Pitman’s Correspondence Colleges.

Correspondence study was firmly established in Germany by 1856. And by 1873, Anna Eliot Ticknor, the daughter of a Harvard professor, founded the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. The SH drew upon the “intellectual attainments of Ticknor’s leisured and wealthy friends to further the education of women throughout the country.” Distance learning had finally hit the US.

The Social Context

Distance learning has always been a thing of necessity. These programs flourish in social settings where traditional education isn’t available for one reason or another. World War II France, for example, saw the rise of the Centre National d'Enseignement par Correspondences, a correspondence program established for children who could not make it to regular classes during wartime.

Women have historically been advocates and participants for untraditional forms of education. Women have taken this on because their role in society and education has traditionally been marginalized and set into very specific areas in North American and European culture. It only makes sense that those charged with teaching local schoolchildren, but were not themselves allowed to attend university, were the ones to spearhead the distance learning movement. They were some of the first to be vocal about providing proper education for every student, no matter their privilege or lack thereof.

In more recent history, economic affluence has become a huge factor in a person’s ability to attend a traditional college. Starting in the 1980s, college tuition costs have more than doubled. In 1980, the cost of attending a public university cost an undergrad around $8,000 on average, and $16,000 on average for private schools; by 2015 public universities cost $19,000 and private cost $43,000. More and more students are finding themselves unable or unwilling to pay for college without also holding down a full-time job.

Technology and the Classroom

In the early years of distance learning in the United States, Yale professor William Rainey Harper wrote:

“The day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges when the students who shall recite by correspondence will far outnumber those who make oral recitations.”

His enthusiasm may have gotten the best of him just a teensy bit — did I mention he was also the head of a correspondence program at Chautauqua College? — but his vision, though slightly delayed, is certainly heading down the path to fruition. All thanks to the technological developments of the last hundred years.

The first distance learning courses were, as history shows us, correspondence classes. These were traditionally done by mail and a laborious process to be sure. It went something like this: A professor mailed an assignment to the student, the student completed it and mailed it back, the instructor graded it and then sent along the next assignment. And the cycle began again.

The advent of radios, television, and later satellite technology has obviously brought distance learning into a whole new world. Add computers to the mix, and even traditional state universities are seeing the value of alternative education models. The success of distance learning is due in part to the newly available technologies that allow teachers and students to interact online in a manner as close as possible to that of a traditional classroom. It’s only “in part,” of course, since the driving force behind student-teacher interaction is, yes, the teachers.

Today, anyone with access to a computer can take online courses and earn a college diploma. The educational philosophies that have stood the test of time since the first online classes in the 1980s are the ones in which teachers are allowed to spread their wings and use the technologies to support their teaching, instead of the other way around. It’s the job of an online teacher to take initiative and organize all the class readings, assignments, discussions, and more. The technology is simply the means of transport.

All this is to say, in the absence of a good teacher, an online classroom would fall just as flat, if not more so, than a traditional classroom. Whether we’re talking about education by mail, radio, video, or online, it all comes down to having a passionate person steering the ship.

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