The history of e-education begins before the idea of “being online” had entered the modern lexicon. In 1979, the Open University, later to become the largest college in England, began registering students, who received courses via television. In 1989, the first internet-based college, the University of Phoenix, opened its virtual doors. Only twelve students enrolled, but many more were to come. By 2011, the University of Phoenix was the largest college in the United States, with more than 500,000 students.

More recently, starting in 2006 but taking hold in 2012, is the advent of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. MOOCs have the advantage of being able to serve students all over the globe at the same time, and yet are challenged by the fact that while many begin, few actually finish the courses.

Today, online education takes a variety of different forms. There are both for profit and not-for profit colleges, with a many different approaches to educating via the Internet. Some online courses use synchronous instruction, in which the teacher connects to the students in real time, while others use asynchronous instruction, in which teachers upload videos and other instructional material for students to access on their own time. They serve all grades, from kindergarten to college, and exist for both full-time and part-time students. And while most students work from home, some students still attend a designated “school,” to participate in the curriculum alongside peers.

Since online education is relatively new, we are still testing the waters, trying to figure out what the challenges of e-learning are, and how to solve them. There are concerns that online education may be too reliant on self-motivation for many younger students, especially when done from home. Working from home also means that the face-to-face socialization that has occurred in schools since their inception is lost, which, again, is especially a concern for younger students. We are also still trying to figure out how to assess online education, since online tests are notoriously easy to cheat on. And given how many organizations are trying to get in online education, and how experimental the whole industry is, assessment is important in figuring out what is, or is not, effective.

But despite these drawbacks, online education looks overall very promising. Nearly half of those participating in online courses are 26 years old or older, suggesting that online educations is allowing many adults to go back to school. The flexible hours of asynchronous online education programs may inspire more people to try to become teachers, resulting in a better talent pool. Online schooling may be especially beneficial for students living in rural areas or on reservations, who previously needed to travel long distances to attend small, often underfunded schools. There is even evidence that students learn better online, possibly due to the way that most online programs allow students to learn at their own paces. A 2009 report by the United States Department of Education showed that students taking partially or entirely online classes did better than those taking the exact same curriculum in a traditional setting.