A History of Correspondence Course Programs

As part of the DCS IL Orientation, Irena Frączek recently put together an excellent history of Correspondence Courses throughout the centuries. This was done as the WebQuest assignment, so going through this can also give you an example on how to put together a web-based research activity.

Thanks for sharing, Irena! It’s interesting to read about the earlier versions of what we do!

Irena Frączek
DCS Independent Learning Instructor Orientation
Unit 2 WebQuest

Activity A: Historical Correspondence Course Programs

Which of these programs is oldest?

The first known reference to correspondence courses dates back to 1728, when Caleb Phillips placed an advertisement in the Boston Gazette seeking students eager to learn shorthand through weekly mailed lessons. How successful was his endeavor is never mentioned but all sources are unanimous in assertion that in 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman developed the first ever correspondence course in Great Britain. By some strange coincidence it was also a shorthand course, but the long time lag between these two events is somewhat puzzling. Nobody followed in Phillips’ tracks for 116 years?

Interestingly enough, Boston became a site of the first in the United States correspondence school that opened in 1873. Funded by Anna Eliot Ticknor, a pioneer of distance education in our country, the school was called the Boston Society to Encourage Studies at Home and offered higher education (exclusively) to women. On the other hand, the Colliery Engineer School of Mines (currently called the ICS Learn, International Correspondence Schools) established in Scranton (PA) in 1889 targeted primarily men, focusing on technical and practical education.

The idea of distance education caught on also in academia and Polish universities were among the pioneers. Thus, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków opened in 1776 the correspondence courses program designed to teach crafts to workers, while the University of Warsaw ran a correspondence course in physics for general public in 1779. It took, however, almost 80 years later that programs offering correspondence courses on regular bases were set up in various European universities. The first among them was the External Programme in the University of London (1858), famous also for being the first one to offer diplomas and degrees.

In the United States, the Chautauqua Correspondence College was founded in 1881 and authorized to grant diplomas and degrees in 1883. Its founder, William Rainey Harper, established a similar program at the University of Chicago, where he became the president in 1891. In the same year, the University of Wisconsin created three new extension programs with one of them offering the correspondence courses taught by the existing UW faculty. This program was the early version of the UW Independent Learning.

What inspired the creation of the program(s)?
Inspiration for some of these pioneering programs is hard to establish, and for others it is easier to talk about motivation rather than inspiration. For example, Isaac Pitman used correspondence courses as means for promoting the shorthand system he devised. He also took advantage of the newly introduced uniform postal delivery rate that made sending course materials back and forth affordable. For the founder of Colliery Engineer School of Mines, Thomas J. Foster, the aim was to help workers pass safety tests designed to reduce the frequency of mine accidents. For Anna Eliot Ticknor, the inspiration appears to be taken from the similar correspondence school (English Society for the Encouragement of Home Study) existing already in England. And for all programs established at universities, the inspiration was to make college level education available to people who, for various reasons, could not attend the campus based classes in person.

What was the mission of the program?
The missions statements are not available for all the programs discussed but here is a sample of what’s available: The Boston Society to Encourage Studies at Home aspired to induce in students a habit of every day, systematic study. On the other hand, the mission of the Colliery Engineer School of Mines was to provide technical and practical knowledge to working people (mostly immigrant coal miners).’ The correspondence programs at the universities follow the idea of “extended campus” and support lifelong education.

Is the program still in operation today?
For the most part, the programs in question either functioned for a long time and/or are still in operation. The Boston Society to Encourage Studies at Home had the shortest run (24 years) as it had voluntarily dissolved after the death of Anna Eliot Ticknor. The for-profit Colliery Engineer School of Mines has split in two branches of which one has moved to Great Britain (ITS Learn), and another changed the profile to adopting to the changing job market. The University of London International Programme (new name for the External Programme) continues to flourish but the IL program is now getting nixed.

Selected Resources:
“Education for Success”: The International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania”. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. CXX (4 (October 1996)).


Kubiak, M.J . (2017): Wirtualna edukacja po polsku (Virtual Education in Polish)

PANDA Timeline of Distance Education

Richard (2009): The Pitman Dynasty. Isaac, Benn, Jacob and James Pitman.

The History Of Distance Learning


& relevant WIKIPEDIA entries

Leave a Reply