THE CORRESPONDENCE COURSE GOES ONLINE
Comeback of an education racket
The world's bigger universities are now developing
distance education through the internet, on the basis
of its effectiveness as a learning tool. But
correspondence instruction, already discredited at
the start of the 20th century, is also a lucrative
by DAVID F. NOBLE
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" -
With the arrival of the internet, distance learning has become hugely popular.
Universities see it as the marketplace of the 21st century and are investing a
great deal of energy in online services, especially in the United States. But do
those who are promoting this transformation in higher education know the less
than glorious record of their precursors?
Correspondence instruction began as a commercial enterprise before taking
hold in academia (1). Thomas J. Foster established one of the earliest private,
for-profit correspondence schools in Pennsylvania in the late 1880s to
provide vocational training in mining, mine safety, drafting and metalworking.
He then founded the International Correspondence Schools, which became
one of the largest and most enduring firms in this burgeoning industry. In 1924
these commercial enterprises, aimed at people who needed professional
qualifications in commerce and industry, boasted an enrolment four times that
of all the colleges, universities, and professional schools combined. By 1926
there were over 300 such schools in the US, with an annual income of over
In their promotional material, the firms claimed that they offered personalised
instruction for busy people, that "the student has the individual attention of the
teacher [and] works at his own tempo set by himself and not fixed by the
average capacities of a large number of students studying simultaneously. He
can begin when he likes, study at any hours convenient to him, and finish as
soon as he is able."
In all the firms the priority was enrolment and most of the revenues were
expended in promotion rather than instruction. Typically between 50% and
80% of tuition fees went into direct mail campaigns, magazine and newspaper
advertisements, and the training and support of a sales staff paid according to
the number of enrolments they secured. "The most intensive work of all the
schools is, in fact, devoted to developing the sales force," observed a 1926
Carnegie Corporation-sponsored study of correspondence schools written
when the correspondence movement was at its peak (2).
The pursuit of profit tended inescapably to subvert the noble intentions - or
pretensions - of the enterprise, in what had become a highly competitive (and
totally unregulated) field. The students enrolled were required to pay the full
tuition fee, or a substantial part of it, up-front and most of the firms had a
no-refund policy. Yet roughly 90% of the students failed to complete their
course of study (3).
The remarkably high drop-out rate was not an accident. It reflected not only
the shameless methods of recruitment but also the shoddy quality of what was
on offer. For the actual "delivery" of courses - the correction of lessons and
grading exams - most firms relied upon a "sub-professional" workforce of
"readers" who worked part-time and were paid on a piecework basis per
lesson or exam.
These people often worked under sweatshop conditions. They had to deliver
a high volume of lessons to make a living and could therefore not manage
much by way of pedagogical performance. Such conditions were far from
conducive to the careful, individualised instruction promised in the companies'
All of this made perfect economic sense, however. It was summed up in
correspondence industry jargon in the phrase "drop-out money": once
students dropped out there was no further expense and what remained of the
upfront payment was pure profit.
The economics of this cynical education system meant there was no incentive
to try to keep students on by improving the quality of course offerings. In fact
the reverse was true: recruitment rather than instruction remained the goal.
The evolution of correspondence instruction in the universities closely
paralleled that of the commercial schools. It began in earnest in the 1890s,
and by the 1910s and 1920s it had become a craze comparable with today's
passion for online distance education. Following the lead of the University of
Chicago, other institutions joined in, notably the state universities of
Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, Texas, Missouri,
Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California. By 1919, when Columbia
University launched its home study programme, there were already 73
colleges and universities offering instruction by correspondence.
Emphasising the democratisation of education and hoping to tap into the
lucrative market exploited by their commercial rivals, the universities echoed
the sales pitch of the private schools. Hervey F. Mallory, head of the
University of Chicago Home Study Department, declared that "In the
crowded classroom of the ordinary American university it is impossible to
treat students as individuals, overcome peer pressure for conformity,
encourage students who are shy, slow, intimidated by a class setting". Home
study, by contrast, "takes into account individual differences in learning".
In short, correspondence education was seen as more than just an extension
of traditional education. It was an enhancement - a means of instruction less
costly and of higher quality - that signalled a revolution in higher education.
Although they were not per se for-profit organisations, the correspondence
programmes of the universities were self-supporting, and therefore profit
played its part. It was initially assumed that this new form of instruction would
be of greater economic value than traditional classroom-based teaching, but
its pioneers soon discovered that correspondence instruction was far more
costly to operate than they had imagined - primarily because of the overheads
entailed in administration. Almost from the outset, therefore, they found
themselves caught up in much the same game as their commercial rivals:
devising promotional schemes to boost enrolment in order to offset growing
administrative costs; reducing their course preparation and revision expenses
by standardising their repertory and relying on "canned courses"; and above
all keeping remuneration to a minimum by using casual employment and
paying by piece rate.
Before long, with a degraded product and a dropout rate almost comparable
to that of the commercial firms, they, too, had come to depend for their
survival on "drop-out money." At the end of the 1920s the university-based
programmes began to come under the kind of scrutiny and scathing criticism
hitherto reserved for the commercial schools. Abraham Flexner, one of the
nation's most distinguished and influential observers of higher education,
excoriated the American universities for their commercial preoccupations, for
having compromised their independence and integrity, and for having thus
abandoned their unique and essential social function of disinterested critical
and creative inquiry. The rush to cash in on marketable courses and the
enthusiasm for correspondence instruction, Flexner argued, "show the
confusion in our colleges of education with training. The universities have
thoughtlessly and excessively catered to fleeting, transient, and immediate
demands" and have "needlessly cheapened, vulgarised, and mechanised
themselves," reducing themselves to "the level of the vendors of patent
Likewise, he bemoaned as "scandalous" the fact that "the prestige of the
University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle well-meaning but
untrained persons … by means of extravagant and misleading
advertisements". He assailed the "administrative usurpation of professorial
functions" and declared that "the American professoriate is a proletariat".
Flexner's critique of correspondence education, which gained widespread
media attention, sent shockwaves through academia, prompting internal
efforts to raise standards and curtail excessive and misleading advertising. At
Columbia, the blow was eventually fatal to the correspondence programme.
Rebirth of a 'revolution'
Thirty years later the General Accounting Office was warning Vietnam
veterans not to waste their federal funds on correspondence courses.
Subsequent investigations (5) and efforts at reform and regulation invariably
failed to change the picture, even though correspondence programmes
adopted the latest media of delivery, including film, telephone, radio,
audio-tapes, and television. Universities continued to offer correspondence
instruction, of course, but the efforts were much more modest in their claims
and ambitions. Poor cousins of classroom instruction, they were for the most
part confined to institutionally separate and self-supporting extensions and
carefully cordoned off from the campus proper, presumably to spare the core
institution the expense, the commercial contamination and the criticism.
Like their forebears, today's proponents of distance education believe they
are leading a revolution that will transform the educational landscape. Fixated
on technology and the future, they are unencumbered by the sober lessons of
this cautionary tale. If anything, the commercial element in distance education
is this time even stronger. For now, instead of trying to distance themselves
from their commercial rivals, the universities are eagerly joining forces with
them, lending their brand names to profit-making enterprise in exchange for a
piece of the action.
Four institutions prominent in the correspondence movement are at it again.
The University of Wisconsin has a deal with Lotus/IBM and other private
contractors, the University of California has contracts with America Online
and Onlinelearning.net and the University of Chicago and Columbia are
among the most enterprising participants in the new distance education gold
rush. The new game is less about generating revenues from student fees than
about reaping a harvest from financial speculation in the education industry
through stock options and initial public offerings.
Columbia signed an agreement with Unext, a distance education start-up,
allowing it to use the school's logo in return for a share in the business. "I was
less interested in the income stream than in the capitalisation. The huge upside
essentially is the value of the equity in the IPO," explained Columbia's
business school dean, Meyer Feldberg (6). "I don't see a downside," he
added, betraying an innocence of Columbia's history that would make Flexner
roll over in his grave.
Last but not least, Columbia has now become party to an agreement with yet
another company which intends to peddle its core arts and science courses.
Columbia will develop courses and lend its brand name to the company's
product line in return for royalties and stock options. According to one
source, the company has already been busy recruiting faculty to the enterprise
as course developers and has suggested the possibility of using professional
actors to deliver them.
For the time being, however, until the actors arrive, the bulk of
university-based online distance education courses are being delivered by
poorly paid and overworked low status instructors, working on a per-course
basis without benefits or job security and being coerced to assign their rights
to their course materials to their employer as a condition of employment. In
short, the imperatives of commodity production are again in full force, shaping
the working conditions of instructors until they are replaced once and for all
by machines, scriptwriters and actors.
There are differences between the current rage for online distance education
and the earlier debacle of correspondence distance education. First, although
they began to take hold in extension divisions, commercial online initiatives
have already begun to penetrate deep into the heart of the university. Second,
if the overheads for correspondence courses were high, the infrastructural
expenses of online courses are higher still. Most notably, while
correspondence programmes were often aimed at a broad market, most of
their efforts remained regional. The ambitious reach of today's distance
educators, however, is global in scale, which is why the World Trade
Organisation is currently at work trying to remove all barriers to international
trade in educational commodities. Sometimes tragedy follows farce.
* Historian and professor at York University, Toronto, and author of The
Religion of Technology, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997. This article is
part of the "Digital Diploma Mills" series available online at
1.The historical account of the university experience is based upon
hitherto unexamined archival records of four of the leading institutions
engaged in correspondence instruction: Columbia University and the
Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, and California (Berkeley).
2.John Noffsinger, Correspondence Schools, MacMillan Company,
New York, 1926.
3.Noffsinger's survey of 75 correspondence schools, op. cit., shows that
only 2.6% of the enrolled students completed the courses they had
4.Abraham Flexner, Universities. American, English, German,
Oxford University Press, New York, 1930.
5.Notably the Carnegie Corporation-funded study by the Research
Project on Correspondence Education, 1968.
6.The Wall Street Journal, New York, 2 April 1999.