Adult Online Education Looks Back to the Future

online learning class

By Andrew Monko

Distance learning has made quantum leaps into the future from its early days of snail-mail correspondence courses that were once the norm. Today, online education for adults is common, convenient and growing fast—currently 10 percent faster than the general higher education population.

We take many technological aspects of online learning for granted now—though e-mail, chat rooms, message boards and even the notion of an "Internet" were only just ideas a few decades ago. Someday, probably sooner rather than later, the current tools used in online adult education will seem just as old fashioned as traditional classroom implements like chalk-sticks and blackboards.

But before musing on the future of online education, here are a few, brief milestones in its evolution and the technology that made it possible.

A (Very) Brief History of Online Education

1960 – Remote learning

Scientists at the University of Illinois develop PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations), a complete, computer-based learning system that enables students using terminals to receive individualized lessons, tests and guidance from remote instructors. Although intended as an education tool for distance learning, PLATO's communication features may be its most enduring legacy. The system developed the earliest iterations of multi-user communication, community and gaming.

1969 – Birth of the Internet

Well...almost. A division of the U.S. Department of Defense called ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) creates ARPANET, a communication system that would be the technological forefather to the Internet.

1988 – Let the babble begin

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) debuts, offering users one-on-one, real-time, chat-room communication.

1989 – The Web awakes

Tim Berners-Lee, a British engineer, conceives what he called "a web of notes with links" and convinces his superiors to approve his proposal. Thankfully, he changes the system's name to the World Wide Web.

1989 – Get your degree online

The University of Phoenix launches the first online university program to offer bachelor's and master's degrees.

1993 – Navigation made easy

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) releases the graphical web browser Mosaic. Widely recognized as the first browser to achieve mass appeal as well as help catapult the decade's Internet boom, Mosaic gave many new users their initial web surfing experience through a user-friendly interface.

1993 – No campus necessary

Jones International University becomes the first accredited college to exist fully online.

2003 – Learning in 3-D

San Francisco-based Linden Lab launches Second Life, a 3-D virtual world wherein users create "avatars" to represent themselves. According to Linden Lab, by 2009 over 200 colleges and universities—including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford—will teach courses in virtual classrooms or conduct research within this realm.

What's the Future Like?

Advancements such as virtual learning environments offer a tantalizing peek at how technology may reshape online adult education. For example, students can already practice a variety of skills in Second Life. In late 2008, a school in London was the first to use virtual scenarios in the immersive environment as training for its paramedic students. Students studying a foreign language can visit virtual re-creations of far-off cities to practice their speaking skills with natives—Berlin, Frankfurt and Moscow are a few that exist in Second Life.

What's next? Being able to download knowledge directly into our brains seems more like science fiction than future reality. Other advancements, though, are quickly becoming scientific fact. Using sensors in an implant, or on the skin's surface, interfaces exist now that read brainwaves and allow the user to control a computer through mere thought. Mice and keyboards: your days could be numbered!

This stunning technology isn't just about being lazy. In 2004, Matthew Nagle, a quadriplegic, controlled a variety of electronic devices (on-screen cursor, robotic arm, TV remote control) via a small implant placed upon his brain that monitors neural impulses. And Sony, in 2005, patented an as-of-yet unproven idea of transmitting sensory data into the brain like sound, scent and visual images.

In the future, adult education online may in the future become a hands-free, multi-sensory experience. Imagine the sense of smell in a virtual cooking class, or a world free of typing-related repetitive-stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Regardless of what fantastic imaginings turn to reality in online learning, technology evolves quickly—so don't be surprised if your iPad soon becomes an antique.