For much of their modern existance, distance-education courses have suffered from an image problem.
In the 1970s and 1980s, they were seen as cheap knockoffs of on-campus offerings, hawked on late-night television by the likes of Sally Struthers, who asked viewers, “Do you want to make more money? Sure, we all do,” in commercials for the International Correspondence School.
In the late 1990s, the introduction of online learning coincided with the expansion of for-profit providers, such as the University of Phoenix and Corinthian Colleges. The two trends were often conflated in the media, and the quality concerns that frequently dogged the for-profit industry rubbed off on online programs.
Columbia University tried to change public perception in 2000, when it started a high-profile, $25 million online learning portal called Fathom, which aggregated content from other top-ranked institutions. It was an idea ahead of its time, by a decade. The site went dark in 2003, after failing to turn a profit. By 2011, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 29 percent of American adults said that online courses offered equal value to learning in traditional classrooms.
But then the negative headwinds facing online education began to shift, and quickly. The big reason? Name-brand and elite universities suddenly became interested in digital learning.