It has now been more than a year since Coronavirus emerged in Wuhan. In the initial days, no one could have predicted the number of tears that would be shed as a direct result of this virus. While the global casualty figure is undoubtedly the most brutal manifestation of this virus’ notoriety, there are many more subtler ways in which it has wreaked havoc across the world. Disruption of day-to-day routines as well as the prevailing environment of uncertainty has devastated people psychologically. It is quite hard to name a sector whose day-to-day activities have not been compromised, or at least significantly altered, by the coronavirus pandemic. If students start making a list of the affected sectors and institutions, there is a good chance that the first item on the list would be ‘educational institutions’. With colleges closed and the academic calendars in limbo, the one thing that came to the rescue of students and teachers alike was online education.

One of the first policy decisions that governments all over the world took after the outbreak was the sudden closure of all the places that are hubs of social activity. Colleges and University fit this criterion and they were shut down overnight as students rushed to hop in cars, planes and trains headed for their hometowns. All the excitement and aspirations connected to college life were shattered in an instant and students could do nothing but watch on helplessly as fate played a cruel trick on them. Instead of college canteens and grounds, Google Meet and Zoom became the regular haunts for students to interact with each other. The stock values of online educational apps skyrocketed and the role of technology in our lives became even more perceptible. After the prevalence of online cabs, food delivery and OTT services, the rise in the stature of online education was inevitable. But when did this concept first emerge? This article will tell you all you need to know about the history of online classes.


Before understanding how and why online education came into being, it is important to analyse the emergence and subsequent prevalence of online education’s historical predecessor, namely distance learning. It was in the 1840s that Issac Pitman decided to launch a correspondence course to teach shorthand to his pupils. This was quite a unique way of imparting education in the early nineteenth century and was largely accomplished by mail. Pitman despatched the relevant study materials, guides and tasks to everyone who had signed up for the course. His pupils communicated in the same way, sending completed assignments and their queries through mail. With each technological advancement, the methods and nature of these correspondence courses changed. In the first half of the 20th century, learning came to be facilitated by radios and television sets. People who used these mediums were generally those who had logistical or financial issues when it came to attending regular colleges, those who wanted to acquire a new skill, or those who were just genuinely curious about things and wanted to learn more than what was taught in their classrooms. Hence, it is quite clear that there was a tradition of non-classroom learning way before the term ‘online’ had even come into existence


 Even though online education is usually associated with internet, the first example of online learning can actually be traced back to 1960, 9 years before the internet had been invented. In the year Kennedy took charge of the USA, a man named Donald Bitzer from the University of Illinois, constructed an intranet system of learning known as PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). In this system, teachers could input study material onto a computer system using a coded language. Anyone who could access one of the constituent terminals of the computer system (which were quite expensive) could learn from the material uploaded by the teachers on the source computer. Many of the features that are quite commonplace in today’s social media apps such as chat rooms and private messages were used for the first time in PLATO. 

In addition to intranet-based learning, students found another unconventional way of educating themselves, namely, video games. Quite logically, the video games of the 70s weren’t as complex and elaborately detailed as the video games of today but they nevertheless managed to capture the minds of an entire generation. Captivated by the never-before-seen visuals and insanely creative concepts, the 70s youth took to these games in large numbers. While most of them were solely designed for entertainment purposes, one also had a lot of educational games to choose from. The most popular of these was a game called Lemonade Stand, which you can still play online. It was released in 1979 and was well marketed by the Apple II team who included it as one of the constituent elements in their default software patch which was sold throughout the 80s. The game had a fairly simple, yet freakishly, addictive concept- Make and manage a thriving and prosperous lemonade stand using prudent business strategies. Thousands of people played this game in their free time without even consciously knowing that it was aiding their intellectual capacity and problem-solving skills. Of course, this was just one of the many examples of brain games that became popular in that era.


While this detour about gaming was relevant and well-needed, let us get back to the core topic at hand. With Wozniak and Jobs churning up innovations like candy in their garage, Apple had managed to revolutionise the world of personal computing. The era of huge and overly bulky computers had come to an end as small and aesthetic monitor screens gave a new sense of power to the American middle class. All of this was happening in the early 80s, a time when internet had already started taking root in servers across America, albeit at obscenely high rates. One didn’t need to be a rocket scientist at the time to come up with the idea of using internet to educate students. Accordingly, University of Toronto became the first institution to start an online course in 1984. This was also the time when Ron Gordon began his much-acclaimed project called Electronic University Network. It was a platform that had a compilation of online courses offered by various Ivy League universities which could be accessed after the payment of a course-specific fee. The certificates of these courses were issued by the college departments and not the network. As you can imagine, this spiritual predecessor to virtual universities was an instant hit particularly among the middle-aged financially stable people who hadn’t been able to finish their college degrees for one reason or the other. As the internet’s accessibility widened, its rates dropped by considerable amounts which in turn expanded the potential of online education even further. In 1989, the first fully online institution, called the University of Phoenix was founded (it had existed before but in this particular year, it decided to go fully online). This marked the beginning of the era of virtual universities which began cropping up in different parts of the world at breakneck speed. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), which launched its virtual campus in 1999, is now recognized as the largest university in the world with over 4 million enrolled students in various courses. By the time the first decade of the new century kicked in, the sector of online education was well and truly established. With the advent of platforms like YouTube, it became even more easier to learn a skill, albeit uncertified, and use it to make one more employable. Channels like Khan Academy, Ted-Ed, Crash Course and Alternate History hub offer well researched and cohesive content which enables their viewers to develop a holistic and critical mindset. Certain paid platforms like Byju’s and Unacademy, not to mention MOOCs, offer even better content and services to their subscribers. With the spread of 4G internet across the world, nearly all universities now have online courses and portals which are offered at low rates so that people from all classes of society can access them.


So now you know that applications like Google Meet and Zoom which we take for granted in these tough times were not sudden inventions. They are products of a long evolutionary chain of Online Education which began with PLATO in 1960. Even though online education has been around for a long time, this year will always be looked back upon as an epoch in the evolution of online education as it transformed from a matter of choice to a matter of necessity, replacing traditional classroom learning in most countries of the world. One can argue, of course, that this shift is a temporary one as students are destined to return to campuses once a vaccine comes around. However, one thing is certain, with 5G internet about to hit the markets soon, the graph of online education will only grow from here on in. The worldwide market size of online education has grown by 400% in the last six years and currently stands at around $187 billion. So, is investing in online educational apps prudent? It seems so but one can always get a certain answer from Khan Academy!

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