A Brief History of Distance Learning

Barry Lenson

If you think that distance learning started about a decade ago, this post will start your day with some gasp-provoking insights. Turns out that distance learning has been around for ages. Here’s a brief history . . .


Yelling. Yelling is the most basic way of communicating information over distances – as in, from the living room couch to the kitchen. But it was also the first form of distance learning, undoubtedly practiced by Neanderthals and Cro Magnons and all those other proto-humans.

Example: “Og! Oolapolu kanzpu!”  is Neanderthal for, “Og! The Cro Magnons are coming!”

Alpine horns. You’ve seen these on National Geographic specials. They are carved wooden horns, long as NBA stars, that Swiss montagnards invented centuries ago to transmit information across yawning Alpine valleys.

Example: One long toot, followed by three short blasts, means “Sounds like you better reinstall your operating system!”

Smoke signals. You’ve seen them in old Western films. They were purportedly used by Native Americans to convey information over long distances. The idea is that you throw a wet blanket over a fire and pull it back strategically to send little and big puffs of smoke up into the air, where they can be read from far away by others.

Example: One great big cloud of smoke means, “My blanket caught fire!”

Drums. They have reportedly been used in many cultures to convey pretty complex ideas and information over long distances.

Example: Three loud thumps followed by three short thumps means, “I’m going to learn to play the guitar because I hear it pays better.”

Correspondence courses. They were wildly popular in their day. You’d sign up for a course and a new lesson would arrive in the mail every week. You could learn how to paint in oils, play the piano, or write a novel, all from the comfort of your home study. You could also learn to defend yourself from bullies who kicked sand in your face at the beach.

Example: As the old Catskill joke goes, “I took a weightlifting course through the mail. Two months later I still looked the same, but you should have seen my mailman.”

VHS-based courses about how to use your computer. They were a form of distance learning that enjoyed brief popularity back in the early days of home computers.  The problem was, you had to move your TV and VCR next to your desktop PC before you could take the course.

Example: “179 DOS Commands You Can Use Today,” by a now-defunct computer instruction company.

Computerized distance learning. With online learning, we finally have a delivery mechanism that allows distance learning to work.  Whether you’re studying English, science, or math, you’ll find that distance learning has finally come of age.


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The Birth of Distance Learning
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How Do StraighterLine Online Courses Work?
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