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Distance education: Re-imagining an Old Solution to a Modern Problem

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This post was written by Business Reference Librarian Nanette Gibbs.

George Hutton, Jr., working on his homemade electric plant after taking a correspondence course. Pie Town, NM. Lee Russell, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, 1940.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our daily lives in many ways, including in education, where we see a landscape vastly different from that of only a few months ago; a landscape in which educators are facing unique challenges in meeting the continued educational needs of both children and young adults, as well as the needs of those who are pursuing additional vocational training. In response, educators, who have had to adapt to this new environment with little notice, have rushed to embrace various types of distance education, ranging from hybrid models with offerings combining online learning and limited on-site instruction, to full time online instruction. This post touches briefly on the  history of distance education and points to how business marketing strategies are being employed to improve the likelihood of successful outcomes today.

Distance education has been available for many years. Indeed, in 1728, Caleb Phillips advertised a correspondence course for shorthand in the Boston Gazette.  The ad, as reprinted on page 279 of The New Educational Technologies and Learning,  read:

Persons in the country desirous to learn this art, may by having several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.

Portrait, full length, standing on rock on bank, with surveying instrument, facing right.

George Washington himself could be described as a distance learner. The inventory of books at George Washington’s Library at Mount Vernon lists over 900 books and more than 1200 other titles on a variety of topics to include agriculture and surveying.  Washington acquired many skills as a result of studying these books, to include measuring land and the rotation of crops.  He was able to identify these books by consulting catalogs of book dealers in both New York and Philadelphia and purchasing them.

The surveying books in Washington’s library were not unlike correspondence courses offered many years later. And, although modern surveyor’s tools, consisting of electronic mapping tools, are in sharp contrast to George Washington’s surveying compass, Jacob’s staff (similar to a tripod) and a set of chains and poles, individuals today can earn a  bachelor’s degree in surveying and mapping through online study.  In addition to successfully completing state licensing exams, the individual must demonstrate 4 years of related work experience.

The Ranch. (Seattle, Wash.), 15 Sept. 1903.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the growth of correspondence schools in the U.S., spurred by the training needs of industry, government, and the military.  One can find numerous advertisements in newspapers in the early 1900’s exhorting readers to enroll in correspondence school to learn a new skill or obtain a higher paying job, sometimes offering incentives such as a free typewriter to students enrolling for at least six months, not unlike offers one sees today of free laptops for enrollees in online learning programs.

Fast forward, and in recent years, we see online learning embedded in learning management systems that schools have subscribed to for enhanced learning and communications, as well as in programs offering full online college degrees and beyond.

That leads us to the question, do correspondence courses still exist?  The answer is ‘yes.’  There continue to be institutions that provide correspondence courses, issuing books and other supplementary paper-based materials to students, which are delivered via the U.S. Postal Service. This is particularly important for people who live in remote areas. In addition to the high school diploma, individuals can earn full degrees and can often take up to a year to finish a course.  Incarcerated individuals can also complete courses leading to an advanced degree. Many such institutions are fully accredited  and allow students to learn at their own pace.

In addition to paper-based distance education, technology now plays a large part in many distance education programs. Providing online education and the tools necessary for effective communication has become big business. Today,  companies eager to gain market share offer fully packaged online instruction for several institutions of higher learning.  This includes videos, guest speakers, supplementary materials, and a laptop. Marketers for fully online colleges and universities use various digital strategies including social media; however, more traditional marketing formats to include radio and TV advertising, continue to demonstrate impact with individuals who must find the information they need to get started by using a telephone and requesting that information be sent to them via the mail.

For additional information, you may also check in your local Library by searching:

W. A. Rockefeller, reading International Correspondence Course text book, 1919.

Correspondence schools and courses
Correspondence colleges
Correspondence study
Home education
Home study courses
“Teach yourself” courses
Technical education
Distance education
Distance education students
Home schooling



International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE)
This organization brings accessible, quality education to all through online, open and distance learning.

The United States Distance Learning Association
The United States Distance Learning Association was the first non-profit distance learning association in the United States.

Correspondence courses do still exist! If you want to find them just use an Internet browser and search correspondence courses.

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