Considering formal education is thousands of years old, it’s remarkable that such an ancient practice has remained relatively unchanged. The traditional teaching model — one teacher with a group of students in the same physical space — has stood the test of time.

But the lecture, or some version of it, isn’t the only education model. Just as one-to-many, one-way transfers of knowledge have many advantages, so do one-to-one tutorials, small-group discussions, and the various forms of apprenticeships, or internships as they are now popularly known.

Nowadays, all our screens, smartphones and tablets enable most schools to offer some version of all of the above. We have a near-instantaneous ability to transfer multimedia information — without being in the same place at the same time — and yet schools are still woefully behind in incorporating technology into the equation in a productive manner for both teachers and students.

As we looked into the evolution of online education — the roots from which we chose to start HotChalk — we found it to be a fascinating exploration of technology’s potential to improve both the student and teacher experience. The history asks a fundamental question:

How can we leverage technology to empower teachers to be the best educators possible — and by proxy, empower students to be the best learners possible — all while expanding the scale and depth of education?

At HotChalk, we’re obsessed with this potential. We know that skill with multimedia technology and human interaction isn’t the same thing as good teaching. And vice versa. So we’ve studied the history of online education closely — because we think it can move further and faster by pulling universities and colleges forward, rather than leaving them behind.

Unlocking the Potential of Online Education

Consider: Just 25 years since the World Wide Web was introduced — a timespan equivalent to less than a blip on formal education’s timeline:

  • The number of students in the U.S. taking at least one online course has surpassed 6.7 million, or 32 percent of the total number of higher-education students
  • 77 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in traditional formal learning environments (OLC)
  • 98 percent of public colleges and universities offer online programs (StraighterLine)

“Exponential” does not adequately cover the rate at which the Internet has changed traditional education.

We took a closer look at online education’s timeline to better understand how we’ve arrived at where we are today. Here are some of the major inflection points for online education as assembled by WorldWideLearn’s George Miller.

  • 1989 – The University of Phoenix online campus was launched. For the first time, a private university offered the entire curriculum of bachelor’s and master’s degrees online. Online education was accessible to the masses
  • 1992 – Michigan State University developed the Computer Assisted Personalized Approach (CAPA)
  • 1994 – Open University offered an experimental Virtual Summer School (VSS) to some of its cognitive psychology students
  • 1996 – Jones International University became the first accredited fully web-based university
  • 1997 – Several institutions, including Cornell University, Yale Medical School and University of Pitsburgh, adopted the Interactive Learning Network, an e-learning system that used a relational database as its foundatio.
  • 1997 – Blackboard Inc. is founded and develops a standardized platform for course management and delivery that enabled many more institutions to come onlin.
  • 2000 – launched at the University of Texas at Austi.
  • 2003 – WebCT (Web Course Tools) had more than 6 million student users at more than 1,300 institutions in 55 countrie.
  • 2004– HotChalk launched in the Silicon Valley
  • 2005 – YouTube is launched (and YouTubeEDU is launched in 2009)
  • 2006 – iTunes began offering lectures for download
  • 2012 – MOOCs rapidly gain popularity
  • 2014 – UF Online, the first online-only public university in the U.S., is launched
  • 2015 – At least 32 percent of higher education students take at least one course online

As Internet access continues to broaden and improve, online course enrollment numbers will continue to increase. Confidence in online higher education will need to improve in tandem with climbing enrollment numbers. Should technologists learn to orient their efforts in a way that best suits real learning, the future of education looks truly bright.