Getting an education has always been about gaining knowledge; in recent years, however, the way we gain that knowledge has changed dramatically, thanks largely to the development of online learning.
Brick-walled campuses with grassy quads still exist, of course, but the many ways people can earn a degree or even take a class look very different from what early educators ever imagined.
Personal computers and the Internet have made education more accessible to more people, but the transformation goes well beyond that. Today, students don't need to sit in classrooms, study textbooks that have little relevance to their careers, and cram for deadlines dictated by somebody else. New online programs like Capella's FlexPath emphasize a self-paced approach, letting students set their own schedules and use their professional experiences to show how they've mastered the material.
How has online education evolved since the concept began? Take a look at this brief history of online learning in the US to find out how higher education has grown into the varied multimedia experience it often is today.
Pre-Digital Distance Learning
Getting an education from home isn't a new idea. Private correspondence courses were advertised in the Boston Gazette as early as 1728, and The Society to Encourage Studies at Home, the first correspondence school in the US, was founded in 1873. Other methods of distance learning, including by telephone and via television, would follow in the mid-20th century.
Setting the Digital Stage for Online Learning
Before online learning could become the norm, a lot of technology had to first be developed and then become accessible to students. The first step in that long journey was taken in 1969 when the US Department of Defense created ARPANET, a network that would later be known as the Internet.
It was the personal computer, however, that would start to change learning for students around the globe. One of the first affordable and consumer-friendly personal computers, the Apple II, hit the market in 1977, with the education-forward advertising headline, "Why every kid should have an Apple after school."
Connecting those personal computers to the Internet was the final step in laying the groundwork for online education. The Internet started creeping into homes in 1993, and the technology transformed what we traditionally think of as institutions of higher learning.
The Rise Of Online Universities
The 1990s was a big decade for online education. Universities had been taking advantage of computers and the Internet for a quite a while, but the rise of online universities in the early '90s gave people the option to earn a degree without having to sit in a physical classroom.
That freedom proved incredibly popular. Today, hundreds of accredited schools offer online degrees in the US. Between 2002 and 2008, the number of students taking online classes almost doubled.
Online + Brick-And-Mortar = Blended
The early success of online universities in the 1990s inspired traditional colleges to fold digital learning experiences into their own course offerings. Blended learning was the result, defined as a combination of face-to-face and computer-mediated learning. Online portals are commonplace for all university courses, and both entirely online classes and hybrid online/in-class learning opportunities are available at many colleges.
MOOCs: Classes For The Masses
The power of the the Internet has led to different types of online education, even beyond the traditional educational system. MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer the accessibility of online learning and are free to anyone. The first MOOC was launched in 2008 in Canada, and 2,200 students signed up. Today, MOOC platforms are often used to supplement in-school learning, and universities are partnering with MOOC platforms to offer their own classes free and online. The New York Times even named 2012 "The Year of the MOOC."
The New Online Degree: Ultimate Flexibility
The latest approach to higher education takes online learning to the next level, adding flexibility, self-paced learning, and real-world experience into the mix.
Capella University's new FlexPath self-paced learning program lets students earn advanced degrees on their own schedule and create their own due dates and deadlines. When students are satisfied that they've mastered the material, they determine when to demonstrate their competency and move on. For students balancing work and family, it's an innovative next step in this country's educational evolution.