As part of another project, I thought I’d document the history of the virtual classroom.

It’s not as easy a job as you might think, because the virtual classroom is often known as online learning, which then gets you thinking about the whole learning programme, including University degree’s and MOOCs and the more traditional distance learning.

History of distance learning


From a Forbes article: “Distance learning began in 1892 when the University of Chicago created the first college-level distance learning program. Expanding from this initial use of the U.S. Postal Service for course correspondence, distance education moved towards live radio shows in 1921 and then televised broadcasts in 1963.”

Further technology development of online education

From a Peterson’s article: “In 1960 there was a system of linked computer terminals where students could access course materials as well as listen to recorded lectures. This would evolve into PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). At its height, PLATO operated on thousands of terminals across the globe. More interestingly, PLATO would be used to create many of the concepts of social networking that we know today: message boards, chat rooms and screen sharing.”

CALCampus started in 1982 in New Hampshire in the US using Commodore computers to provide instruction to individual learners through the use of computers. In 1994 e-mail and then the internet developed and meant that CALCampus could bring it’s offerings together in one website.

Teaching online isn’t revolutionary

This research paper from CALCampus founder Margaret Gorts Morabito states “…the birth and development of online distance education which occurred during the 1980s. Educators, researchers and the public should be aware of the significant events dealing with online distance education that were happening in this important and formative decade. In 1997, there are claims on the Internet from educations organisations of their revolutionary new ways of teaching online; yet, from an historical perspective, these revolutionary new methods are really duplicating what was already developed and implemented online over a decade ago. Online distance education is a natural outgrowth of distance education and correspondence education…”

On Wikipedia there is an article about web conferencing the development of virtual classroom software.

Invention of the “virtual classroom”?

Michalis Xenos states that “the term virtual classroom was introduced in 1986”. Starr Roxanne Hiltz, in the 1986 paper The “Virtual Classroom”: Using Computer-Mediated Communication for University Teaching investigated the use of computers for education. Starr wrote: 

“Is it possible to build a ‘virtual classroom,’ an interactive communication and learning space location within a computer system?

Can a computer-mediated communication system be used to crate an electronic analogue of the communication forms that usually occur in a classroom, including discussion as well as lectures and tests?

Can it provide the new modes of teaching and learning that may be more effecting than the traditional classroom? Our initial findings in a long-term investigation of computer education at the postsecondary (sic) level suggest that the medium can be effective for some types of students, course materials, and teachings. In addition, the nature of interaction is different.”

You know, of course, that I’m going to see a big yes to those questions posed in 1986! 

Virtual classroom development infographic

This is the first infographic I’ve made, courtesy of a free account and template from Pik To Chart.

Update: With Nigel’s excellent comments below, and other research I’ve done, I will have to update this infographic.



  1. Very US centric view. In fact when the UK civil service started examinations for entry to avoid corruption and preference, help with the exams was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman using the new unified postage pricing (from 1840) which made it all possible. They posted notes and exercises to students and give them sample tests. It was accessed by 10s of 1000s of people. Plus you have to mention the foundation of the Open University (now UK’s biggest University) in 1968. The OU created virtual labs, telephone teaching as distance learning materials. Before the OU was the Open College (later National Extension College) which ran distance learning programmes for O and A levels from 1965. Plus PLATO the computer network that allowed students to learn remotely from labs stuffed full of terminals connected to PLATO’s big mainframes.

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