Although it is possible to acquire any number of useful skills online, it has been hard to acquire reliable qualifications offered by universities purely over the internet.
Internet-based education has a long way to go
Few technologies are initially used for the reasons their creators originally envisaged. Take Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor. When he was developing the technology that would become the wireless telephone in the early 1900s, Marconi is said to have believed its primary use would be to relay music performed live in city concert halls to rural regions.
In much the same way, when Tim Berners-Lee built the foundations of the internet in the 1980s, he saw a future where education, including degree-level courses, would be available to anyone on the planet who had an internet connection.
But, just as Marconi's invention was initially used to replace telegraph wires, so the internet has largely become a medium for shopping and entertainment rather than a serious educational platform.
Although it is possible to acquire any number of useful skills online, including learning a language, it has been hard to acquire reliable qualifications offered by universities purely over the internet. So far, the internet has realised little of its potential to enable anyone, anywhere to educate themselves to any level they desire.
But there is, however, growing evidence that professionals anxious to further their careers by educating themselves are now starting to sign up for online degrees.
Sanjay Tolani is typical of this new breed of online student. A director of the Dubai-based Goodwill Insurance Brokers, Mr Tolani is responsible for spearheading an organisation that services clients across 53 countries. Having completed two masters degrees, Mr Tolani decided to take an online doctorate of business administration at the UK's University of Liverpool to enable him to continue his day job.
"An online programme offers students like me the flexibility to study and work at the same time," Mr Tolani says. "This programme was particularly appealing because I travel six months of the year and would not have the time to study."
For professionals, the bonus of online higher education is the opportunity to study among a far wider cross section of international businesspeople than might be the case when enrolling in a bricks-and-mortar university.
"The other more important feature is the peer group you study with - all with very varied backgrounds and geographically diverse," Mr Tolani says. "This diversity is the best way to experience parts of the world that you may otherwise not come into contact with."
Ronel Stembull, the business development manager for the Dubai-based New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, who took an online MBA at the University of Liverpool, also considered the wide mix of online students an advantage.
"Students were more confident and determined to get their opinions across and in a professional manner," Ms Stembull says. "At times, controversial topics were discussed further in the student chat room. And, surprisingly, this is where the real learning begins."
The University of Liverpool says it is the largest provider of online postgraduate education in Europe. More than 7,500 professionals from 130 countries are currently pursuing an advanced University of Liverpool degree in management, information technology, law, health, psychology and education.
"The strength of the University of Liverpool's online programmes lies in the quality and diversity of the students - experienced career professionals, innovative learning methodologies and 100 per cent online delivery," says Samantha Martin, a spokeswoman for the University of Liverpool.
The courses are created to allow students to make use of their local business experience and apply it to their course without giving up their full-time jobs.
"An online MBA offers busy professionals the opportunity to achieve an MBA degree without taking time out," Ms Martin says. "To do this, University of Liverpool students typically spend around 20 hours per week studying over a period of approximately 24 to 30 months."
By using technology that builds on the students' professional experiences and expertise, the University of Liverpool and its online learning partner, Laureate International Universities, hope to produce graduates who can become leaders in their various fields.
One reason why universities like Liverpool have only recently tapped into the online market is that the US, which has traditionally been the innovator of new internet-based services and technologies, has been slow to catch on.
"US institutions have made little effort to market their product, often a very good product, actively abroad," says Frank Mayadas, a senior adviser for the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports the positive use of technology. "So growth of foreign representation in US online programmes has been slow.
"A very preliminary count indicated that the numbers are usually well less than 5 per cent for most institutions that offer online programmes. That is changing slowly and it will pick up speed."
Some industry watchers also believe that while the internet offers greater access to information than a traditional classroom might, it still has real hurdles to overcome.
"Teachers, as experts in their field, play an extremely important role in the classroom to help students navigate the subject and establish a basic foundation of knowledge," says Navneet Johal, an education technology analyst at the New York office of Ovum, an international research company.
And issues such as staff commitment to students that only exist in cyberspace, have to be addressed.
"Online education may be good for institutions looking to increase their reach and revenue, however, it does not resolve issues around faculty and student accountability," Ms Johal says. "There are pedagogical concerns regarding commitment - and maybe some retention issues."
However, despite these reservations, there is evidence that, in the US, online education is finally beginning to take off.
According to a report, Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011, compiled by the Sloan Foundation and the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of students learning online surpassed six million in the autumn of 2010, an increase of 560,000 over the previous year.
Growth in online qualifications in the US also surpassed the growth rate for traditional enrolments - with a 10 per cent increase for online enrolments compared with just 1 per cent for the overall higher education student population.
But, according to the report's findings, there is still considerable growth potential in the US.
"Close to, or more than two thirds, of the responding chief executive officers recognised that online programmes are strategically important to the institution, yet close to, or less than one half of respondents actually included online programmes in the campus strategic plan," the report says.
But there are also some good reasons why many educational institutions have resisted the temptation to stake their courses online.
Selling education on the Web is not quite as simple as, for instance, selling retail products or computer games. Higher education relies on a complex blend of personal relations with tutors, peer groups and other forms of interaction hard to duplicate on a flat computer screen. And educational institutions anxious to retain their high reputations do not entirely trust technology to deliver their product.
But there is still hope. And, if the internet can fulfil its full educational potential, then, just as the radio-wave technology launched by Marconi was eventually used to broadcast concerts to remote farms, Mr Berners-Lee's internet could become the comprehensive learning aid he hoped it would be.