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

Web Accessibility Course Recap Part 3

I’m happy to continue sharing information from a course I recently completed: Introduction to Web Accessibility. The course focused on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and it’s four main principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. My last post focused on Perceivable and Operable; this post will focus on Understandable and Robust.

Understandable can sometimes be thought of in terms of readability. Acronyms, abbreviations, complex terms – words that aren’t immediately recognized – can be more difficult for general audiences, so making sure there’s an easy way to find definition helps users.

For ideal accessibility, aim for a 9th grade reading level. If readers are more advanced, it’s especially easy for them to read through material, and the material will still be accessible for less advanced readers.

This goal does present a difficulty while working in academia, and a reminder that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for accessibility. After all, we’re teaching material at a 13-16th grade level. As an idea: while we will likely use terms that are beyond a 9th grade reading level, we can work on making sure students can easily find definitions for such vocabulary.

The last section, Robust, was admittedly geared more towards the technical, designed for programmers, IT personnel, etc. Robust web design will work for a wide variety of users on a wide variety of platforms. As instructors, we might not be able to design a web page that’s robust, but we can certainly advocate for it when we design online courses.

You can review the robustness/validity of a website with the following tool:

Any thoughts on accessibility with your courses, perhaps as it relates to understandable or robust or in more general terms? We’d love to hear your ideas, questions, concerns, etc.

You can read Parts 1 and 2 of the course recap at the following links:

Web Accessibility Course Recap

Web Accessibility Course Recap Part 2

Open Education Resources tipping point article

The article below shares some exciting information about open educational resources (OER’s). These sources, which some teachers use instead of requiring students to purchase textbooks, are free for students and can be edited/adapted by instructors to meet the needs of their courses. The article uses Michigan’s Lansing Community College as an example; within a few years, what started as five faculty members incorporating OER’s turned into seventy-five faculty, saving students an estimated $1.6 million.

OER is at a tipping point. Here’s how to keep it moving in the right direction.

Two Independent Learning courses, German for Reading Knowledge and Legendary Performers use open educational resources (links are included below).

A Foundation Course in Reading German

About this Book

Learn the Legends

Welcome to Legendary Performers

Book Review: Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone

You’ve likely seen a few posts about the book discussion with the Association for Distance Education and Independent Learning (ADEIL) and Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education by Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling. If you haven’t yet read the book, it’s an excellent read on how everyone benefits when you make courses more accessible, not just people with disabilities (who are often thought of with topics of accessibility). A few key takeaways for designing and teaching courses include: what parts of your course are students not understanding? What do students keep having trouble with or need clarification? Identify those parts of your course. You can also create a “media path,” where you find supplemental media to further illustrate those key concepts that students struggle with.

The book often refers to plus-one changes. With accessibility, we don’t start with overhauling the entire structure. Rather, we find trouble spots and think of another way to present information. If you find a section of your course where students keep having trouble, find one alternative way to present the information. You can even adapt a plus-one change to your assessments. Perhaps instead of writing a final paper, a student might have the option to share what they’ve learned by making a video or website.

The book also outlines ambitious plans on how to create a team to make increased accessibility a priority for an entire campus.

Something to ponder from the book: people of all ages are increasingly using mobile devices to learn, and they’ll often use these mobile devices for just a few minutes at a time for “small, snackable pieces of content and interactions,” perhaps while waiting in line. How can we develop course content that makes the best use of those few minutes when a learner checks their phone?

ADEIL recently interviewed Thomas Tobin about the book, and you can view the interview here:

Teaching Soft Skills Course Recap

Erin Paul-Schuetter took a course on soft skills, and she’s shared a summary of her experience below. What are some ways you might be able to incorporate these ideas – critical thinking, communication, self-motivated learning and teamwork – in your own courses? Thanks, Erin, for sharing what you learned!

Summary of Soft Skills Course

This past fall I took Matthew Hora’s online course, Teaching Soft Skills in College Courses Certificate. My motivation for enrolling in the DCS course was both intrinsic and extrinsic; as an educator hoping to stay current with the needs of 21st century students, I wanted to learn ways to incorporate these skills into the Spanish language and literature courses I teach for Independent Learning. I believed that doing this would, in turn, help me be prepared for upcoming course revisions by incorporating the skills that many employers are asking for today. This course helped me reach those goals and exceeded them in many respects as well. What follows is a brief summary of the course from my perspective as a student and a testimonial of my experience. I hope this will prompt you to think a bit more about where these skills can fit into your classes.

As the course summary states (you can find it  here), this online certificate provides research, theory and frameworks to introduce each of the four “soft” skills: critical thinking, communication, self-motivated learning and teamwork. The readings, video lectures and web resources helped establish a base of knowledge that could be used to provide a rationale for why a particular skill is practiced in the course. Furthermore, the practical suggestions given in the course materials could easily be incorporated into a classroom activity, syllabus, or lesson plan. I can’t stress the practical nature of the course enough; we were encouraged to take what we had learned from the assigned texts and course lectures and videos and apply it to the curricular artifact we had chosen to revise to incorporate at least one or more of the soft skills.

For the final project I chose to revise the syllabus for an existing Spanish literature survey course I teach online. I wanted to overhaul the course objectives so that my students would see the practical and real-world skills they could develop and hone within the context of studying Spanish literature, even if this is a course they take as a degree requirement. In the end I came up with a set of course objectives that focus in on the skills employers are searching for in today’s global economy: critical thinking, communication, and self-motivated learning. (Teamwork was something I had to leave out since my course is asynchronous with students having six months to complete the requirements at their own pace.) In the process I came up with some activities to practice these skills that I intend to use in this class and others: mini check-ins scattered throughout the course that give students the space to monitor their progress and think about how they can actively work toward achieving their personal learning goals (self-motivated learning), a step-by-step guide to identifying the reliability of an online or print source (critical thinking), and practice revising one’s work in a foreign language (communication).

Regardless of the discipline, the practical knowledge gained from this course can help reinvigorate any course with a focus on 21st century skills.  

Student Submissions in Canvas and Speedgrader

Greetings, IL Instructors! We hope teaching in Canvas goes well. Something that was recently discovered regarding student assignment submission and Speedgrader: if students use the “textbox” to submit their assignment instead of uploading a document file, we will not be able to grade the assignment with Speedgrader.

You might wish to indicate in your New Student Welcome E-mails that assignments must be saved as documents and then uploaded. If Speedgrader isn’t working, then have the student resubmit the assignment as a document upload.

Much thanks to Jen for discovering this! And please let us know if you have questions or make similar discoveries with Canvas!

Book Review: Copyright Ninja: Rise of the Ninja

Copyright can be a dry subject, but author Thomas Tobin and a team of artists have created a comic book that explains – with clear language, striking visuals, and fun – some do’s and don’ts of copyright law within academia. At 14 pages, it’s a quick read, and there’s a handy one-page summary for someone wondering whether or not they can use copyrighted material in their class. A few takeaways:

Copyright law doesn’t prohibit linking to copyrighted material (for example, something posted to YouTube). However, for ethical reasons, we should avoid linking to online material that we think might have broken copyright law.

Many owners of content give permission for others to copy, share, or recreate their content. See if there’s a Creative Commons license agreement, or something similar, to check if you can copy it.

Fair Use is a legal defense that, while not concrete, offers some guidelines:
Purpose: Are you copying something for teaching or research, or for monetary gain?
Amount: Are you including a sample or the entirety of a work?
Nature of the work: Factual information is generally more shareable than creative works.
Economic impact: If you include this content in your course, will the copyright owner potentially lose income?

If you still aren’t sure, you might even be able to contact the copyright owner and ask him or her for permission to copy their work for your course.

Web Accessibility Course Recap Part 2

I recently shared an overview of a course I recently completed: Introduction to Web Accessibility. The course focused on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and it’s four main principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. This post will focus on Perceivable and Operable.

Perceivable relates to how users can sense or grasp the material that is being presented. For web content to be accessible, it must be able to be perceived through more than one sense; if it’s only perceptible by one sense (for example, sight), it’s inaccessible to someone with disabilities in that sense.

Vision impairments present probably the greatest challenge for web accessibility, and screen readers can help blind and low-vision users access the internet. To experience internet browsing with a screen reader, you can try out a free Chrome browser screen reader here:

You can help make online materials more perceivable by avoiding small font sizes, making sure there is sufficient visual contrast between text and background imagery, including alternate text with images (the screen reader reads to the user the alternate text to convey the picture), including captions for videos, and presenting material in a clear, easy to navigate order.

You can test color contrasts at this link:

You can use this site to create captions for videos:

Operable focuses on usability. Some users are physically unable to use both a keyboard and a mouse, but they might be proficient with one or the other. As instructors, we might not have the capabilities or access to design an online environment that isn’t dependent upon a mouse or keyboard, but we can certainly provide input during the course creation process to ensure that it’s usable for as many people as possible.

It’s worth noting that time limits can make the online environment less operable. Some people with disabilities might need more time to perceive, process, or comprehend material; this can also apply to people as they age. Do any of your courses use timed quizzes? As you design your courses, think about time limits. Why might your course need them? Why might your course not need them? Some assessments by their very nature require time limits (for example, tests that measure typing speed), but removing time limits will make your course more operable, and therefore more accessible.

When incorporating visuals or media, avoid flashes, flickers, or other visuals that can trigger seizures or physical reactions; a website isn’t operable if it’s causing physical harm.

Any thoughts on accessibility with your courses, particularly in how to make them perceivable or operable? We’d love to hear your ideas, questions, concerns, etc.

Good Practice Reminder: Archiving from D2L

I hope the transition from D2L to Canvas has gone as smoothly as possible for you. As a reminder, when we eventually lose access to D2L, we’ll also lose access to our old courses. Our current courses were migrated into Canvas, but if there are any learning materials in older versions of your courses or in courses that are no longer offered and still in your D2L account, now is a great time to go through and archive those items: essay questions, an insightful discussion post, study notes, supplementary resources, etc.

The D2L/Canvas migration timeline was scheduled so that students in D2L could complete their courses in D2L; when we receive a specific time as to when D2L will disappear, we will update you.

Web Accessibility Course Recap

I had the opportunity last month to complete a course from Ryerson University: Introduction to Web Accessibility. I’d like to share some ideas and tools from the course. People often think of accessibility in terms of helping people with disabilities, or something that’s done as a legal obligation or for good business practices, but it’s worth noting that increasing accessibility benefits everyone. For example, curb cuts – those ramps leading from streets to sidewalks – make it possible for people in wheelchairs to safely cross the street, but everyone benefits from those. It’s now easier to ride my bike, pull my kids in a wagon, etc.

The course focused on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and it’s four main principles: 

Perceivable: Can users perceive or sense what is being presented?
Operable: Is this usable?
Understandable: Can users comprehend how this works?
Robust: Will this work for a wide variety of users and assistive technologies?

I’ll be posting more about each of these principles in the near future. If you’d like more information, see the link below. It contains guidelines and techniques for each of the above principles.

The are three different levels associated with each guideline: A, AA, and AAA.
Level A guidelines focus on preventing barriers that will make content inaccessible to some people. These must be addressed.
Level AA guidelines focus on preventing barriers that will make content more difficult to access. These should be addressed to prevent unnecessary, additional effort. 
Level AAA guidelines focus on usability. These could be addressed to increase usability. 

Generally, Level AA is the recommended level to strive for when developing online environments.
More information about the course can be found here: