Introduction: a brief history of online learning, or “just how long has remote learning been a ‘thing’?”
Many may be under the impression that methods of online remote learning took off during the worldwide COVID-19 health crisis, which began in 2020. It may, therefore, be a surprise to learn that digital tools for distance learning long preceded the pandemic. Digital tools for remote learning had been available for at least a decade before, although it’s certainly true that their uptake surged dramatically during the pandemic.
Online learning is just the latest digitalized incarnation of a far older tradition. In the 18th century, when physical transportation links between educational establishments and rural communities were far more primitive and time-consuming, those who sought enlightenment and self-improvement often took up the option of correspondence courses.
It’s undoubtedly the case that, compared with today’s instant access via the internet, correspondence courses delivered by the postal services reached students at a more snail-like pace. The rise of radio and television courses during the 20th century made it speedier, even if the provision was limited in range.
Yet it was the rise of the internet, back in the days when it was called “the World Wide Web” (which was effectively born in 1991), that undoubtedly paved the way for the sophisticated and advanced learning options available today. The first experiments in delivering educational materials online took place in the 1980s, for example, but these were very basic and “non-interactive” compared to today’s offerings.
One of the first higher education institutions to offer advanced learning online was the University of Phoenix, which began doing so in 1989. It was followed by a growing list of other colleges throughout the 1990s. By 1998, three major higher education centers – California Virtual University, NYU Online, and Western Governors University – were offering entire advanced learning programs online.
There were teething problems in online education delivery during the early 2000s (NYU Online, for example, ended up shutting its virtual doors and folding). However, as digital technology improved and enjoyed greater uptake and online pedagogy learned from experience, the online education sector began to flourish. By 2008, four million college students were taking online courses.
A decade before the 2020 health crisis, on 11 October 2011, to be precise, the Washington Post was reporting (in an article entitled “The rise of online education”) as follows:
“For the first time in roughly a century – since the transition from the one-room schoolhouse to the classroom- and age-based school – a dramatic change in the basic way we structure our educational system is afoot.
“Online learning is on the rise in the nation’s public schools.”
The report chronicled how students in several School Districts were experimenting with “blended learning” pilots that provided youngsters with free online lessons and assessments. In that year, for example, California’s Los Altos School District expanded on a successful pilot run the previous year by providing online math lessons to the district’s fifth, sixth and seventh graders.
Already, a strong trend toward rising uptake was observable: in 2000, just 45,000 K-12 students had taken a course online; by 2010, that total had increased to four million.
Mandatory lockdowns in 2020 demonstrated the truth of the ancient proverb attributed to Plato: “necessity is the mother of invention.” It effectively forced schools, colleges, and universities to innovate on an unprecedented scale by doing their utmost to prevent severe disruption to the education of their students. Remote learning tech came to their aid.
Yet as we have just seen, Forbes reported that the online education market was already showing strong growth trends before the pandemic struck. According to data analyzed by Research and Markets, the online education market was forecast to reach a total value of $350bn by 2025. COVID-19, in other words, boosted what was already a pre-existing trend.
Let’s take a closer look at how online learning technology delivers much more than watching pre-recorded lectures and reading uploaded texts. It brings its students virtually the same benefits as classroom-based learning. Contemporary course providers that have truly mastered this route to learning and higher education have figured out how to ensure their students don’t feel like they’re missing out on a more conventional campus-based learning method.
Distance education: what learning can it offer
As the Forbes article notes, one notable aftermath of the global health crisis has been the recent decisions of top-tier universities such as Stanford and Harvard to “democratize” learning by making more online courses available. That move signals these centers of academic excellence have seen that enormous demand exists for advanced-level remote learning.
And yet, long before the virus made its mark, several universities had been ‘ahead of the curve,’ as it were, making bachelor’s and more advanced degrees (such as master’s and doctoral qualifications) available online to geographically distant students.
Other forms of online learning catering to more vocational needs have also multiplied in availability, making the acquisition of coveted skills more accessible to people who cannot give up their job to become full-time, campus-attending students.
While new digital technologies have enabled this democratization, it would be an oversimplification to use ‘distance learning’ and ‘new tech’ as synonyms for one another. True, the technology is impressive in its capabilities.
Over the years, providers that were early developers of this innovation have amassed vast quantities of anonymized user data. This data mountain allows them to draw on machine learning algorithms to help individual students acquire optimal learning habits.
Essentially, these sophisticated algorithms deploy pattern recognition software, allowing them to personalize educational content for each student. It’s a far cry from a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
A student who is starting to feel out of their depth with a concept in the course content will benefit, for instance, from a machine learning-enabled distance education platform providing a responsive adjustment to the course material, tweaking it so that it’s broken down into more detailed steps.
Many remote learning platforms use instantaneous feedback loops for students who are either returning to education after a long break or who are otherwise struggling with self-confidence. They allow them to participate digitally more actively in class discussions than they would feel able to do face-to-face.
Campus learning quality with flexible time arrangements and attractive price tags
One of the most significant advantages offered to students by remote learning technology revolves around time. If you attend campus, there are fixed times for essential lectures, lab/practical work, seminars, tutorials, and so on. With an online degree, even an advanced one such as a Master of Science in Engineering Management online, students can fit their learning around their existing schedules as and when it suits them.
For example, the advanced program for this subject developed by California’s Kettering University Online is a case in point. It allows students who may be located hundreds of miles away from the university’s campus to customize their degree with a choice of certificates in engineering management specialisms (such as Healthcare Management, Supply Chain Management, and Operations Management).
It also offers considerable flexibility around the time of study. Adult students with established work and family commitments can take a degree that will considerably enhance their future career projects by studying around their existing obligations.
This kind of advanced learning requires plenty of self-discipline and commitment to keep up with the study requirements. Still, it puts highly credentialed career advancement options within the grasp of people whose available time could not possibly fit with a conventional campus-based option.
In place of traditional online degree programs featuring lengthy pre-recorded video lectures, centers such as Kettering University Online provide shorter, more focused video content that emphasizes not only the theory but also its real-world applications.
Just as with campus-based students, online students at centers of learning such as this will benefit from the ‘human touch’ of working with industry professionals as well as seasoned academics who are also industry experts. Despite learning at a distance, online students can interact via the internet with fellow students. That facility is very useful because they can gain from the experiences of others and share knowledge with other students.
And there’s another appeal for people who are considering a change of career but are also managing all the budgetary pressures of travel between work and home, rent or mortgage, food, heating, gas, etc. The cost of online courses, including advanced online degrees, is often substantially less than attending a campus alternative would be.
Not only do online students save considerable amounts of money and time on travel, but there’s also no additional commuting to be factored into the budget. Sometimes required learning resources like textbooks are made available as online materials with no additional cost to the student.
Remote learning is no ‘second-rate’ option
While it is true that in the early years of online degrees, as a 2009 study by Cleveland State University found, executives, human resources managers, and other gatekeepers to career ladders tended to hold negative views about them, the evidence today is that such early skepticism has given way to much more pervasive acceptance.
Feedback from recruiters suggested that the rise of so-called “diploma mills” offering low-quality certifications in the early 2000s had generated much of this negative perception. But by the mid-2010s, that evaluation had changed substantially toward a considerably more favorable assessment.
In an interview for USA News published on March 4th, 2014, for example, Susan Fontana, a regional vice president at global recruiting colossus Manpower (which works with Fortune 500 firms as well as small and medium-sized enterprises), stated:
“Things have changed. I think ten years ago, you probably had a little more questioning, but it really is so much more accepted today.”
Fontana noted that a rapidly rising proportion of employers had become significantly more appreciative not only of the academic achievement but also the self-discipline and admirable work ethic of people who had juggled multiple commitments, balancing work obligations and the needs of their families to successfully complete an online degree.
The academic stature of the providers of these advanced online degrees has also risen in the estimations of employers as more top-ranked universities began offering greater numbers of remote, online education options.
In the same USA News piece, Chris Cullen, a brand consultant used by numerous colleges and universities, explained that internationally renowned centers of academic excellence like Stanford, Duke, MIT, and Johns Hopkins had all “joined the online education landscape,” strongly enhancing its reputation.
By 2019, a study by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) found that regard for online degrees amongst employers had become almost uniformly positive. The overwhelming majority – 92% – of employers surveyed were comfortable with an online degree. And, of course, this was before the global health crisis had struck.
Since then, the number of people taking online degrees has surged vigorously upward. In other words, students taking online degrees from reputable learning centers can rest assured that their qualifications will be as acceptable to prospective employers as those earned at a traditional brick-and-mortar campus.
There will undoubtedly be a good deal of ‘mental reconfiguring’ to establish – most people outside of work hours tend to use the internet for entertainment purposes. Clearly, to achieve an advanced degree, students will need to forego a lot of this and replace it with study time – and be determined enough to stick to their new online learning schedule.
However, the rewards are there for the taking for those with the resolve and self-discipline to study hard. Online students who are also parents can still be there for school sports days, family meals, and to tuck the kids into bed at night.
The rigors of advanced online study may not be for everyone. But for those who believe they have the grit and the ability to proceed with advanced degree distance learning, the rewards in terms of a more fulfilling, promising, and well-remunerated career are inestimable.