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Everything you wanted to know about online learning (but were afraid to ask)

By Michael Crump | 18 October 2017

It may seem like online learning is a relatively new phenomenon, but people have used the internet for educational purposes for nearly as long as it has existed.

Whether you’re picking up credits from a course, taking a business qualification provided by your employer, or looking up (again) how to tie that forever problematic double-Windsor knot, your options and resources for learning are nearly limitless. This article will give you a rundown of the wonderful and fantastic history of online learning.

What is online learning?

First things first, what do we mean when we discuss online learning? It’s a vague term with a wide breadth of possible application. It could mean anything from researching chemical reactions on YouTube or checking out Wikipedia because you can’t remember who won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 2011 (It’s Eminem, FYI).

But, while learning for your own personal growth is great, it’s not as easy to observe and categorise. That’s why, when it comes to online education, we’ll discuss two major types: learning online as part of an academic course and learning or being trained for a business program. 

Both of these arenas of online learning have long histories and have grown massively over the years. You’d have to go all the way back to the 1960s to find the first computer based training program. Fast forward to today, where we have a whopping 96% of learning institutions offering some manner of online course work and approximately $55.2 billion spent on online learning globally.

It’s plain to see for anybody with two eyes and a Wi-Fi connection that the pace and breadth of technological and electronic expansion has defined our civilisation in recent history, and as fast as computers and the internet have advanced, so too has the way in which we learn and teach.

Of course, there are many types of online learning that don’t necessarily have to come from a university or your employer. Perhaps you’re an entrepreneur who wants to know how to better your business?

Correspondence courses – the ‘snail mail’ of online learning

man wearing glasses working on laptop

While it’s natural to associate this type of learning with online courses, online learning actually traces its roots to the days before the internet and even before computers (yes, such an age did exist). The predecessors for online learning were correspondence courses, in which a student would research and do course work remotely, mailing their work to their supervisors or professors.

Commercial correspondence colleges became increasingly popular as postal services developed and became more sophisticated and comprehensive throughout the 19th Century, with a significant number of courses being offered by the 1840s. Correspondence courses spread to the academic world shortly thereafter, when the University of London established its External Program, becoming the first university to offer distance learning. Over the next century, correspondence learning continued to grow in popularity until 1953, when The University of Houston offered the first college credit classes via the first Public television station in the United States. This marked the first adaptation of technology to the distance learning model and was very much a harbinger of things to come.

Enter the computer

man on smartphone with laptop

The technological instrument that would facilitate distance learning’s great rise in the coming decades would not, however, be the television, but rather the computer. The first computer-based training programs began sprouting up in the 1960s.

These early programs would not be very familiar to our mobile phone-addicted eyes today, as the first mouse and graphical user interface (GUI) wasn’t innovated until the 1970s. In thanks largely to Mac, the concept of the home computer grew in popularity throughout the 1980s. This set the stage for online learning as we recognise it today to burst upon the scene.

Perhaps the educational institution most associated with online learning is the University of Phoenix, and with good reason. For starters, it was the University of Phoenix that launched the first online bachelor’s and master’s degree courses. For anybody who can remember waiting several minutes in 1997 to download a jpeg only to have their mother knock them off the landline when she wanted to make a phone call, this 1989 program would seem like it must have been beyond rudimentary.

But it was nothing if not pioneering, and many others followed suit. In 1994, CalCampus introduced the model of a complete online curriculum. This was quickly followed by Jones International University which, when it was launched in 1996, became the first accredited fully web based university. It wasn’t long until even the most prestigious universities hopped aboard the online education train.

By 2003 there were 1350 institutions in 55 different countries offering 150000 courses taught by 40000 instructors to over six million students. Clearly, online learning has become big business and is here to stay. And if, for some reason, you still remain stubbornly unconvinced, here are a few more figures to throw at your obstinate brain:

Over twenty percent of all higher education students in the United States were taking some type of online course in the autumn of 2007.

In 2008, the growth rate for traditional higher education courses was a paltry 1.2% compared to the more-than-robust 12.9 % growth for online enrolments.

In 2009, recognising this growing trend, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged $500 million for online courses and materials, in the midst of a recession, even. (Source: Online Colleges).

Business training online

team collaborative concept

Up until now, we have mainly discussed online learning as it relates to academic institutions, but there is another major type of online education that relates to the business world. Many companies offer online learning courses for employees to become better qualified for their jobs and possible promotions. Over forty percent of Fortune 500 companies are now using some manner of online training.

The benefits of such courses have become abundantly clear over the years. According to a report by IBM, for every dollar spent on online training, a company can receive thirty dollars in productivity gains. You don’t need to have taken an online course in math to know that that is an impressive return on investment.

What’s the cause of such a significant benefit? Well, it’s now been long accepted that learning doesn’t end with one’s academic pursuits. We all continue to learn throughout our lives, in both the “I think I’ll go on a yoga retreat in India to find myself,” sense and the more tangible “Hey, I’d like to know how to do my job better,” sense. Successful companies know this, but they also know that in-person training can be a drain on resources and an inefficient method to better educate their employees.

Statistics to favour the implementation of online education are plentiful. Online learning normally requires 40% to 60% less employee time than traditional classroom education. Online learning students can learn nearly five times more material without increasing time spent training. Online learners also demonstrate a higher retention rate –between 25% and 60% higher than traditional classroom learners— because they have more control over their education and an enhanced ability to revisit material learned earlier.

What’s the takeaway?

The next logical question for you is: "what to do with all this information?" Perhaps you’d like to engage in some online learning yourself. But there are so many courses from which to choose, if only you had a little more information, right?

Lucky for you, Upskilled can help you out; just contact us.  Maybe you’ve already taken several online courses. What are your experiences with online learning? Do you have any tips for anybody interested in diving into the wonderful world of online education?

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