Few technologies are initially used for the reasons their creators originally envisaged. Take Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor. When he was developing the technology that would become the wireless telephone in the early 1900s, Marconi is said to have believed its primary use would be to relay music performed live in city concert halls to rural regions.
In much the same way, when Tim Berners-Lee built the foundations of the internet in the 1980s, he saw a future where education, including degree-level courses, would be available to anyone on the planet who had an internet connection.
But, just as Marconi's invention was initially used to replace telegraph wires, so the internet has largely become a medium for shopping and entertainment rather than a serious educational platform.
Although it is possible to acquire any number of useful skills online, including learning a language, it has been hard to acquire reliable qualifications offered by universities purely over the internet. So far, the internet has realised little of its potential to enable anyone, anywhere to educate themselves to any level they desire.
But there is, however, growing evidence that professionals anxious to further their careers by educating themselves are now starting to sign up for online degrees.
Sanjay Tolani is typical of this new breed of online student. A director of the Dubai-based Goodwill Insurance Brokers, Mr Tolani is responsible for spearheading an organisation that services clients across 53 countries. Having completed two masters degrees, Mr Tolani decided to take an online doctorate of business administration at the UK's University of Liverpool to enable him to continue his day job.
"An online programme offers students like me the flexibility to study and work at the same time," Mr Tolani says. "This programme was particularly appealing because I travel six months of the year and would not have the time to study."
For professionals, the bonus of online higher education is the opportunity to study among a far wider cross section of international businesspeople than might be the case when enrolling in a bricks-and-mortar university.
"The other more important feature is the peer group you study with - all with very varied backgrounds and geographically diverse," Mr Tolani says. "This diversity is the best way to experience parts of the world that you may otherwise not come into contact with."
Ronel Stembull, the business development manager for the Dubai-based New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, who took an online MBA at the University of Liverpool, also considered the wide mix of online students an advantage.
"Students were more confident and determined to get their opinions across and in a professional manner," Ms Stembull says. "At times, controversial topics were discussed further in the student chat room. And, surprisingly, this is where the real learning begins."
The University of Liverpool says it is the largest provider of online postgraduate education in Europe. More than 7,500 professionals from 130 countries are currently pursuing an advanced University of Liverpool degree in management, information technology, law, health, psychology and education.
"The strength of the University of Liverpool's online programmes lies in the quality and diversity of the students - experienced career professionals, innovative learning methodologies and 100 per cent online delivery," says Samantha Martin, a spokeswoman for the University of Liverpool.
The courses are created to allow students to make use of their local business experience and apply it to their course without giving up their full-time jobs.
"An online MBA offers busy professionals the opportunity to achieve an MBA degree without taking time out," Ms Martin says. "To do this, University of Liverpool students typically spend around 20 hours per week studying over a period of approximately 24 to 30 months."
By using technology that builds on the students' professional experiences and expertise, the University of Liverpool and its online learning partner, Laureate International Universities, hope to produce graduates who can become leaders in their various fields.
One reason why universities like Liverpool have only recently tapped into the online market is that the US, which has traditionally been the innovator of new internet-based services and technologies, has been slow to catch on.