Before the Web: the Dawn of Distance Education

Before the Web: the Dawn of Distance Education

We tend to think of online education as a modern phenomenon—one that’s directly tied to today’s technology-based world. (And one which offers a range of benefits—some unexpected, as Art LaMan observed here.) But online education is just the latest form of distance education, a phenomenon that actually dates back to long before personal computers and mobile devices became staples of our everyday lives.

President Garfield envisioned a little red schoolbench.

President Garfield envisioned a little red schoolbench.

Before his election as President in 1880, James Garfield described the perfect educational system as (to paraphrase) a good teacher on one end of a “simple bench” and a student on the other. As straightforward as this sounds, the realities then—as now—made a one-to-one teacher/student ratio totally unrealistic. In an increasingly industrial world, students wanted more flexible educational options that allowed them to both hold a job and study at home during their free time. Distance education emerged in the late 19th century as an answer to this demand.

Anna Eliot Ticknor, in a picture taken before the invention of cheese.

Anna Eliot Ticknor: Early advocate for keeping women’s education where it belongs: in the home.

Probably the first form of distance education was the correspondence course. Self-motivated students taking courses by mail could, in theory, work days and study at night. Among the earliest correspondence programs in the United States was one created by Anna Eliot Ticknor of Boston. Her Society to Encourage Studies at Home, founded in 1873, offered access to education to a previously underserved population: women. Although a few other reputable universities began offering correspondence courses like hers, most failed to attract and retain students (a problem with which modern universities and colleges are all too familiar).

Would you buy a degree from this man?

Would you buy a degree from this man?

From the start, correspondence programs faced a number of obstacles. Most significantly, dropout rates were high. “The different reasons hypothesized to account for low completion rates,” wrote Angelina T. and S.C.P. Wong in a 1979 article, “are the lack of sufficient discipline to assign time for regular study, the loss of interest and discouragement resulting from slow feedback of instructors’ grading of assignments.” One of the largest for-profit correspondence programs, the International Correspondence Schools (founded in 1890 and still in business), saw as many as 97 out of every 100 students drop out.

Yet correspondence courses persisted into the mid-20th century, mostly because there were few other distance-education alternatives. For years, the back pages of comic books were littered with ads for correspondence courses, strategically placed among come-ons for other products like Charles Atlas body building programs and learn-to-draw ads. Many people assumed they were all scams.

But there was obviously enough demand to justify running those ads. Unfortunately, students who completed correspondence programs soon discovered another problem: They had made little progress toward the employment advancement they sought. What’s more, if they later applied to a traditional college program, few if any accredited institutions would accept transfer credit from a correspondence course.

Clearly, new innovations were needed to bring students and teachers closer together, even if not as close as Garfield’s “simple bench” ideal. Advances in electronic media attempted to answer the call. Radio, television and movies made great strides in bringing information to the masses, mostly without the use of professional instructors.

Pledges of $100 or more will receive this classic. And, of course, the tote bag.

Pledges of $100 or more will not only receive the tote bag, but also this classic.

A few attempts were made to use these media outlets for traditional student-teacher models, especially on public radio and television stations. During the 1970s, the renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein presented a complete series of televised Harvard lectures on public television. Again, however, there was no student-teacher interaction (a refrain we still hear from some quarters today, as we try to sort out how best to get students and teachers together in the online learning space)—other than Lenny’s own dynamic personality radiating through the tube. These lectures, still available for purchase or on YouTube, provide great background, enrichment and insight into the language of music, but you won’t receive Harvard college credit for watching them.

And no matter how long you sit on one end of the bench, you won’t find Leonard Bernstein sitting on the other.

I hope you’ll join me for the next installment of this historical survey. Watch for more posts in the upcoming weeks about how distance learning changed and grew into what it is today.


1728 Caleb Phillips offers to teach Short Hand via mail.

1858 University of London launches External Programme of correspondence courses.

1873 Anna Eliot Ticknor founds Society to Encourage Studies at Home for women.

1890 International Correspondence Schools opens in Scranton, Pa.

1898 Northeastern University begins night school as an alternative mode of continuing education.

1938 International Conference for Correspondence Education meets for first time.

1948 FCC endorses “College by Radio” program of the University of Louisville and NBC.

1964 University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Charles Wedemeyer institutes Articulated Instruction Media Project.

About Rudy VanVeghten

Rudy VanVeghten worked for a quarter century as editor of the Meredith (NH) News. He currently works for the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. He is a regular contributor to de Halve Maen, a historical journal focused on "illuminating the Dutch contribution to American history."

One comment

  1. Great post I never knew online existed way back in the 19th century. I would have been skeptical myself when enrolling in an online institution via the back of a comics magazine. But I have a better understanding of how online education started.

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