Online learning has grown from its humble yet innovative origins into full-fledged learning platforms available worldwide. From independent organizations offering free or low-cost courses to entire degree programs delivered in virtual learning environments, distance education via asynchronous learning networks have developed significantly in the last two decades. While for-profit schools quickly seized these opportunities and built attractive programs for many students, public colleges and university now lead the way in online learning as the 21st century continues.
The Unique Origins of Virtual Learning
Although online education can trace some of its conceptual roots to the correspondence schools of the 1890s, the first modern virtual learning environment was created at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. Wikipedia states that the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system debuted there, eventually expanding to several thousand graphical terminals operated worldwide by the 1970s. As more people gained access to the Internet throughout the 1980s and 1990s, independent organizations such as the Computer Assisted Learning Center (which later became CALCampus) and the California Virtual University (CVU) started providing online learning materials.
Academic Research of Distance Learning Begins
One of the next indicators that virtual learning environments were here to stay was the creation of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN) in the mid-1990s. Now known as the Online Learning Consortium, this peer-reviewed journal publishes academic research and other materials concerning online education. During this period, some public colleges and universities began incorporating distance education as extensions of their current academic offerings. However, most institutions had not yet crafted the dedicated virtual learning environments commonly available at many schools today.
For-Profits Take the Lead, Then Stumble
In the late 1990s, for-profit schools jumped to the head of the pack, creating entire degree programs delivered online. By the mid-2000s, these institutions were strong performers, attracting nontraditional students and working professions as students. However, questions soon arose about the value of degrees earned from these schools. With federal investigations and crackdowns on a few high-profile institutions, many were plagued by unwanted legal attention and other troubles by the year 2015.
Higher Education Institutions With Strong Offerings
Public universities and colleges saw value in building complete degree programs available through asynchronous platforms. Some hybrid curricula, such as master’s degrees in creative writing or English, pair online classwork with brief on-campus residencies. Others are delivered entirely online, such as the University of Southern California’s Master of Public Administration through its USC Online platform. These programs are typically geared towards professionals already employed in their field, combining both important concepts with real-world examples. For instance, Master of Laws (LLM) virtual learning courses at USC discuss relevant topics such as white-collar crime and even “green” collar crime.
Looking to the Future
Had anyone asked 20 years ago if online learning would develop into a strong industry, responses to the question may have been mixed. However, innovation is often driven by both need and potential profitability. Virtual learning programs boomed in the late 90s and early 2000s as championed by for-profit schools. Currently, universities and colleges take charge in the field by crafting and building entire curricula accessible within asynchronous online learning environments.