The history of Distance Learning goes back more than 100 years in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The first London University External Degree programs for overseas students started in 1858. The innovative Open University, started in 1971 in the UK, and has been copied around the world.
In Australia, the University of Queensland offered an external degree in the 1890's due to sparse populations and large open expanses. Today, Australia's higher education system incorporates DL in many programs, and is considered a model for other nations.
In the USA, some schools offered courses through DL in the late 19th century. Columbia University offered DL options in the 1920's, and other schools offered courses by radio in the 30's and courses via television in the 60's. However, DL remained a little-known means of earning a college degree throughout most of the 20th century.
Universities that are exclusively DL began appearing in the US, on both coasts, at about the same time, in the early 1970's. Among the pioneers, the state of New York gave us the "Regents External Degree Program," now called Regents College, an accredited school. The state of California produced California Western University, now called California Coast University, a state-approved institution.
Because DL is still not a well-understood concept with many people, there can be prejudice against these types of degrees with some believing that DL is an inferior education. DL degrees can be better accepted in some occupations than in others, and prejudice is lessening as the facts of DL become known, and as the number of people holding such degrees increases.
DL acceptability raises issues of quality assurance and how potential students can judge between different DL offerings. Various approaches have been made to this subject, involving accreditation, consumer protection, licensing or other measures.
British universities attained their ability to offer degrees from Papal Charter in earlier times, followed by Royal Charter after the Reformation in 1534. American universities exist by virtue of complying with individual state requirements since each state government is the competent education authority and not the federal government.
In Canada, there is no federal degree granting authority. Degrees are granted by virtue of each province's legislature having empowered an institution with the authority to grant degrees. In Australia, although self accrediting, universities are authorized by a separate Act of Parliament in each case. Qualifications however are issued in accordance with a set framework that encompasses all education through to PhD.
To determine the quality of a school and how its qualifications suit your purpose, you need to assess the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the degree against your own objectives.