What were the first distance learning courses?

The first distance-learning classes taught students shorthand and note-taking.
The first distance-learning classes taught students shorthand and note-taking.
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Back in the olden days, if you wanted to pick up a few school credits, learn a trade or explore new educational topics for your own enjoyment, the answer was probably a correspondence course via — wait for it — snail mail! Yes, the first long distance learning options predate electronic media and were a rather leisurely (or slow, depending on your point of view) way to pursue a course of study. Envelope and stamp-based learning may be older than you think, too.

One of the first documented correspondence classes was advertised in the Boston Gazette in 1728, promoting short hand (more commonly known as shorthand) lessons, a note-taking technique. Shorthand remained a handy administrative business skill until late in the 20th century, eventually losing ground to the age of electronics and reliable voice recorders [source: Cury].


Like shorthand, the correspondence school model eventually gave way to newer electronic teaching innovations. In the 1950s, educational radio and television programming emerged, followed by course offerings available via cassette recordings, and later, videos [source: Valentine].

It took about 300 years, and the development of the computer, for distance learning to move from the mail bag to email and the fast lane of the information superhighway. What's the next step? Some educators believe massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can provide quality instruction to thousands of students at a time may usher in the next phase of distance learning — and possibly revolutionize higher education worldwide [source: Webley].


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  • Bower, Beverly L. and Kimberly P. Hardy. "Changes and Challenges in Distance Education" New Directions for Community Colleges. Volume 2004. Issue 128. pages 5–12. 2004. (Oct 20, 2014) http://faculty.education.illinois.edu/abenson/472cc/w4articles/bower_chap1_history.pdf
  • Brighton School of Business and Management. "Infographic: The Ultimate History of Distance Learning" BSBM. Undated. (Oct. 15, 2014) http://www.brightonsbm.com/infographic-distance-learning.html
  • Cury, Waldir. "Caleb Phillips, A Pioneer Shorthand Teacher." Taquigrafia Emfoco. Undated. (Oct. 17, 2014)(Oct. 15, 2014) http://www.taquigrafia.emfoco.nom.br/artigos/caleb_phillips_a_pioneer_shorthand_teacher.pdf
  • Morrison, Debbie. "The Ultimate Student Guide to xMOOCs and cMOOCs." MOOC News and Reviews. May 13, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://moocnewsandreviews.com/ultimate-guide-to-xmoocs-and-cmoocso/
  • Valentine, Doug. "Distance Learning: Promises, Problems, and Possibilities." University of Oklahoma. 2002. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/fall53/valentine53.html
  • Webley, Kayla. "MOOC Brigade: Will Massive, Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?" TIME. Sept. 04, 2012 (Oct. 18, 2014) http://nation.time.com/2012/09/04/mooc-brigade-will-massive-open-online-courses-revolutionize-higher-education/print/