In order to put a date on the historical beginnings of distance education and online degree offerings, such as rn nursing to marketing to psychology, one has to first define what is distance education or even what is education. According to the Webster dictionary, education is the process of educating or teaching in order to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of the person being educated. With such a broad definition the origins of education are directly related in time to the origins of human communication since a great part of communication is to show how something is done or where something is.
In fact improvements in communication skills and tools can be easily paralleled to improvements in education effectiveness over the ages of civilizations. By decoding the hieroglyphs that were engraved a few thousand years ago we are now learning how Egyptians were embalming their kings and basically telling successors how to carry these tasks. Archaeological studies of other civilizations are revealing similar aptitudes to transfer information and educate through various media, from smoke signals to Morse coding. When the term online is added to education the time frame really shrinks tremendously.
In general, online refers to the presence of a computer connected to a network. By adding Internet to this definition a much more precise and recent history emerges. However, since the Internet only became widely accessible when the World Wide Web was created we should in reality look at this moment in history as the earliest possibility of online education. By the end of 1992, there were about 26 Web sites on the planet (reference). As of June 2008 there were 172,338,726 Web sites (reference).
These Web sites are obviously not all focused on education but a sizable quantity is. However, developments encouraged by the popularity of the WWW have resulted in the most amazing tools that allow Web visitors to browse, search, and perform a great variety of functions with the greatest ease based on the information so readily available almost anywhere. The same fever has resulted in a gamut of creative software tools to display, modify, and maintain the information displayed on the Web.
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