Inventing Online Learning

How philanthropic gifts paved the way for distance education during the coronavirus lockdown

So- called “distance learning” has been available to disciplined students for generations, with instruction and degrees available by mail, television, even radio. The Internet, though, opened yawning opportunities for new forms of education that could be of a high quality yet much more accessible and lower in cost than traditional classroom education.

Donors leapt to develop online education. They have for years been the main force powering expansion and development of Internet-based classes, curricula, and platforms. So when the coronavirus turned 56 million U.S. students into involuntary distance learners this spring semester, the large virtual infrastructure built up by donors was valuable. 

The year 2012 was when Internet-based instruction first developed some critical mass. So-called MOOCs (massive open online courses) expanded beyond the confines of major universities and began to become widely available. Donations from the Andrew Mellon, Hewlett, Gates, and MacArthur foundations, as well as donations from the philanthropic arms of companies like Google, helped launch both nonprofit entities like Khan Academy, University of the People, and EdX as well as commercial ventures such as Coursera and Udacity. These opened new options for learners of unconventional ages and academic backgrounds, people in remote areas, students in the developing world, and individuals without the economic means to pay for formal education. 

This topic is included among other educational accomplishments catalogued in The Almanac of American Philanthropy. See, for instance, “2008—Khan Academy” and “2012—Easy Online Learning” in the list of Major Achievements in Education.