The History of Distance Learning And The Future of Virtual Instruction

Chelsea Penney
March 14, 2024

Every year on the anniversary of the pandemic’s entry into the US, people reflect on lockdown’s impact on education. Often associated with years of learning loss, this emergency remote learning had a negative impact on the perception of online learning. However, remote learning has a much longer history than many realize. And it has an even longer future ahead as we learn from mistakes, evolve, and synchronous instruction becomes widely incorporated into schools - not as an evil necessity, but as a solution to modern education issues.

History of Remote Learning

Distance education programs started in 1728. JSTOR reports, “That’s when shorthand teacher Caleb Phillips bought an ad in the Boston Gazette promising that students ‘may by having the several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.’” Correspondence courses increased in popularity when the US postal service expanded in the 1800s. 

Technology increased accessibility as it developed. Tulane University states, “In 1922, Pennsylvania State College broadcasted courses across radio networks. In 1953, the University of Houston even offered courses by television! By the late 1960s, distance learning was becoming accepted under the moniker ‘independent study.’” 

Much later in the 1990s, colleges began offering their content and courses virtually as online communities grew in popularity. With years of success in higher education, technology naturally trickled down into grade school as well. It is largely advantageous to modern students, but the education field is slow to accept the progress. 

Evolution of Virtual Learning

Access to educators is an equity issue. Since the introduction of the postal service, education has not been limited by location. In the earliest stages of remote learning, teachers would correspond with their students via mail - sending instructional materials, lessons, and assignments back and forth. It was slow, but it was the only means some students had to access expert teachers. We’ve come a long way since this manual transcription of lessons. From its onset, we learned that effective learning is possible at a distance, and it has continued to improve.

As personal computers and software were developed, more and more academic work went online. It became important to expand students’ academic computer and technological skills. It started simply by exchanging hand-written papers for word processors. Then, trading ledgers in for spreadsheets. As software evolved, so did the need for technical computer skills. Students were required to complete typing courses and submit printed assignments. Everything changed again when the world wide web became available to the public in 1993.

Widespread internet access changed the face of research and access to information as we know it. Students were no longer limited to analog books and encyclopedias. Imagine the effectiveness of the research revolution sharing ideas instantaneously. Information is now accessible to everyone, and it’s not limited to library hours or inventory. 

With the onset of the technological age, online learning platforms emerged to revolutionize instruction. With it came gamification and other engaging techniques like chat rooms, discussion boards, creative tools, and virtual field trips to incorporate into lessons. Learning Management Systems are now a ubiquitous resource in every school. For example, Canvas is now a household name. Parents can easily message their children’s teachers to enable greater communication.

These days, we can’t imagine education without these technological innovations. 

However, emergency virtual learning created poor outcomes and set back online learning. Schools scrambled to provide computers and internet access, which often didn’t work. The availability highlighted existing equity issues. No one received the training they needed to adopt new software. The rushed application of programs that weren’t ready ruined the experience for K-12 administrators, teachers, students, and parents. 

Pandemic-Age Emergency Virtual Learning

Because of pandemic-era lockdowns, virtual learning has garnered a negative reputation. While it can be an amazing tool with the right support, technology was not ready to keep up with both instructors’ and students’ needs. Moreover, if both groups didn’t receive the proper training and support using online learning systems and tools it could quickly turn into a negative learning experience. 

The pandemic exacerbated this sentiment and clearly left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. As the world shut down and teachers, students, and families were rushed into chaotic virtual environments, this makeshift bandage to temporary school interruptions turned into long-term learning loss and a disregard for how far virtual learning had come before it was blundered. Confusion was rampant. The programs didn’t work. The administration didn’t know how to use it. The teachers didn’t have the training to leverage it. The students didn’t pay attention.

K-12 schools were forced into the virtual learning realm before the infrastructure could support them, therefore, it inevitably failed students who deserved a great education. 

Fast forward three years later - students are set back from pre-pandemic achievement and are struggling to catch up. However, the reality is that virtual learning has seen success in higher education for decades. Forbes says, “By enabling three forms of interactivity – interaction with content, with the instructor, and with other learners – the Internet proved to be a game-changer for correspondence degrees.” The same success can be achieved in K-12 schools with certified, synchronous teachers leading the way.

Now that we have resurfaced from the chaos and confusion, we have distanced ourselves from hastily moving classes online and creating frustrations. We now have the time to pause, train, develop, and mitigate the issues seen during the pandemic. We have better training and structures to make virtual learning a permanent fixture in the education world instead of a temporary solution. Quality and equal access is key. Live teachers are crucial to its success in improving education beyond anything we’ve seen before.

The Advent of Virtual Teachers

Synchronous virtual classrooms offer students the same instructional experience as brick-and-mortar courses and sometimes offer even more enrichment. Struggling with the teacher shortage, districts resort to hiring underqualified in-person teachers for some classrooms. However with virtual instruction, students are able to access content experts from around the world and can even begin to discover an educational experience and world well beyond their local borders. 

With synchronous learning, content-certified teachers interact with students individually and as a class, presenting customized lessons and assigning work to practice and test knowledge. The introduction of real-time video conferencing makes it possible for virtual teachers to build relationships with students no matter where they are in the country. 

Personalized learning, gamification, auto-graded quizzes, and AI lesson planning assistance have made teachers work more efficiently and effectively. With menial tasks taken care of, teachers can spend more time focusing on their students, personalizing lessons, and putting more effort toward providing excellent educational experiences. Virtual teachers are experts in utilizing edtech tools like interactive whiteboards, activities, and virtual field trips to engage students. 

Decades of Virtual Success

Virtual courses have been effective means of instruction in higher education and professional development for decades. The success is evident as online classes have grown over the years.  According to Hope Kentnor’s study, “Distance Education and the Evolution of Online Learning in the United States” in the fall of 2007, 3.9 million college students enrolled in at least one online course. By 2010, that number grew to 6.1 million. Training across professional careers has also turned virtual with great success. How many of your professional development sessions are still held in-person? Probably not many. Even the corporate and professional world is seeing the success of virtual learning and training. 

While industry experts and educators know virtual learning is an effective tool with the proper means of instruction and personalization, pandemic-era emergency learning was simply too rushed to be effective for most K-12 students. 

Asynchronous virtual programs are impersonal and allow students to click through without interacting with the content. There is often no teacher assigned to give them the personalization and accountability they need to learn from online programs. It’s not developmentally appropriate for young learners. 

However, quality synchronous education led by livestream teachers gives students a similar experience to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom environment. 

Effectiveness Matching In-Person Instruction

Daily interaction is essential for effective instruction. Live virtual teachers interact with their classes every day as they present lessons, plan assignments, and give feedback. Lessons are custom-tailored to the needs of their students.

Virtual teachers are more effective than asynchronous programs because of the human element that allows for connection and personalization. It matches the effectiveness of in-person instruction. Real-time interaction is essential for engagement. Asynchronous programs simply can’t compete with the attention and accountability that live virtual teachers provide. They get to know their students, build rapport, and cultivate trust. From there, they can address individual learning needs, whether by answering questions or creating differentiated assignments to remediate or advance learning on a concept. 

Live virtual teachers offer immediate feedback and clarification that asynchronous programs cannot offer. Asynchronous learning relies on students reading explanations and attending off-hours tutoring to receive extra instruction. Synchronous virtual teachers foster collaborative learning through class discussions and explanations. Teachers can change course to address student needs and ensure understanding. 

Collaborative learning is a big part of virtual classrooms from group projects to breakout room discussions to peer-to-peer learning is incorporated to build executive skills like teamwork, active listening, and compromise. Building community is possible as students integrate technology into their social lives as well. Asynchronous learning is often individual and isolated. Virtual learning techniques adapt to meet the developmental needs of students for effectiveness. It is here to stay - and it just keeps getting better.

The Future of Education

Upcoming enhancements to virtual teaching are ever-emerging. Students have easier access to expert teachers, and now those teachers can better concentrate their time on student success. AI and virtual reality are opening doors to effectiveness and engagement by making it easier to interact and personalize to every student. Districts have learned from past experiences and continue to innovate so their students have the best learning opportunities. 

Technology is the great equalizer because it gives students access to the resources they need to work in today’s innovative environment. Students are keeping up with the revolution - are administrators looking out for them?

Read more: How Virtual Learning Prepares Students For The Real World

Virtual But Better

Virtual is here to stay, so it’s time to adopt its most effective form and continue innovating for the betterment of students and society. Contact Proximity Learning to learn more about our effective synchronous approach.

about the author
Chelsea Penney

Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver and her Masters of Science in Marketing from Texas A&M University Commerce. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline as Content Marketing Manager for Proximity Learning.

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