History of Open and Distance Learning

18 APR 2022 By Andrew E
History of Open and Distance Learning

Just as traditional scholarships make education possible for those who are otherwise unable to afford the cost, distance education makes education accessible to those who are unable to sit in the traditional classroom. This article will go through the history of open and distance learning and try to compress over 100 years of history into an interesting and succinct record.

The Check’s in the Mail

Open and Distance Learning through the Post

The postal service was the only way for distance learning to exist before radio and TV! However, it had incredibly limited reach. Tutors that wished to perform correspondence learning had to physically post each individual letter to every student they wished to reach.

1728 – Boston, USA:

Caleb Phillips publishes an advertisement in the Boston Gazette inviting people to take part in correspondence learning. They would be able to learn how to write shorthand by sending their work to him through the mail. He would then correct their work and send it back to them.

1840 – Bath, UK:

Isaac Pitman, known as “The Pioneer of Distance Education”, mailed postcards to his students for them to transcribe Bible passages into shorthand and mail them to him. He would then make corrections, similarly to Phillips, and then send them back to his students.

1843 – Unknown:

America launches the foundation of the Phonographic Correspondence Society.

1856 – Germany

Charles Toussaint (French) and Gustav Longenscheidt (German) taught classes through correspondence; though there was barely any correspondence between the students and the tutors.

1873 1897 – Boston

Anna Elliot Ticknor; founded the Society to Encourage Study at Home from 1873 until she died in 1897. The idea of exchanging letters between teachers and students originated with her. Interestingly, most of her students were female, who were only just beginning to demand access to higher education.

Change the Frequency!

Open and Distance learning over the Radio

In 1894, Guglielmo Marconi invents the spark transmitter and obtains the first patent for a radio device. This was the key turning point for open and distance learning, as it allowed tutors to reach students in an enormously larger area than they could only have ever dreamed of in the past.

1906 – USA

The University of Wisconsin launches a wireless station, later known as the WHA, a federally licensed radio station dedicated to educational broadcasting.

Over the next 15 years, over 170 more educational institutions attempted to use radio to educate the public, but by 1922, all radio frequencies had been exhausted. By 1929, out of the 176 radio stations at educational institutions, only 35 remained.

Thankfully, after 1928, many radio-related educational businesses had come to fruition:

1928 – USA

Benjamin Darrow founded the Ohio School of the Air.

1928 – USA

The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) Educational Hour starts.

1930 – USA

CBS starts the American School of the Air.

May 11th 1930 – USA

The Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations organised and funded the National Advisory Council for Radio in Education (NACRE) in an effort to promote radio broadcasting as a teaching medium.

1930 – USA

Columbus, Ohio founds The Institute for Education by Radio (IER). The IER concentrated on techniques used in educational broadcasting.

What else is on?

Open and Distance learning over the TV

After the incredible success of radio education, it would not be long before television would attempt to break into the educational sector as well. In 1913, Thomas Edison said:

“Books will be obsolete in the public schools. Schools will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.”

Even though the technology to use television as an educational medium had existed since 1927, the first use of television in education did not exist until between 1932 and 1937 at the University of Iowa. However, this was purely experimental. Education only started using television properly in the early 1950s.

1952 – USA

The FCC reserves television channels for the exclusive use of education, but unfortunately, it still wasn’t successful and remained so until the 1960s-70s.

By the mid-1970s, the BBC began to set a standard for American television course developers to follow. Computers became a medium for delivering education by this time too, however.

Just Refresh the Page!

Open and Distance learning over the Internet

Following the ultimate failure of television to break into the open and distance learning sector, computers were introduced to try and make distance learning more interactive and accessible to people in a global capacity.

The corporate arena first started using computers during the 1980s. During this time, companies would use computer-based programs to train new employees. After that, the corporate explosion of online distance education was in effect. It wasn’t long before the internet became the most popular and widespread instrument for distance education around the world.

1989 – USA

CompuServe is first used at the University of Phoenix.

1990 – USA

The first Learning Management System (LMS) platform is launched, called FirstClass. This was the precursor to the LMSs used in today’s virtual learning environments. These include Blackboard and Canvas, which many educational institutions use today.

1991 – USA

Tim-Burners Lee unveils The World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989. The University of Phoenix was one of the first to offer online education programs over the internet.

1992 – USA

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation develops Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALNs). Those unable to attend traditional class in the classroom were given experimental educational alternatives through ALNs.

1998 – USA

Universities failed to implement online learning, because they ignored the fundamental principles of the quality of the education, institutional governance and project planning.

2011 – Globally

65% of institutions reported that online learning was critical to their long-term strategic plans. Eric Yuan created Zoom, the online communication program, this year as well. It would go on to become one of the most widely recognized software apps for online teaching in 2018-2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is because it gave institutions the ability to safely teach their students over the internet without losing too much quality of education.


John Sener said, “Education has been, is being and will continue to be cyberized”. The wider public was provided access to online education during the first era. The second era prioritised improving the quality of the education being taught both online and offline.


Nowadays, open and distance learning has become an accepted and fundamental part of our educational lives. It’s clear that the world of education would not be the same if not for the accessibility that online learning provides. The technological advancements that now allow students to attend university from their homes have surely affected the lives of thousands of people globally. It will surely continue to develop now that institutions have learned how to implement online learning at its maximum capacity.

To read more interesting blog articles, visit Unicaf’s Blog!