The History of E-Learning

In this article, you will get a comprehensive overview of the evolution and history of e-learning.

The history of e-learning is a colorful one, filled with failure stories of teaching robots from the early 1900s and awe-inspiring success stories from the 2000s. In this article, we will give you an overview of all the most significant events in the history of e-learning through an interactive timeline.

What is the History of E-Learning?

In 1999, the phrase “E-Learning” was mentioned for the first time in a professional context by Elliott Masie during the TechLearn conference at Disneyworld. However, the very first attempts at e-learning can be traced back to 1924, when Ohio State University professor Sidney Pressey created the very first electronic learning machine, the Automatic Teacher. 

Perhaps the most significant invention in the history of online learning technology is the PLATO. The PLATO is a computer system designed by Donald L. Bitzer in 1960 and it was groundbreaking for it’s time. 

Two decades before the invention of the World Wide Web, the PLATO network could host thousands of users at it’s peak, and much of the greatest instructional software of the century across many educational disciplines was created on PLATO.  The PLATO terminals were very expensive at $5000-$7000 each, but they were worth every penny.

PLATO Computer System
PLATO Computer System. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

It must be noted, though, that not all inventions in the field of online learning and e-learning were as praised as the PLATO, which went through numerous successful rereleases and four generations. The success stories tend to be highlighted more often than the failures, but it’s just as important to highlight those innovations which failed to reach the masses. The earliest inventions in educational technology may have been clumsy and basic by today’s standards, but they served a crucial role in the development of the history of e-learning.

Timeline of Historical Events in E-Learning

Explore the timeline of all major events related in the history of e-learning and online learning. See how far we have come within a short period of time. The images were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

1642: Pascal's Calculator

Blaise Pascal designed the very first mechanical calculator in 1642, when he was only 19 years old. Despite the significance of his invention, he only managed to sell 20 units within a period of 12 years. 

1728: First Distance Learning Course

In 1728, Caleb Philips from Boston created the very first distance learning course. The course lessons were delivered to students weekly through regular mail.

1924: The Automatic Teacher

The Automatic Teacher

Ohio State University professor Sidney Pressey designed the very first electronic learning device, the “Automatic Teacher”. The device was designed to replace standardized testing through an automatic machine. Due to lack of interest and investment, the device failed to reach the masses.

1957: The Teaching Machine

The Teaching Machine

Harvard University psychologist B. F. Skinner created the “Teaching Machine”. Skinner’s type of learning machine, called the GLIDER, differed from Pressey’s machine in that it aimed to teach students rather than just test them. The device saw moderate success.

1960: PLATO

Professor Don Bitzer from the University of Illinois created the first computer-based education tool, called the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). In the beginning, PLATO was used to deliver computer-based education in order to improve student literacy. However, the device quickly outgrew its strictly educational purpose and became a cornerstone in modern multi-user computing. PLATO is the direct ancestor of modern E-Learning systems such as Blackboard and WebCT.

1966: Computer-managed Instruction

Patrick Suppes of Stanford University pioneered CMI (computer-managed instruction) with IBM 1500 hardware. He tutored elementary school children with individual CMI sessions in mathematics to supplement teacher instruction. Suppes argued that the greatest value of computers in education is individualized instruction and the supported dialogue.

1969: ARPANET

ARPANET, the technical foundation of the Internet, was created by interconnecting four university computers. The original purpose of ARPANET was educational, with the intent of sharing resources among scientific users at connected institutions. However, today it is widely regarded as the originator of modern Internet.

1977: Apple II Personal Computer

Apple II

In 1977, the Apple II personal computer is released, with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak highlighting education as the primary intended application for the new hardware. Apple II featured color graphics and sounds, which was highly impressive for the time, and which made the devices particularly appealing to the young demographic.

1979: Apple Partners with Bell & Howell

In 1979, Apple partnered with Bell & Howell and established the Apple Education Foundation. The foundation donated computers to students and awarded grants to those who developed software for educational purposes.

1983: The Electronic University Network

The Electronic University Network (EUN), an online educational network, is launched by former president of Atari Ron Gordon. It was established to help universities and colleges start utilizing online courses.

1986: A Quarter of High Schools Use PC’s

By 1986, 25% of high schools are already using personal computers for college and career guidance.

1989: World Wide Web (WWW)

The World Wide Web (WWW) is invented by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee. The WWW’s original purpose was information-sharing between academic institutions around the world. 

1994: First Online School

In 1994, the first accredited wholly online high school, CompuHigh, is established. It serves U.S. nationals and international English-speaking students from grades 9 through 12.

1999: Term “E-Learning” is First Used

The term “e-learning” is first used in professional context by Elliott Masie during the TechLearn conference at Disneyworld.

1999: First Online University

The very first fully accredited online university, Jones International University, opened its doors in 1999. It offered students online courses and diplomas in business and education until the year 2015, when it was officially closed.

2002: MIT’s OpenCourseWare

MIT starts offering online course materials and lectures free of charge through its OpenCourseWare project.

2008: Term "MOOC" is First Used

The term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is used for the first time in 2008 by Dave Cormier from the University of Prince Edward Island.

2012: The Year of the MOOC

Coursera, currently one of the world’s biggest online learning platforms, was founded in 2012 by Andrew NG and Daphne Koller from Stanford University. In addition to Coursera, two other successful online learning platforms – Udacity and edX emerged, with 2012 becoming known as the “The Year of the MOOC

2014: Most Universities Use E-Learning

By 2014, 98% of public colleges and universities are already offering fully online learning programs.

2018: E-Learning Reaches $168.8 Billion

In 2018, the global E-Learning market size reached $168.8 billion.

2020: Most Corporations Use E-Learning

Approximately 90% of US corporations now use online learning.

What's Next for E-Learning?

Only time will tell in which directions of the evolution of online learning is going to progress from now on. One thing is for sure, though – e-learning isn’t going anywhere. The past history of e-learning has shown that it’s currently on a path of exponential growth, and analysts agree that this growth will only continue to accelerate with time. Time will show whether and which kind of effect this kind of growth will have on traditional learning institutions, but it’s likely that they will need to redesign and adapt themselves to e-learning practices in order to stay competitive in the educational industry.

In the coming years, I believe that the biggest innovations in online learning will make use of adaptive e-learning, which is a type of e-learning that is able to adapt itself and its training materials according to the skillsets and knowledge level of each individual student. Personalized learning is the way of the future, and e-learning is undoubtedly one of the best ways of achieving truly personalized learning outcomes.

The history of e-learning is still in its early stages, and the industry is always looking for new innovators to push the sector further. You do have the chance to be at the forefront of it all – the world is waiting for the next round of innovators in educational technology.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we will answer some of the most commonly asked questions related to the history of e-learning and online learning.

When did online learning start?

Online learning started in 1960 when Donald Bitzer, a laboratory assistant at the University of Illinois, created the very first e-learning system called the PLATO. The device was originally designed strictly for computer-based education, but due to its innovative networking capabilities, it quickly became the foundation for online learning and online communities.

What was the first online university?

The first online university was Jones International University, which became fully accredited in the U.S by the Higher Learning Commission in 1999. The Jones International University offered online degrees in business and education until its doors closed on March 31st, 2015.

When was the first online school created?

CompuHigh / Whitmore School, the first online high school, was created in 1994. It is a fully accredited online school which offers both full online diploma programs and individual online courses for its students. CompuHigh / Whitmore School serves English-speaking, U.S. national students from grades 9 to 12.

Who invented e-learning?

In order to answer the question of who invented e-learning, it’s necessary to differentiate offline e-learning and online learning. The first attempts at an offline e-learning device were made by Sidney Pressey, who invented the Automatic Teacher in 1924. However, the first e-learning system which could handle online networking, the PLATO, was invented by Donald Bitzer in 1960.

About the author

Sander Tamm

Sander Tamm

Sander is a passionate e-learner and founder of E-Student.