The History of Online Education

By Zoe Taylor

You’ll be surprised just how far back in history technology was beginning to be implemented in learning. From the first ‘teaching machine’ to ‘Poll Everywhere’ and beyond, in this blog, we’ll tell you all about the evolution of technology in education, and in turn the evolution of online learning.


It started in 1954, when B.F. Skinner, a member of the psychology department at Harvard University, created the very first ‘teaching machine’, designed for testing students on spelling and arithmetic by presenting them with various incomplete spellings of words and arithmetic problems. Skinner, born in March 1904, was famous for his research on operant conditioning and negative reinforcement. Along with the very first “teaching machine”he also invented the “cumulative recorder”, a device that showed response rates using a sloped line, and the “Baby Box”, an enclosed heated crib, which was created in response to his wife’s concern that traditional cribs were not as safe as she’d like.

In 1960, the very first computer-based training program was developed by PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), a bulletin board system developed by Professor Don Bitzer of the University of Illinois. PLATO soon grew beyond the boundaries of its educational purposes, and featured some of the very first versions of software we rely on today, such as email, instant messaging, chat rooms, gaming programs, groupware and multimedia.

1965 marked the first statewide telephone-based education program, which was offered by the University of Wisconsin. The University was founded in 1848, and was the first public university established in Wisconsin.

Patrick Suppes and Richard C, two Psychology Professors at Stanford University, bean using computer aided instruction (CAI) in 1966 to teach math and reading in elementary schools in Palo Alto.

Stanford started to offer part-time instruction through the television network in 1968. The Stanford Instructional Television Network (SITN) allowed professionals working in various industries take part-time classes offered by the Stanford School of Engineering. Only employees working for SITN member companies were able to take these classes, which were broadcast on several channels through microwave transmitters. The member companies had receiving stations and one or more television rooms, where students could undertake the courses.

Following this, in 1969, the US department of Defence commissioned the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) to create the Internet. ARPANET began development in 1966 by the United States’ ARPA. It was a wide area network that linked Universities to research centres. It was the first company to incorporate packet switching (a digital networking communications method that groups all transmitted data). The company made it easier for people to access computers, improve computer equipment, created a more effective communication system for the military, and was the very beginning of what we now know and love as the Internet.

A few years later, the University of Phoenix for adult online education was founded in 1976, and the Computer Assisted Learning Centre (CALC), another online education centre for adults was founded in 1982. CALC was founded by Margaret Morabito, who began investigating major commercial telecommunications networks and discovering how telecommunications was being used for education in 1983.

Ten years later in 1992, the Electronic University Network introduced a PHD Program, which was offered via America Online (AOL).

In 1994, the first complete online travel program was introduced by Steve Gatlin in 1994.

Blackboard, an enterprise technology company specialising in the development of education software, and eCollege, an on-demand software as a service (SaaS) provider of eLearning services and software to secondary and tertiary learning institutions, were both founded in 1999.


By the time the new millennium rolled around, technology and the internet had already been developed immensely. From here on out, upgrades, updates and new inventions happened incredibly frequently.

In the year 2000, despite fears of Y2K, there was an average of one computer for every five students in schools.

From the year 2002-2008, Steve Gatlin formed a partnership with over 1500 accredited colleges and universities to offer 100% online certificate programs.

In 2004, 54% of K-12 schools had laptops available to students, and in 2005 94% of schools had classrooms with internet access. 2007 saw approximately one in five college students take at least one class online.

In 2008Poll Everywhere, an online polling service was launched. This allowed teachers to take advantage of the prime distraction in classrooms, the mobile phone, by conducting live polls in relation to in-class discussions. Students could submit answers via SMS, email and Twitter.

The University of Southern California was the first institute to introduce an online degree program that included real-time elements in 2009. The degree was a Master of Arts in Teaching, or MAT@USC. These real-time elements included live sessions, breakout rooms and collaborative learning.

In 2011, public schools in New York ordered over 2000 iPads for teachers and students as part of a pilot program, and by 2012 96% of traditional universities offered online courses.

It is expected that it will continue to evolve at the speed of light until the end of time, and looking back over history, it’s exciting to think what’s in store in the next few years. In our next blog post, we’ll make predictions as to what might occur in the world of online education in 100 years time.

(Source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4, source 5, source 6, source 7, source 8, source 9, source 10, source 11, source 12, source 13)

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One thought on “The History of Online Education

  1. I think there will be a turn around somewhere. I’m not sure what or when but we are human beings and somehow somewhere in our life we need the human experience. I think in the end it will be the rich who have the real life teachers and the poor will get dumped with the technology….just my opinion.

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