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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2018 / Winter 2019)

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Online Learning Today: An Extension of your Grandmother's Correspondence Course

By Tamara Fudge, Purdue University Global 

Online learning is sometimes dismissed by traditional educators as a "fad" or a method unsuitable for academic consumption. However, that which we experience today is simply yet another revolution in a succession of educational innovations.

Mail-Order Education

"Distance education" is chronicled at least back to Boston in 1728, when Caleb Philipps (sometimes spelled Phillips) placed a newspaper advertisement offering lessons in short hand and accounting. Lessons were to be delivered by mail (Beamish, 2006). A fairly reliable mail service provided a logical means for student-to-teacher communication.

It was again in the Boston area – much later, in 1873 – that Anna Eliot Ticknor decided to offer education specifically to women, once more delivering through the mail. The Society to Encourage Studies at Home included "an enlightened, modern curriculum; a lending library; and a warm correspondence between woman teacher and woman learner" (Bergmann, 2001, p. 447). Part of the impetus behind the school was the growing understanding that women wanted an education. Some colleges had just begun accepting women, and other colleges were being founded to serve women solely, but generally, women simply had few opportunities to learn in an organized curriculum.

While lacking a college degree herself, Ticknor was well aware of educational requirements and processes, as she was the daughter of a Harvard professor, a cousin had been the president of the university, and other male relatives were professors. Many of Ticknor's students, however, were older and did not fit what would be considered a traditional college student profile today. Courses included several offerings in history, art, the natural sciences, and literature in English, German, and French (Bergman, 2001). Over 10,000 women learned through Ticknor's Society over a span of about 24 years (Casey, 2008). Ticknor and her father maintained a library that provided necessary resources (see below).

Figure 1. Ticknor House Library, Park Street, Boston, 1897 (public domain image from the Wikimedia Commons) 

The two above-mentioned endeavors were certainly not alone; other programs also taught job skills and provided professional development. For example, the Colliery School of Mines focused on mining safety starting in 1892 (Sleator, 2010). This effort evolved into the International Correspondence Schools, which added railroad employees and iron workers to their student body; ICS had 2.5 million students within twenty years (Casey, 2008). 

Many sources claim that distance education in formal college programs began in 1892 at the University of Chicago. The methods of instruction, assignment explanations and submissions, and grading feedback were still accomplished via the postal service.

Meanwhile in Traditional Schooling

Traditional schooling was undergoing transformations at the same time. The young Englishman Joseph Lancaster (1778–1838) set up schools for poor children with the intent of educating large numbers at the same time without charging tuition; this led to what we know today as public education. Lancaster's "technology" involved careful visual and acoustic classroom design, applying time constraints with clocks, using slates instead of paper, and making use of "pasteboards," which were the predecessor to blackboards. Students were assigned to help other students during the learning process. The Lancasterian System was ultimately put into action in over two dozen countries and used by missionaries elsewhere by the early 1820s (Stevenson, 2015). The connection to online learning and other methods would come soon enough.

New Century, New Media, New Possibilities

The early 20th century saw great growth in distance education. According to Wooten (2013), a half million students were enrolled by the mid-1920s through programs offered by colleges and companies such as ICS. While this educational prosperity waned during the Great Depression, new technologies emerged that educators would ultimately find useful:

  • Radio-broadcasted course content was begun in 1921; just a few years later, one out of ten radio stations were owned and run by colleges (Casey, 2008), thereby empowering a new technological method of delivering classroom lectures. 
  • Television followed radio as an educational medium by 1934 at the University of Iowa (Sleator, 2010). 
  • The personalization of telephone communication between students and professors came as telephone access increased (Casey 2008). 

It is important to consider that not all households had radio, television, or telephones yet; mail was a common and inexpensive method and still provided the backbone of distance course delivery.

The University of Arizona's 1939-40 school year Extension Division is a good example of the scope of by-mail courses just prior to World War II. Their catalog of correspondence courses listed 115 college credit offerings taught by several dozen professors. Textbooks, special paper, and other materials were to be purchased from the university's bookstore via mail. Students submitted work through the mail and were given up to 12 months to complete a course; as much as a half of a degree program could be completed in this manner. It is clearly stated in the catalog that such courses "do not offer a short cut; they are organized to coincide as closely as possible with the corresponding courses offered in residence" (Correspondence Courses, 1939).

The 1960s saw a clear resurgence in non-traditional course delivery (Wooten 2013). In the middle of that decade, the University of Wisconsin-Madison sponsored the Articulated Instructional Media Project (also known as AIM), which renewed the study of television, radio, and other means in teaching the correspondence learner (Sleator, 2010). 

The need for also offering high school courses was clearly explained in a 1974 guidance counselors' manual: a student might be homebound for any number of reasons, there could be schedule conflicts, the chosen courses might not be offered at the student's home school, or there could be other "difficulties with particular learning situations at school" (Wentworth, 1974). Materials included textbooks supplemented by a mimeographed guide that would purportedly provide the guidance a teacher would in a traditional classroom (Wentworth, 1974). 

It should be mentioned that some of the methods and technologies were implemented to extend traditional college offerings rather than to provide true "distance" learning. In the 1970s, this author experienced television lectures in a college auditorium; the professor was broadcast "live" from another room. This arrangement enabled the university to reach a larger student audience at the same time. In today's terminology, this might be considered a "blended" method of learning.

Educational Evolution / Revolution

In the last quarter of the 20th century, formal "distance education" methods changed significantly at the college level. 

First, a central campus was deemed unnecessary.

Coastline Community College was founded in 1976 without the construction of a traditional campus; class space could be found at a hundred locations in "local schools, offices, banks, factories, church, and other community buildings" (Luskin, 1976). Television delivery, independent study, and experiential learning also assisted the student in earning college credit in a non-traditional format.

Then came the computer.

Interactive software made training on the computer possible; the Summit Authoring System, developed for MS-DOS computers in 1986, was one of the early prototypes. Teachers could edit graphics, develop tests, and control a limited number of features (History, n.d.). By the early 1990s, Summit included images, buttons, icons, tests with grading, internal hyperlinks, and 3D animation capabilities (Greenfield, 1993). Summit's marketing efforts were unfortunately too light, but the idea of specialized learning management systems on the computer opened new avenues for the course designer/instructor and the distance learner.

Then came the Internet.

The Computer Assisted Learning Center (CALC) in New Hampshire updated their computer learning processes with the QuantumLink telecommunications network in 1986, first offering non-credit courses for adults. Their virtual classroom included live class instruction and there were connections to tutoring services. CALCampus, as it became known, is considered the first to offer all services through the internet, yet still provided direct teacher-to-student contact (Morabito, n.d.). Quantum evolved into AOL by 1991, around the time that email was discovered by the public to be an easy, new method of communication (Rothman, 2015). Email provided yet another medium to assist in distance learning. 

In 1996, Jones International University was founded. While offices were located in Colorado, the course offerings were fully online, and Jones was the first to be fully accredited in delivering programs in this manner (Wright & Yates, 1999). The university ceased operations in 2015 but paved the way for other institutions to extend entire college programs to students completely online.

The next twenty years saw the addition of multimedia such as video, audio, and interactive modules; the use of discussion boards, "Web 2.0" collaborative tools, online testing, online libraries, and other technologies. At the same time, brick-and-mortar schools added online courses as options for their students and have been stepping up the inclusion of technology in their traditional classrooms, such as the use of smart boards, supplemental computer activities, and more. 

There are still more options.

The implementation of online learning varies. "Blended" learning (sometimes called "hybrid") is where part of a course is delivered in a traditional classroom and part is executed online. Declared as an innovative trend in the early years of this century, the convergence of teaching methods provides students with direct access to instructors, some flexibility in terms of time, pace, and place, and could incur a reduction in costs (Sleator, 2010).

An additional type of online learning is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), in which high-level courses are developed by professors and offered generously online. These classes use the Lancasterian model of teaching the "masses" while employing technological advances.

Stories of Three Generations

In 1934, Lillian of North Dakota was 13 years old. She had graduated from eighth grade, and like her older siblings, did not plan to go to high school. She recalled in a recent interview that it was likely her 8th grade teacher who suggested she could continue learning by taking correspondence courses, and so she signed up for a course in English. She had been a good student, but Czech was spoken in the home, a bit at school, and widely in the community. This class might provide extra practice in English, she thought. 

She is not sure today how long the course lasted but surmised it was only a few months. It was administered through the mail. Instructions were sent from Manning, North Dakota to her home in the western part of the state; she read books such as Daddy Long Legs, and then answered questions she had been given, which she then sent via mail back to the grader.  Her work was all hand written, and her only contact with the teacher was reading the grading comments received in return mail. 

Even at age 97 today, Lillian recalled the course with much enthusiasm. Asked if the course gave her a solid background in the language, Lillian said it really did not, but it became an impetus for later learning. It was "the germ in the brain that nagged; I didn't notice it until later" (Lillian, personal communication, August 1, 2018). By age 19, she finally enrolled in high school. A nursing degree and a bachelor's in history followed, notably with a minor in English.  

In the mid-1970s, Lillian's daughter Laura was enrolled as a bachelor's degree student at a major Midwestern university. Laura took an experimental general education course for the time: a social studies class completed on the computer. She recalled the inconvenient, scheduled time in a computer lab and the unfriendly nature of the machine, the simple light-color text loading one line at a time on a dark screen. After reading course content in a book, she was prompted to take a quiz. If she missed questions on the quiz, the computer told her to re-read the information and locked her out for a time; subsequently reopening for her to retake quiz. While she found this far too time-consuming, she did finish the course. Today, she occasionally takes personal interest courses online (Laura, personal communication, August 3, 2018).

Laura's daughter Tracy encountered online courses while working on a certificate for bilingual interpreters in 2010. Now a physician, Tracy honed both Spanish and English medical terminology in classes at a community college in the eastern United States. The courses consisted of exercises (diagramming the body), discussions, and quizzes. In one of the classes, the discussions were highly structured, requiring a directed answer to the professor's questions plus three responses to classmates' posts. Discussions in the other class were free form, with questions both asked and answered by students and a specific number of posts required over the length of the term. She found this a flexible way to learn since she could still keep her full-time job. 

Another course in this program was executed as a hybrid with both classroom and online discussion boards. Tracy particularly liked that this class consisted of both native Spanish and native English speakers, and the discussions were designed to be highly interactive so that students clarified content for each other (Tracy, personal communication, August 2, 2018).

Through these three generations, the transformation from mail service to online and hybrid coursework is clear, with each individual's reason for learning satisfied outside of the traditional classroom.


The phenomenon of online learning can no longer be dismissed as a fad. The 2017 Distance Education Enrollment Report claims that 3.1 million students took an online course in 2015, and an additional 2.9 million received their college training entirely online; the numbers are growing at a fast pace (New Study, 2017). From the first instances of mail-delivered training to the addition of television, radio, and the telephone, and then to the technologies available through computers and the internet, distance courses today are not the same as what your grandmother experienced, but she helped to pave the path to today's online learning.


Computer-Based Training (CBT):  Any learning accomplished on the computer.

Learning Management System (LMS):   A software/database system for delivery of instruction and documentation of learning. An LMS may include the capability for testing, asynchronous discussion boards, and synchronous "webinars," and typically serves as a repository for reading assignments, uploading complete assignments, and inputting/reading quantitative and qualitative gradebook data. Examples of current Learning Management Systems include Blackboard, BrightSpace, eCollege, Moodle, Canvas, and others.


Beamish, A. (2006). Learning from work: Designing organizations for learning and communication.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bergmann, H. F. (2001). "The Silent University": The society to encourage studies at home, 1873-1897. The New England Quarterly, 74(3), 447. doi:10.2307/3185427

Casey, D. M. (2008). A journey to legitimacy: The historical development of distance education through technology. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 52(2), 45-51. 

Correspondence Courses: Announcement for 1939-40. (1939, December). University of Arizona Record, University Extension Division, XXXII(7). Retrieved from  

Greenfield, E. (1993). Multimedia authoring: Business tools help education. T H E Journal, 21(1), 10. 

History. (n.d.) Retrieved from Intersystem Concepts, Inc.:  

Luskin, B. J. (1976). Coastline Community College: A Dream with a Reality. Fountain Valley, CA: Coastline Community College.

Morabito, M. G. (n.d.). CALCampus: Origins. Retrieved from CalCampus:

New study: Over six million students now enrolled in distance education. (2017, May 2). Wellesley, MA: PR Newswire US.  Retrieved from  

Rothman, L. (2015, May 22). A brief guide to the tumultuous 30-year history of AOL. Retrieved from Time:

Sleator, R. D. (2010). The evolution of eLearning Background, blends and blackboard. Science Progress, 93(3), 319-334. doi:10.3184/003685010X12710124862922.  

Stevenson, W. I. (2015, March). MOOCs and Joseph Lancaster: Lessons from a two-hundred year precedent in mass learning on a global scale. Educational Studies In Japan: International Yearbook 9, 69-79. 

Wentworth, R. A., & Massachusetts State Dept. of Education, B. S. (1974). High School Guidance Counselors' Correspondence Course Manual: How to Use Correspondence Courses to Supplement High School Classes. Boston: Bureau of Adult Services.

Wooten, C. A. (2013). The mediation of literacy education and correspondence composition courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, 1912-1924. Composition Studies, 41(2), 40-57.

Wright, S. W. & Yates, E. L. (1999, May 31). Distance learning. Community College Week, 11(22), 6.


About the Author 

Tamara Fudge is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music, where she earned a bachelor's and two master's degrees. She subsequently earned a doctorate in music from Florida State University. As a lyric mezzo-soprano, she sang opera, oratorio, and in recital, preferring the latter and specializing for a while in music of the Americas. Her music compositions (mostly chamber music, songs, and choral pieces) have been heard on Public Radio, featured at a state choral convention, and performed at several colleges and universities. Fudge has taught over two dozen different courses at the college/university level in vocal and choral music, foreign language diction, vocal pedagogy, song and choral literature, opera techniques, theory and aural skills, and music composition and arranging.

Dr. Fudge's career then saw several changes. She survived a brief stint as an agent and registered representative for major insurance/investment companies, selling life and health insurance and variable products. Her writing was put to the test working as a weekend correspondent for seven years with the Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), writing articles that covered a myriad of topics including Civil War reenactments, small town festivals, symphony reviews, tractor shows, fundraising events, and other varied local topics. While still writing for the newspaper on the weekends, Fudge joined the staff at a local college to teach writing, critical thinking, culture and diversity, and communication classes.

Ultimately, a certificate in Web Development from Black Hawk College and an MSIT from Kaplan University led her to online teaching in the realm of Information Technology. Now teaching fully online for Purdue University Global, she has taught many courses for technology students, from first-term undergraduate experience to end-of-graduate-program courses. Web development, interface design, systems analysis and design, and communication and organizational skills are some of her teaching specialties. Fudge has received outstanding professor awards and won fellowships for innovation and teaching, and is a frequent collaborator, writer, and presenter

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