The History of Online Education, 25 Years after First Website Launched
By Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University
Four years after I was first sworn in as a law enforcement officer, something happened that — without my knowledge — would have a staggering impact on my life and the lives of many others. This August celebrates 25 years after the world’s first website went live to the public. Little did I know in 1991 that just five years later, in 1996, I would be asked a question that would put me on the career path I remain on today.
In 1996, I was asked to meet with University of Central Florida (UCF) criminal justice department chair Dr. Bernie McCarthy. McCarthy had been tasked by the administration to pilot a program to see if this “Internet thing” could be used to deliver education. I had known McCarthy for about six years at that point and he knew of my background as a police officer with graduate degrees in instructional design and criminal justice. It was my instructional design experience that set me apart from other faculty and captured his interest. Because of my background, he thought I was the one who had the best shot at being successful with this task. He offered me an opportunity to have a go at it and I accepted.
At the same time, I was offered an opportunity at APCO Institute as an instructional designer. APCO Institute was the training arm of APCO International, the oldest and largest organization dedicated to public safety communications professionals. APCO Institute director Kevin Duffy and I had some instructional design classes together and formed a friendship. We had a very similar background as law enforcement officers, motor officers, and trainers, and he wanted me to join him at APCO Institute. I accepted his offer and let him know of the opportunity at UCF. All he asked was “do you think we can make it work here?” I thought we could, and that set the wheels in motion.
Working at UCF a few hours a week and at APCO Institute the remainder of the week meant my full-time law enforcement career needed to be put on hold. In January 1997, my first UCF online course was taking shape as was APCO Institute’s Virtual Institute. The course, “Police and Society,” was run on what we would later call a bulletin board and constructed from HTML code. To put this all in context, in 1997, AOL had just stopped charging by the hour and Microsoft Office was available on a set of 45 3.5-inch floppy disks. If you had a 56Kbps dial-up modem, you were “flying” online. There were no learning management systems such as Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle or Sakai at the time. Designing every course was labor-intensive and required coding by hand in order to work.
Later in 1997, the UCF course went live and, thankfully, it worked as designed. The Virtual Institute also went live and was a huge success, winning the American Society of Association Executives Innovation in Training award. Little did Duffy or I know at the time, but we had seemingly created the first online education training institute in the U.S. (and possibly the world). Those opportunities presented to me in 1996, coupled with the success experienced in 1997, laid the groundwork for the next two decades of my work life.
I spent the next 20 years designing online education courses, working with colleges and universities interested in developing an online presence, and constructing online training centers/corporate universities. Today, I find myself as the Criminal Justice Program Director for American Public University System (which oversees American Military University and American Public University) leading a department of more than 70 faculty members providing higher education in the online environment. The university’s graduate degrees, undergraduate degrees, certificates and learning tracks are all offered online, educating thousands of students every year. I’ve had the opportunity to train law enforcement officers on six continents and traveled around the world providing online education solutions to private industry, governments and education institutions. Looking back on how it all started, I guess McCarthy was correct — back in 1996 I was the right person to take on that task.
About the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.