Distance education is not a new concept. In the late 1800s, at the University of Chicago, the first major correspondence program in the United States was established in which the teacher and learner were at different locations. Before that time, particularly in preindustrial Europe, education had been available primarily to males in higher levels of society. The most effective form of instruction in those days was to bring students together in one place and one time to learn from one of the masters. That form of traditional educational remains the dominant model of learning today. The early efforts of educators like William Rainey Harper in 1890 to establish alternatives were laughed at. Correspondence study, which was designed to provide educational opportunities for those who were not among the elite and who could not afford full-time residence at an educational institution, was looked down on as inferior education. Many educators regarded correspondence courses as simply business operations. Correspondence education offended the elitist and extremely undemocratic educational system that characterized the early years in this country (Pittman, 1991). Indeed, many correspondence courses were viewed as simply poor excuses for the real thing. However, the need to provide equal access to educational opportunities has always been part of our democratic ideals, so correspondence study took a new turn.
As radio developed during the First World War and television in the 1950s instruction outside of the traditional classroom had suddenly found new delivery systems. There are many examples of how early radio and television were used in schools to deliver instruction at a distance. Wisconsin's School of the Air was an early effort, in the 1920s, to affirm that the boundaries of the school were the boundaries of the state. More recently, audio and computer teleconferencing have influenced the delivery of instruction in public schools, higher education, the military, business, and industry. Following the establishment of the Open University in Britain in 1970, and Charles Wedemeyer's innovative uses of media in 1986 at the University of Wisconsin, correspondence study began to use developing technologies to provide more effective distance education.