“Haven’t we said this before?” A blast from the past about correspondence courses, fwiw

For some reason while I was at the gym this morning (maybe because it’s been a while since I had time to go to the gym, maybe because of other things I was reading, maybe because all this MOOC and other online education stuff has been on my mind), I thought about a minor project/presentation I gave back in 2001 at the Midwest Modern Language conference as part of a “special section” for computers and writing.  The talk was called “‘Haven’t we said this before?’ What the History of Correspondence Courses Teach Us About the Promises and Problems of Online Distance Education Courses.”  In brief, the talk (and I include it all after the jump for anyone interested) was my response to David Noble’s critique in Digital Diploma Mills and also an article in Mother Jones highly critical of online education.

Much of my argument– which was meant to suggest that correspondence courses way back when weren’t great but they weren’t horrible either–  was based on my reading of a 1938 University of Michigan MA thesis by Anthony Matulis about U of M’s correspondence study programs way back when.  I still remember that project, looking through very old and largely abandoned texts about correspondence schools.  It was kind of fun work; I might try to go back to it.

Anyway, I thought I’d share it here, for what it’s worth.  I think the analogy between classes by mail and online classes is still relevant, and I think it might be useful for some of these “MOOCs are going to save and/or transform higher ed as we know it” to recall that people said the same thing about correspondence courses 100-some-odd years ago.

“Haven’t we said this before?”  What the History of Correspondence Courses Teach Us About the Promises and Problems of Online Distance Education Courses

Steven D. Krause, Eastern Michigan University

The research I’ll be talking about this afternoon, which is about the use of correspondence study in the early part of the 20th century and what it might have to do with today’s online distance ed courses,  is part of a larger, ongoing research project into the history of technological innovation in the teaching of writing, innovations before computers.  I’ve been doing this research for a couple of years now, I suppose because I personally find this stuff is interesting in an odd way, and because I believe the cliched maxim that there is much to learn about the future from the past.

Our field/subdiscipline/whatever you want to call this thing we call “computers and writing” lacks any real sense of history, certainly one that could potentially teach us something constructive about our future.  The closest work we have to a “history” is the Hawisher et al book Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History.  I think this is an excellent book, but it unproblematically names the computer as the beginning of technological innovation in the teaching of writing, and 1979, the year that Hugh Burns wrote the first dissertation that directly discussed the use of computers in the teaching of writing, as the beginning of this history.  There have been a lot of other technologies that have been introduced into the writing classroom which have both lead to computers and which tell us something about the likely future success or failure of computers to become universally accepted as a teaching tool.

It seems to me that the most successful teaching technologies, particularly when it comes to the teaching of writing, are also the most unseen.  We don’t generally think of chalkboards and pens as “technologies,” at least in the way we think of computers as technology, largely because the chalkboard and the pen have been wildly successful instructional tools which subsequently have been “naturalized” and become invisible in classrooms, as if they have always been there.

Some communication technologies—like the telephone or the radio, for instance—never were successfully implemented into teaching on a large scale, and some other technologies—like correspondence and distance education—seem to exist in a sort of “in-between” zone.  On the one hand, they are technologies that were or are accepted and, in some ways, successfully employed in teaching; but on the other hand, they didn’t or haven’t quite “catch on” or achieved the “invisible status” of some other instructional technologies, this despite the inevitable hype of being the next “great thing.”

I became specifically interested in this comparison between online distance ed courses and correspondence study as the result of a February 2001 Mother Jones article by Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn called “Digital Diplomas.”  Most of what Press and Washburn discuss here is familiar territory for those with even a passing interested in online education.  They acknowledge the role such classes might have and the ways in which technology can enhance higher education, but Press and Washburn worry about the issues of labor, the encroachment of “big business” onto college classrooms, the further division of “haves” and “have nots,” and so forth.  It’s an accessible and interesting read, though one that both glosses over the advantages of online classes and exaggerates the disadvantages.

What I found most interesting in this article was the comparison between correspondence courses of the early 20th century and today’s distance education courses.  Press and Washburn summarize the objections raised by David Noble, a historian at York University and a well-known critic of online courses.  Do a search on the web for “Digital Diploma Mills” and you will find many references to his work published on the web, quoted in various newspapers and periodicals (besides Mother Jones) and so forth.  In fact, Noble has a book called Digital Diploma Mills coming out next month, which is presumably a print version of the many online texts published under that title already available.

Noble is rabidly against the distance education courses delivered over the Internet for a variety of reasons, notably because he argues that we saw a similar model and “the same fervor now shown for online education… bestowed on correspondence courses delivered through the mail” (Press and Washburn 39).  To quote from the Noble’s web-based essay “Digital Diploma Mills, Part IV: Rehearsal for the Revolution:”

In essence, the current mania for distance education is about the commodification of higher education, of which computer technology is merely the latest medium, and it is, in reality, more a rerun than a revolution, bearing striking resemblance to a past today’s enthusiasts barely know about or care to acknowledge, an earlier episode in the commodification of higher education known as correspondence instruction, or, more quaintly, home study.

I’ll return to what I think Noble means by “education” a bit later, but by “commodification” of education, he is talking about the notion of turning the educational experience into a discrete product that can be packaged as content—things like syallabi, lectures, exams, and so forth.  Noble points out that “As anyone familiar with higher education knows, these common instruments of instruction barely reflect what actually takes place in the educational experience, and lend an illusion of order and predictability to what is, at best, an essentially unscripted and undetermined process.”  This was the problem with correspondence schools 100 years ago, Noble argues, and it is the problem with distance education classes today.

In his web-based essay, Noble provides a history of correspondence study that depicts it as corrupt from the start, a simple exercise in private sector greed which universities soon bought into as well.  His focus is on correspondence study programs at the University of Chicago, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia, though he extrapolates his findings to all correspondence study programs.  At all of these schools, there were wildly enthusiastic claims about the successful future of correspondence study.  To quote from the Mother Jones essay:  “William Rainey Harper, a distance education pioneer who would go on to serve as president of the University of Chicago, predicted in 1885 that ‘the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges’” (Press and Washburn 39).  While classes were initially taught by regular faculty, according to Noble, and while the admission standards were at first similar to that of more conventional colleges, soon these classes were being taught by underpaid part-timers and grad students and these programs were letting in just about anyone.

Noble argues that these correspondence study programs began with the intention of offering “academic and cultural fare under the auspices of the academic departments,” but that this changed at these schools as the pressure to make money became more acute.  By the 1920s, these enterprises were coming under attack as pedagogically bankrupt and vulgar.  In particular, Noble talks about a 1933 book called University Teaching by Mail written by Walton Bittner and Hervey Mallory, which, while largely an endorsement of correspondence study, also points out the problems of for profit correspondence study programs creating unrealistic expectations in potential students to merely take their money.  Further, the “superiority” of correspondence study that was suggested by Rainey and others earlier is refuted by Bittner and Mallory.  As quoted by Noble:  “No reputable proponent of home study seriously suggests that correspondence teaching should replace classroom instruction” and “Correspondence study is not advocated as a substitute for campus study, but is established as a supplement with peculiar merits and demerits.”

In short, Noble argues we’ve seen this all before, it turned out badly with correspondence study 100 years ago, and we have no reason to believe it will turn out better this time around.

Now, when I first read Noble’s claims in Mother Jones, I found myself agreeing completely.  However, after doing some of my own research on correspondence courses, I began to wonder if the question I ask in the title of this presentation, “Haven’t we said this before?” was rhetorical or not.  So, have we said this all before, really?  Never mind the very real question about the comparison between “snail mail” courses based on very different very different sense of pedagogy versus even the simplest online course involving the web or email, and informed by contemporary theories—let’s just assume that the comparison between the two is relevant.  Were correspondence study programs really as bad as Noble claims?  Right now, I need to defer to Professor Noble’s judgements about these matters since he has certainly done a lot more research and thinking on the subject than I have to date.  But I have to say that my own answer to these questions are quite a bit more mixed.

Were the correspondence programs maintained by traditional universities as interested in profit as the private correspondence schools?  From what I’ve been able to discover so far, this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not as completely as Noble claims. One of the more interesting documents I’ve come across in my research is a 1938 MA thesis by Anthony Matulis titled “A Study of The Supervised College Correspondence Study Department as Sponsored by the Extension Division of the University of Michigan.”   As the title suggests, Matulis’ thesis is about the correspondence study program at the University of Michigan in the mid 1930s.  This wasn’t a “for profit” enterprise, at least when Matulis was doing his research; rather, it was essentially a depression-era welfare program sponsored by the federal government through the Works Progress Administration and through the state of Michigan through something called the Emergency Education Program.  These assistance programs paid for mailing costs, tuition for students and pay for instructors.  Quite literally, both students and teachers needed to demonstrate dramatic financial hardship to qualify for this program.  I don’t mean to suggest that there was no desire on the part of the University of Michigan for their correspondence study to be self-supporting because Matulis implies this was the long-term goal; but it clearly wasn’t the primary goal of this particular correspondence study program.

Along these lines, to what extent were the educational goals of university sponsored correspondence courses similar to those of for-profit correspondence schools?  Matulis makes it clear that there wasn’t much comparison between the two. In his introductory chapter, Matulis distinguishes between the “154 institutions of higher learning” that offered courses similar to what students would take in college, and the 498 private correspondence schools that offered courses that are “largely vocational, for job improvement” (1).  Incidentally, just to give an idea about one of the significant differences between the size of correspondence study at universities compared to for profit correspondence schools:  in 1928, there were about 45,000 students enrolled in university sponsored correspondence classes; in that same year, there were about 1.5 million students enrolled in private schools (1).

What about the claim that the courses at most universities moved away from what Noble called “academic and cultural fare under the auspices of the academic departments?” Perhaps this was the case, but I can’t find any evidence that this meant “academic and cultural fare” was abandoned.  Bittner and Mallory’s University Teaching By Mail includes descriptions of the courses offered at a variety of different universities that sound pretty much what you would expect at a university:  courses in English, foreign languages, history, education, biology, and so forth.  The courses that Matulis describes as being offered through the University of Michigan correspondence program included English literature, writing classes, creative writing classes, math, Latin, and other foreign languages and Matulis makes it clear that these courses were primarily under the control of academic departments.

What about Noble’s claim that correspondence courses ended up being taught not by regular faculty but by part-timers, grad students, and the like?  This was the case with the University of Michigan program, though it was that way by design.  I don’t have time to go into the details here, but according to Matulis, faculty wrote and designed the courses, but the teachers who taught the courses or who also ran various study centers around the state were graduate students or on temporary contracts.  Certainly this was not an ideal situation, though I have to say that if Professor Noble thinks this situation was deplorable, I suggest he wander into the English department of most large universities in the U.S. and Canada and investigate who is teaching first year composition courses.

I could go on here and I am looking forward to continuing this research, but I think you get the idea.  Like I said before, I have to defer to Professor Noble’s research since it is more complete than mine, but I think we are looking at similar materials and reaching different conclusions.  One thing that might account for our different perspectives is Noble’s definition of “education” and the purpose of both correspondence and distance education courses.  Noble attempts to define education more or less as the opposite of “training,” suggesting that education is a process that necessarily involves the development of self-knowledge through interactions with others, while training is knowledge that is a set of skills designed to be put to use.  This sounds a lot like the false division between philosophy and rhetoric to me.  But beyond that, it also seems like Noble is setting a rather high bar for what is to be considered “education,” a bar that makes it easy to describe things like correspondence or online courses and lots of other things as “training” and not “education.”

Clearly one student’s “education” is another student’s “training,” which is perhaps another way to get to a key question about correspondence and distance education courses:  Why did and do students take these courses in the first place?  Curiously absent from Noble’s analysis of correspondence courses or online courses is any concern about students and the particular needs they might have, needs that were and are quite a bit different from traditional “brick and mortar” students.  To the extent that he talks about students at all, Noble portrays them as being easily duped by the correspondence school’s marketing schemes.

I think this is unfortunate because it seems to me that one of the most important similarities between correspondence courses then and distance education classes now are the types of students who take these courses.  For lack of a better way of putting it, these were not and still are not “traditional students,” and there’s a long history of educational enterprises designed to reach the “non-traditional” student.  Credit granting correspondence study in the U.S. was preceded by the Chittaqua movement and by the late 19th century interests in home study.  Were these folks what Noble would think of as “students” trying to gain an “education?”  Noble wants to dwell on the ridiculously optomistic claims about correspondence study offered by the likes of William Rainey Harper, but what about the more realistic goals described by Matulis?  As Matulis wrote after describing the demographics of students in the University of Michigan program, “No statistical tables could be formed to show the mental satisfaction received by tired housewives to whom the study of the vastness of history opened new doors, by shut-ins who reached beyond their beds through facile pens, or by factory workers who had new vistas stretched before them by means of their readings in sociology or political science” (65).

Like I said, I don’t want to give the idea that I completely disagree with Noble.  I think he’s right to be worried about the role of big business in distance education, and I also agree that the early hyperbolic claims about online classes are awfully similar to those early claims about correspondence courses.  And I also agree with Noble that we can learn a lot about the future of just about anything by closely examining its history.  But it seems to me that if we think about the future of distance ed classes in more modest terms—that is, as courses that don’t replace traditional schooling but supplement it and that meet the needs of non-traditional students—then the modest successes of correspondence study suggests a lot of promise.

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