Reality Check: Distance Learning Around Long Before MOOCs

You might have never heard of massive online open courses – also known as MOOCs – until last year, but that doesn’t mean this is the first time that distance learning has entered the mainstream. Although the spread of internet access to all parts of the globe have made mass education online a reality for the first time, those who wished to learn without traveling to a school or a university have been doing so since at least 1892 – receiving materials and sending assignments using the postal system.

University of Chicago was the first school in America to offer learning by correspondence, which opened its doors in the last decade of the 19th century. The U.S. Postal Service did its part to shuttle information between the school and the student until radio broadcasts came into wide usage in the early 1920s and were then usurped by the television in 1963.

Making the leap from the college campus entirely was Coastline Community College, which became the first campus-less school when it opened its – virtual – doors in 1970.

Even online courses came about much earlier than many people believe. Before any such thing as a MOOC was beyond the imagination of anyone but science fiction writers, the National Technological University offered online courses via satellite feed in 1985.

When one considers how long distance learning has been with us, it’s hard to give credence to the hysteria that the popularity of online learning now will spell the doom of traditional universities. Tom Katsouleas,  Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, writing for Forbes Magazine, predicts that while education over the internet will serve as a revolutionary force in the field of higher education, when the dust settles the universities will still be there – and majorly improved.

I’d like to offer a couple of metaphors for higher education today.  One is to celebrate the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) like the onset of the textbooks coupled with public libraries.  In theory, this opened the totality of human knowledge to everyone.  In reality though, a lot of knowledge is stored in the minds of scholars pushing the edges of their fields.  Which means that at the PhD level, research universities play the roles of powering innovation and passing their knowledge on to the next generation.  But those roles are subsidized by the undergraduate and Masters education that pays the salaries of the faculty.

Katsouleas believes that it will be the university masters programs that will change the most from the popularity of MOOCs. Even now many professionals are turning to MOOCs to fill in knowledge gaps or bone up on a particular subject when, in the past, they might have looked to obtain a master’s degree. It makes a lot of sense to position post-graduate programs online to allow students who are already holding down a full time job to still keep up with their studies in their own time.

According to Katsouleas, the time when companies would pay their employees to take time away from work in order to go off and get a master’s degree is at an end.

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