11 Early Online Ed Pioneers Who Paved the Way To Today

While we tend to think of online education as a phenomenon welded largely to the past decade, in reality its history extends significantly further back than that. Think “before the Internet was even a thing that existed.” Experiments in welding computing to the classroom are almost as old as computing itself, with recognizable components of current Internet-based learning roughly (very roughly) appearing around the late 1950s and early 1960s. We realize, of course, that plenty more pioneers contributed to the eventual, if not inevitable, advent of online education! But here’s a few to know initially before moving on to reading about even more individuals and institutions.

  1. Daniel Alpert and Don Bitzer:

    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provided a home for the very first Internet-based community specifically created for learning purposes. Developers Daniel Alpert and Don Bitzer dubbed their B.F. Skinner-inspired creation PLATO, and it started out as a Computer-based Education Research Laboratory project in 1959. Users initially accessed more than 15,000 hours’ worth of lessons from a centralized, one-room hub. Over time, though, it grew along with technology and demand to provide online learning opportunities for more users in locations beyond its initial Loomis Laboratory home. Before the Internet’s official originating point, PLATO took advantage of bulletin boards and chats to provide greater interactivity and connectivity to educational communities around the world.

  2. Douglas Engelbart:

    While known primarily as the inventor of the mouse, online education historians should know Douglas Englebart’s contribution to the trend beyond the once-ubiquitous hardware. His Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, published in 1962, still makes for essential reading for technology-aided learning advocates as well as futurist philosophy buffs. By 1968, he (along with his Stanford Research Institute crew) was releasing the oNLine System program meant to test these ideas of enhancing human understanding via technology. While not exclusively about education, it still played a prominent role in Engelbart’s ultimate goals.

  3. University of Alberta Department of Medicine:

    Also in 1968, the University of Alberta’s Department of Medicine began offering rudimentary (to us folks from the far-flung future, anyways) online courses. Before its dismantling in 1980, about 17 classes and 20,000 individual accounts had taken advantage of the IBM 1500 network, which included almost everything teachers needed to supply course materials, keep track of grades, and organize documents. Most notably, cardiology students and professors used it to collaborate and communicate with other departments across campus and better analyze EKGs and other scans.

  4. Thomas A. Dwyer:

    Soloworks/Project Solo, the current DIY, open source, and edupunk movements undeniably sprouts from the experimental initiative fronted by University of Pittsburgh’s Thomas A. Dwyer. For seven years, public school kids worked with computers as math lesson supplements, mostly involving self-directed assignments. Their positive responses illustrated just how extensive an impact computers could leave on the education industry decades before personal computers expanded into daily life. Learners awarded some degree of autonomy and the ability to complete tasks at their own pace performed better and reported greater engagement as a result of their computerized education. Contemporary online education programs — not to mention the aforementioned trend toward independent schooling — absolutely love playing up this fact when expounding upon its potential.

  5. Ivan Illich:

    1971’s highly influential Deschooling Society was not the work of a computer scientist, but rather a scathing social commentator critical of education’s institutionalized nature. While Ivan Illich did not necessarily build upon Thomas A. Dwyer’s findings, many of his writings echoed the same positive support of independent, self-directed learning. The edupunks of today, while not quite mainstream, promote similar (though not identical) sentiments – in some ways, even fulfilling Illich’s predictions. Most notably, that networked computers would bring together independent learners eager to exchange ideas and information. Even the institutions the philosopher so heartily railed against embraced this education structure, but open source classes by the likes of MIT and Stanford still challenge the traditional notions of where learning belongs and to whom it should be made available!

  6. Alan Kay:

    Most of Alan Kay’s contributions to online education have more to do with his overall influence over personal computing in general. For one thing, it’s probably safe to assume that e-learning’s current form could never have existed without the creation of graphic user interfaces (GUI) pioneered during his time at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Kay kept the education industry in mind when designing folders, menus, and other familiar visuals we take for granted now, even creating a “KiddiKomputer” specifically for the classroom. One of the project’s core goals involved tracking student usage trends inside and outside the school so teachers could better tailor their computer-based lessons.

  7. Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz:

    The New Jersey Institute of Technology organized the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center to specifically study technology’s possible information-spreading applications. Unsurprisingly, how it could shape education stood as one of their major concerns. Between 1976 and 1991, they studied the outcomes of online and computerized learning environments (which also included various blends of traditional and digital) and parsed out which elements worked, which didn’t, and which needed a little tweaking. Many of their findings confirmed earlier reports of greater student engagement and higher scores, providing even more encouragement for progressive, technophiliac schools to try their hand at this ol’ online learnin’ thingamabob.

  8. Open University:

    Open University began development on the Cyclops whiteboard system in 1976, and that same year also launched its very first online classes through the CICERO program. It is arguably considered the first college or university to provide Internet-based courses for credit, but no matter the technicalities it undeniably stands as one of the pioneers of the practice! CICERO, interestingly enough, popped into existence thanks to programmers with very little experience in the inchoate field of e-learning. Meanwhile, the now-defunct Cyclops experimented with teleconferencing to connect students and tutors generations before Skype and Google Talk. It allowed them to both talk and exchange data in real time, no matter their location.

  9. Coastline Community College:

    1976 proved a pretty stellar year for e-learning enthusiasts, as it also bore witness to the establishment of the world’s first fully remote community college. While Coastline Community College does own a few scattered “mini-campuses,” its impetus heavily pushes distance education and more self-direction than the average institution, also holding the honor of being the first school to offer a fully online degree. “Nontraditional” students in particular adore the college’s structure, offering even more proof that there definitely exists an eager audience for e-learning efforts.

  10. Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Bow Valley College:

    Students, teachers, and administrators familiar with Blackboard should either thank or rage at The Learning Manager for paving the stage or setting the road or some other figurative, personified action. Utilized exclusively by Bow Valley College and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, it featured a now-familiar interface where users log in to a remote server, take tests, work on assignments, and ask one another questions. Students, administrators, and teachers each accessed a different scene depending on their role in the course.

  11. Donald P. Ely:

    Because of his dual passion for psychology and communication technology, Donald P. Ely occupies a truly unique, insightful place in the annals of online education history. Much of his oeuvre unsurprisingly outlines both the philosophical and technical components behind the practice, most notably 1970’s The Philosophy Underlying Educational Technology. Many initial observations on the efficacy of online and tech-enhanced learning continue holding up splendidly even into today. But e-learning aficionados know Ely best as the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology, a gargantuan database collecting scholarly research about using available digital resources in the service of students.