The evolution of educational innovation
Learning is the natural instinct that fuels evolution. We often speak about how our complex societies and economic well being affect education without thinking of the past and what it took to get us where we are. Here we explore the greatest technological breakthroughs in educational innovation and celebrate the successes that took us this far into the future.
Major milestones for education technology
The origin of distance education (1800's)
Often categorized as distance education, online education essentially aims to bring the classroom directly to students who may not have the luxury of physically attending a traditional school. What many of us may not have realized is the fact that the term has been around for over a hundred years. In 1874 the first institutionally sponsored distance education program began in the United States at the Illinois Wesleyan University, offering nonresidential or "external" degrees. However the official use of the term "distance education" was not officially used until 1892 by the University of Wisconsin - Madison in their school catalog.
Envisioning the eReader (1940's)
The idea of a digital device to hold reading materials for immediate access existed long before the Amazon Kindle and iPad. American engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush described such device in his 1945 article "As We May Think" published in The Atlantic. The device, referred to as the Memex ("memory" and "index"), was intended for individuals to store books, records and communications. It inspired the development of early hypertext systems that evolved into the World Wide Web.
Today, e-readers are staples that exist in our personal, professional and educational spheres. Even if you don't possess the hardware, digital apps and cloud-based access is now available on multiple platforms. Digital textbooks, business and leisure materials can be downloaded on demand, and libraries have even expanded into the digital space by offering online book rentals. In fact, this solution has actually reduced the cost of educational content due to the sheer cost of print versus online publishing.
Education for all (1950's)
"The Channel that Changes You" - This is the tag line for KUHT, a PBS member television station located in Texas that pioneered broadcasting education. In 1953, the University of Houston televised the first televised college credit classes live on the air, which ran 13 to 15 hours per week, comprising 38% of the program schedule. The partnership brought the beginning of adult education, offering TV courses at night so students with full time day commitments could attend.
As television became the center of American culture, other institutions began following suit. Harvey White, a professor at U.C. Berkeley on the west coast soon connected with eastern PBS station WQED on the east coast to bring on air education to a national level. He produced over 160 high school physics lessons at WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that were broadcast to public schools in the area. The lessons were 30 minutes in length was filmed and soon distributed to additional television stations. During the a 1956-57 academic year, White's physics courses were watched by over 100,000 students in public school classrooms across the nation. In his book, The Evolution of American Educational Technology, Paul Seattler identifies that the historic program illustrates two important characteristics of distance education that have transferred to contemporary online learning: enormous economies of scale and higher labor productivity of the classroom based instructor.
Computer programming (1960's)
Most students are taught the basic principles of ethics through the historic teachings of Greek philosopher Plato. But many forget that the name also represents one of the most revolutionary technologies that shaped the future of educational innovation. Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations, or PLATO, was an operating system developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was designed for multiple roles including students, instructors and authors. Students could study assigned lessons and communicate with teachers through online notes, while teachers could examine student progress by analyzing data. Authors were similar to academic program managers of modern day who would create and direct program curriculum through the system. As the technology advanced, additional reporting systems and analytics were created to support PLATO development.
In 1963 internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland developed the first graphical user interface for a computer called Sketchpad. In the same year, the first computer for instruction is installed at Orange Coast College in southern California. Many technological improvements continued throughout the 60's culminating to the creation of the internet as we know it today - the commission of the U.S. Department of Defense's ARPANET. Online broadcasts were official in 1969 when Stanford University broadcasted 12 of its engineering courses through its instructional television network. Then finally the Merit Computer Network, merged worlds by interconnecting the mainframe computers at three large Michigan universities.
Going global (1980's)
The original idea from PLATO expanded in the early 80's when The Learning Manager (TLM) was released which expanded the number of institutional user roles to include assistants and administrators. It was used extensively at schools located in Canada. As momentum grew, a series of programs and devices were developed and implemented worldwide. In 1984 the University of California San Diego created the Intercultural Learning Network which linked California with schools in Japan, Israel, and Mexico in the first online learning circle. A few years later, NKI Distance Education in Norway begins its first online distance education courses through its self-developed Learning Management System (LMS).
As the idea of an interconnected world began to materialize, a young British engineer working at CERN in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee proposed an in-house document sharing system which he described as a "web of notes with links," ultimately coining the term the World Wide Web. On March 11, 2019 the world celebrated the 30th anniversary of this innovative system that transformed how we communicate and interact with the world around us.
Connect and collaborate (1990's)
With "www" officially on its way to becoming a prefix to a virtually endless number of future websites, others began to build upon the concept. In 1991 Johndan Johnson-Eilola envisions a very specific device called "The Smart Board" that provides a 72 inch, rear projection, touchscreen, intelligent whiteboard surface for work. In his book Datacloud: Toward a New Theory of Online Work, Johnson-Eilola explains how the system offers an information space that allows students to engage in active collaboration and describes the work produced through it as dynamic and contingent.
Technology giant Microsoft broke into the education industry in 1995 when employees Neville Gordon-Carroll and Vaughn Taylor launched the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI). The goal of this platform was to create a true distance learning experience allowing students to complete their studies at any time, regardless of location, with dynamically updated content that was immediately relevant. Although the company collaboratively worked with higher education institutions and corporations, many of them exploited their use of the system by using it as an experimental platform before developing their own proprietary systems.
The virtual blackboard boom (2000's)
If it isn't already evident from the amazing progression of educational innovation throughout history, we know from experience that technology has the power to change the world - it has already and continues to do so. The number of advancements that were developed in the 2000's is so great it cannot possibly be condensed into a short section of this article. But a few developments do stand out including the development of Blackboard, a cloud-based learning platform. Originally founded in the late 90's by Michael Chasen and Matt Pitinsky, In 2000 the young company filed national and international patents on the internet-based education support system, which was granted in 2006.
As the company continued to expand it began the process of partnering with other innovative companies which included acquiring MadDuck Technologies LLC and merging with WebCT. Northern Virginia Community College's Extended Learning Institute adopted the use of the software early in 2000 after trialing an array of other projects. Today blackboard is used by countless schools around the world including public and private universities alike. University of Massachusetts Global, part of the Chapman University System, is one of the schools that offers fully online programs through the Blackboard software. With the rapid development of new programs and applications, students can access their classes from any mobile device and complete their course work on their schedule.
Self-paced learning (2010's)
As our modern day classrooms continue to evolve, students in the 21st century are literally living the future of education and are leveraging new learning technologies on a daily basis. In the past years we have seen the rise of open source learning through massive open online courses (MOOCs), traditional universities introducing online learning, and the introduction of the latest concept - competency based education.
This self-paced, online learning model allows students to demonstrate their mastery of existing knowledge and focus their time on new concepts they have yet to learn. For many, it holds several advantages over traditional, time-based learning methods, and addresses issues like flexibility and affordability in education. In this innovative new format, students control their learning and the pace at which they move through curriculum. The technology is data-driven, adaptive and interactive, personalizing their their experience to fit their unique styles. This also changes the faculty role, shifting away from the traditional teacher-centered approach and toward a student-centered model. Learn more about this innovative offering by reviewing 10 facts about competency based education, and the types of people who thrive in self-paced learning.
What's next for educational technology?
There are many trends in higher education, but the only one that remains constant is change. With the speed at which technology is evolving it's difficult to predict what lies ahead for education technology. But there is one fact that is undeniable - it's up to our future leaders, innovators and educators to work together and find the best solutions for the future.
If you're interested in learning more about online, hybrid or self-paced learning check out all the options University of Massachusetts Global has to offer by visiting our Flexible Ways to Learn page.
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