• Steve Taylor

The New (Virtual) Reality

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

The first of a three-part article by WillowWood's Steve Taylor, MBA

I. In The Beginning

Let’s start this blog off by agreeing on this: remote learning is nothing new. Well, the technology might be, but the concept is almost 300 years old. The first reference to a correspondence course is in 1728 when Caleb Phillips placed an advertisement in the Boston Gazette offering instruction in writing shorthand through weekly mailed lessons. Whether anyone actually signed up is unknown.

Polish universities were the first academic institutions to offer remote schooling. In 1776 the Jagiellonian University in Krakow opened to run a correspondence program that taught crafts to workers, and in 1779 the University of Warsaw started offering a correspondence course in physics for the general public.

It took another 80 years for the concept to catch on in the rest of Europe. In 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman developed the first “modern” correspondence course in Great Britain. Ironically, just like Phillips 116 years earlier, the course he offered was in shorthand writing. Pitman mailed text transcribed into shorthand on postcards and received transcriptions from his students for correction.

The first American correspondence school was funded by Anna Eliot Tickner, a pioneer in distance education. The Boston Society to Encourage Studies at Home offered higher education exclusively to women and was opened in 1873.

The first diplomas and degrees attainable through remote learning were offered through the External Programme at the University of London in 1858. Charles Dickens called it the “People’s University” because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. Many other universities across the world would follow suit and develop their own mail delivered curricula. It would take another 100 years of technological progress before the first true virtual classes came to be.

In 1960, the University of Illinois created a system of linked computer terminals where students could access resources such as recorded lectures. This early intranet would go on to evolve into PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations), a network with thousands of terminals across the globe. Plato would go on to be used to create nascent versions of social networking used today: message boards, chat rooms, and screen sharing.

In 1979, Apple created a computer game called Lemonade Stand. The idea was to create a successful lemonade stand and with it, introduced the idea of learning with computers in virtual environments. The first courses to be internationally recognized as ‘online’ were offered by CALCampus in 1994. Formerly an offline adult learning center, CALCampus made the virtual transition just after the world wide web was born and desktop computing became a thing.

By 2009, things really ratcheted up. Globally, 5.5 million students were online and learning, representing an increase of 187% from 2004. Between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of American post-secondary students who were enrolled in at least one online course had increased from 21.4% to 29.0%.

By 2012, that proportion had risen to 32.5% and by 2017, to 33.1%. Furthermore, 15.4% of students in American colleges were enrolled exclusively online. Universities were forced to meet the surge in demand by expanding not only their buffet of course offerings but also by making entire degree programs available online.

The emergence of online communications software such as Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams has made the adoption of virtual learning that much more feasible. By 2018, 35% of American post-secondary students had taken an online course in their programs. Remote learning had arrived and it was here to stay.

Stay tuned for Part II: Into the Matrix.

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