By: Ann Heinz

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most people were forced into online learning. However, even before the coronavirus changed our lifestyles, online learning had already entered the mainstream—and for good reason! As technology has advanced, so have the benefits of online learning. Some of these benefits aren’t new. Distance learning itself has been appreciated for years and has a long history, one that may go back further than you think.

Distance learning began long before the internet—by over two and half centuries, in fact. In 1728, a teacher by the name of Caleb Phillips began advertising the world’s first known correspondence course in the Boston Gazette. Courses where instructors would teach students by mail continued to be offered throughout the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century and the advent of uniform postage that distance learning truly began to flourish.

In 1843, the Phonographic Correspondence Society was established in England which taught shorthand to students by mail, and only fifteen years later, the University of London began offering degrees through distance learning programs. Later in 1873, Ana Eliot Ticknor founded the first formal correspondence school in the United States, “The Society to Encourage Studies at Home,” a network dedicated to furthering the education of American women. By the mid-twentieth century, most major universities offered some type of mail-based learning program.

And as communications technology advanced, new distance learning opportunities were created. In 1919, professors at the University of Wisconsin created the first radio station dedicated to educational programs, and three years later, Pennsylvania State College began offering radio courses. By 1925, over 200 colleges and universities in the United States had been granted radio licenses.

The invention of the television was the next distance learning milestone. In fact, in 1953, the University of Houston even offered college courses on TV! Colleges also began filming courses that could be ordered by mail, and institutions even started taking advantage of the telephone. In 1965, the University of Wisconsin created the first statewide telephone-based education program.

Naturally, personal computers and the internet were the next big step up from correspondence, radio, television, and telephone programs, and instructors began utilizing the internet for distance learning almost immediately. In 1989, the University of Phoenix began offering online educational programs, and three years later, the Electronic University Network was offering the world’s first online Ph.D. program. By the late 1990s, we had firmly entered the era of online learning.

But while some college courses were available online during the 1990s, there were few professional development and continuing education learning opportunities on the internet. Initially, funeral directors and other professionals could order professional development material and course books online, but online classes themselves took time to be recognized by state and professional boards. As technology continued to progress, professionals and state boards began to appreciate the success and benefits of online education. Over the years, more and more states and professions have begun to adopt online learning for their licensing and continuing education programs.

While online learning used to be niche, the tide had turned by the end of the new century’s first decade. In 2012, surveys showed over 75% of academic leaders believed online learning was equal or superior to classroom learning, and more recently, a 2018 study revealed 85% of students who had taken both face-to-face and online courses felt their online courses were the same or better than their in-person courses.

Currently, COVID-19 has made online learning a necessity for most, but the main benefit of distance learning has been appreciated for over a century: namely, it can be done at a distance. Online learning, like its technological predecessors, does not require traveling or being present in a classroom, and most courses can be completed at the learner’s own pace. This allows professionals to save money and enormous amounts of time.

COVID-19 has also highlighted one of the previously unappreciated benefits of online learning: when disasters occur that restrict travel or prohibit an in-person setting, online learning can continue uninterrupted. When COVID-19 began, almost all in-person education was suddenly suspended. Meanwhile, those completing their education online have been able to continue their courses without disruption.

Even before the pandemic, the number of professionals utilizing online learning over traditional classrooms was expected to increase, and COVID-19 has almost certainly sped up that timeline. More and more professional organizations have adopted and will likely continue to adopt online learning for professional development across numerous industries.

Fortunately, modern technology has made remote learning more accessible and more convenient than ever. With mobile phones, learners can literally carry study materials anywhere in the palm of their hand and can complete their education on their own schedule, day or night. Our company and others even have courses with additional features like video and audio to make lessons more engaging.

If history teaches us anything, the best is yet to come. Professionals will undoubtedly continue to see and embrace the quality and convenience of remote learning for years into the future. FBA

Ann Heinz is an attorney and product line manager for funeral continuing education at WebCE, Inc. She manages WebCE’s state-approved continuing education course catalog for funeral professionals nationwide. To connect with Ann, email her at [email protected] or give her a call at 972.616.1079.