Elearning is undoubtedly making the overall quality of people’s lives much better. However, many do not still know how elearning started, the great minds behind it, and what it went through to become what it is now.
In a 1999 CBT Systems seminar, the term “elearning” was first heard and defined as a scheme to learn concepts through new technologies such as the internet or other electronic media, amplifying competencies without the constraints of time and place.
The invention of reading and writing, teaching as a profession, and the innovation of print and electronic technology all led to the invention of elearning. Besides instructional purposes, elearning also strives for professional, entrepreneurial, and personal growth and success. This comprehensive guide aims to shed light on the elearning history.
Wotton-under-Edge Teacher Isaac Pitman used correspondence to teach shorthand (stenography) to his students (Leerbeleving, n.d.). He would send assignments to his students via mail and they would mail back their assignments to him for assessment. This writing form was intended to improve writing speed and was commonly used by secretaries, journalists, and other professionals whose works involve note-taking or writing.
1924: “Automatic Teacher”
Ohio University Educational Psychology Professor Sidney Pressey devised the testing machine “Automatic Teacher” (“The History of E-Learning,” 2017). This testing machine looked like a typewriter and was used to answer multiple-choice questions. It had a window showing a question and four choices of answers. Students had to choose the right answer among the four choices. The machine would not proceed to the next question until the correct answer was chosen. Hence, students could tell whether their answers were correct or not. Unfortunately, the Pressey machine did not succeed due to a lack of interest and investment from educators.
Harvard Professor BF Skinner devised the teaching machine “GLIDER” that allowed schools to facilitate programmed instruction to their students (“The History of E-Learning,” 2017). This machine appeared like a box containing a series of questions. A small window would show each question, which could be answered through a certain technique and by writing the answer down on paper. Students who would give the correct answer would advance to the next step and get commended. Unlike Pressey’s machine that was proposed to test students, Skinner’s machine was proposed to teach students.
It was also in the 50s when institutions realized how radios could be of great help to teaching and learning (Keegan, 2020). Back then, numerous radio programs broadcasted subjects such as religion, politics, current events, economics, and science. Radio, along with television, became a helpful tool in improving education up to the 60s and even World War II.
The 1960s: Computer-Based Education
Skinner’s GLIDER inspired the invention of the first computer-based training (CBT) program. Developers Daniel Alpert and Don Bitzer invented Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO) (Keegan, 2020). PLATO was only supposed to carry out computer-based education to improve student literacy, but it also became a backbone in modern multi-user computing. This program was also originally invented for University of Illinois students but ended up being used in schools all over the area. Prevailing for four decades, the program was able to experiment on the earliest forms of emails, message boards, and context-based assessment. In addition, PLATO inspired the elearning system Blackboard.
In 1966, Stanford Psychology Professors Patrick Suppes and Richard Atkinson used computers to teach math and reading at Palo Alto elementary schools. At the same time, renowned Media Psychologist Bernard Luskin partnered with Stanford engineers and professors to introduce teaching machines to schools (Keegan, 2020).
In 1968, the University of Alberta’s Department of Medicine in the US was the first to offer online courses. The university taught 17 classes to over 20,000 learners using the IBM 1500 network. This system helped teachers send course materials, organize documents, and assess tasks remotely. Arguably, this was the first notion of contemporary online learning in the history of elearning platforms (Keegan, 2020).
In 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was created (Keegan, 2020). ARPANET was the technical origin of the internet, which was a broader-area network based on secure protocols. This network was also accessible to businesses and individuals. It was the prototype of the internet that we use today and recognized as the most climactic item of technology in the elearning timeline as it eradicated the problem of huge geographical distances.
1976: Internet-Based Courses
UK’s The Open University introduced its first online classes through CICERO. The university pioneered the offering of internet-based courses that could earn one credit. It also created the Cyclops whiteboard system, which enabled teleconferencing long before the time of Skype or Zoom (Keegan, 2020).
Coastline Community College, the world’s first entirely remote community college, was also founded in 1976. The college was home to several “mini campuses,” but focuses on self-directed learning. Currently, the college also offers on-campus education (Keegan, 2020).
In 1979, Apple worked with Bell & Howell to set up the Apple Education Foundation. The foundation supplied computers to students and granted individuals who could design software for educational purposes (Tamm, 2019).
The 1980s: PC
Apple’s Macintosh 128K was the first iteration of a personal computer (Keegan, 2020). By this time, people already owned computers that could perform several functions. They began sharing information through the internet with other Mac users, surfing websites, developing their skills, and learning about various topics—all in the comfort of their own homes.
The 1990s: LMS
In the early 1990s, certain schools were established to provide online courses only. This instance made the most of the internet and brought education to people who do not have the means to physically attend school due to conflicts in schedule or geographical issues. Technology further helped schools lessen the expenses of distance learning, which, in turn, helped students save on expenses as well. Suffice to say, elearning brought education to a vaster audience at this time.
Learning Management Systems (LMS) started to gain popularity in 1995. Schools and universities used LMS to monitor student records, attendance, tests, grades, and issue notices and fee vouchers. American company Blackboard was the first to successfully use LMS in providing academic professionals, businesses, and government institutions with education, mobile, communication, commerce software, and other related services. In 2014, over 17,000 schools and organizations in 100 countries were using Blackboard’s software and services (Keegan, 2020).
In 1999, Researcher and Educator Elliot Masie first mentioned “elearning” in a professional setting during the CBT Systems seminar. The term was coined to evoke how people use computers to learn, enroll in online degrees, and improve their education (Keegan, 2020).
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Share of Parents with K-12 Children Entirely on Distance Learning (U.S.)
Share of Parents with K-12 Children Entirely on Distance Learning (U.S.) All parents of K-12 students: 46
All parents of K-12 students
Share of Parents with K-12 Children Entirely on Distance Learning (U.S.) Upper income: 40
Share of Parents with K-12 Children Entirely on Distance Learning (U.S.) Middle income: 45
Share of Parents with K-12 Children Entirely on Distance Learning (U.S.) Lower income: 53
Source: Pew Research Center, October 2020
The 2000s: Rise of the MOOC
Companies began using elearning to train employees and advance their operations. New terms, such as “mobile learning,” “gamification,” and “social elearning,” were also made up to describe the evolution of elearning.
In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) initiated a huge first move when it launched the OpenCourseWare project. Since then, the project has been offering exceptional educational resources for the public. It has 50 courses that included video lectures and assignments from prominent MIT professors (Keegan, 2020).
In 2010, a trio of Turkish professionals founded Udemy. The platform started out small and grew to one of the world’s biggest and most famous online course platforms today. On the website, an immense array of courses can be browsed and bought to obtain full lifetime access, video lectures, assessment questions, and certificates of completion. As of January 2020, about 50,000 teachers are providing online courses to over 50 million global students in over 65 languages (Keegan, 2020).
2010 was also the age of learning via social media. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn made learning more accessible in the forms of blogs, Twitter threads, short videos, and documentaries (Keegan, 2020).
In 2012, Stanford University’s Andrew NG and Daphne Koller founded Coursera, one of the world’s most extensive online learning platforms. Other successful platforms that emerged during this time were Udacity and edX. Thus, 2012 was labeled as the “Year of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).” (Tamm, 2019)
From 2020 up to the present, the traditional classroom-based setting has been facing a major blow when the COVID-19 crisis took place. As a result, parents and schools were compelled to consider elearning just to continue students’ education while they are in quarantine. Students have been attending online classes where their teachers use teaching software to teach from home. Clearly, the pandemic has shown the versatility and advantages of elearning (Keegan, 2020).
Elearning mediums and approaches expanded along with the development of the computer and internet in the late 20th century. From merely providing information to students, elearning has evolved to provide access to a large amount of information to learners of all ages whenever and wherever they want. These learning opportunities were also deemed important by many businesses, especially in developing the skills of their staff.
Perhaps, the most flawless way to utilize elearning has not yet been agreed upon as its best form has not been discovered yet as well. Nevertheless, all can agree that elearning is a cost-efficient way to teach and learn, and the best thing about it is that it is continuously evolving.