On October 20, 2017, I was invited to talk with the Penn State Outreach and Online Learning Advisory Board to celebrate the 125th anniversary of distance education at Penn State.
Below are my remarks.
I am delighted to be with you this morning to talk about Penn State’s pioneering role in distance education, from correspondence study at the end of the 19th century to the World Campus at the end of 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
Let’s begin by looking back. Distance education is nothing new. It dates back to at least 1833, when a Swedish newspaper promoted teaching “composition through the medium of the post.” In 1873, Anna Eliot Ticknor in Boston established the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, which attracted more than 10,000 students over 24 years. But distance education as a U.S. university program came in the 1890s.
As America entered the 1890s, we were at the height of the Industrial Revolution. New cities were burgeoning with industrial factories and with waves of immigrants who provided the manpower that our new industries required. It was a tumultuous time. One of the big questions was: would we be able to feed our rapidly growing and increasingly urban population? Our frontier closed officially in 1891. There was no new agricultural land to be had. We had to find ways to increase agricultural production, but we also had to make rural life attractive so that the children of farm families would stay on the farm and not be attracted by the increasingly electrified lights of the city.
In 1888, Theodore Roosevelt chaired a national Commission on Rural Life to look at this problem and find some solutions. One of the solutions was Rural Free Delivery. RFD helped build a bridge to farm families, reducing their sense of isolation. RFD was still an experiment in 1892 when Penn State launched its first distance education program: the Home Reading Program in Agriculture. The program offered low-cost correspondence courses in a range of agricultural production disciplines, along with courses designed to help families improve the quality of domestic life. Over the next century, College of Agricultural Sciences would continue to offer noncredit correspondence courses as part of Agricultural Extension. The founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream report that taking a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making from Penn State helped them decide to get into the ice cream business instead of the bagel business.
In the 1930s, Penn State launched a broader distance education program—Independent Study by Correspondence—that offered Penn State credit courses to adults around the world. The service began with courses from the College of Education that helped practicing teachers maintain their professional certification. A few years later, the College of the Liberal Arts began offering credit courses. These were the same courses taught on campus, but designed and supported so that students anywhere could enroll and study at their own pace, interacting with their instructor through written assignments. Eventually, Liberal Arts and the College of Health and Human Development began to offer associate degrees at a distance through correspondence. The program also offered some noncredit programs, including a longstanding program for union members involved in automatic sprinkler installation.
Correspondence instruction had some definite benefits for students. You could register and begin a course at any time, taking up to a year to complete the course. This made it especially convenient for the military, for workers who travelled from worksite to worksite, and for women trying to balance education with the responsibilities of parenting and home management, often on top of a job. We also served a large number of incarcerated individuals, giving them a chance to build a new life. We also had some celebrity students—the human cannonball from the Ringling Brothers circus comes to mind—and also a group of Saudi princesses who were otherwise not able to attend college.
Independent Learning, as it later came to be called, involved much more than simply preparing courses and grading papers. The department had to arrange for books, study guides, and other media to be delivered to students. It had to arrange for proctored exams. And, perhaps most importantly, it had to advise adults as they began and pursued their educations at a distance, often helping them overcome personal barriers to continuing their studies. The Student Services unit was a critical success factor for students and, thus, for the program itself. It was often the first stop when students visited campus for the first time.
Other state universities also invested in correspondence study. They came together through the National University Extension Association (now UPCEA—the University Professional and Continuing Education Association). Together, they launched a unified course catalog that was used by employers and the military to find courses for employees. They also shared course content, licensing the use of materials to each other to reduce the cost of course development. And, when out-of-state students needed to take a final exam, it was not unusual that a peer university in the student’s home state would proctor the exam.
Correspondence study also became an international phenomenon. In 1938, the International Council for Correspondence Study was founded in Canada. It thrives today as the International Council for Open and Distance Education, headquartered in Oslo, Norway. Penn State hosted ICDE’s fourth conference in 1953 and the 18th World Conference in 1997.
Media-Based Distance Education
The first half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of the Information Revolution. Rumor has it—I’ve not been able to document this—that Penn State was offerings courses via radio to students as far away as California in the 1920s, before the FCC limited the power of any one station. During World War II, C. Ray Carpenter at Penn State pioneered the use of film to train military personnel. After the war, as college enrollments began to swell due to the GI Bill and the need for more college-educated professionals in the post-war economy, Carpenter and his colleague Les Greenhill created the University Division of Instructional Services. UDIS brought together a variety of media services to support faculty teaching courses on-campus. This included photographic and graphic services, film production, a film library, and, most interestingly, a television studio and on-campus network that connected 24 classrooms with one-way video, two-way audio capability. This allowed faculty to teach more students than could be housed in a single classroom, in the days before the Forum Building. One faculty member—Dr. Ken Nelson—used the system to teach Accounting 101 for many years. UDIS prepared many faculty to make the transition to media-based delivery.
Of course, we should remember that these media services were focused on students here at University Park. One exception was a daily television program that was produced at UDIS studios in Sparks Building and transmitted via microwave to WTAJ-TV in Altoona. Then, in 1965, Penn State launched the nation’s 101st educational/public television station, WPSX-TV—now WPSU.
The sixties were, among other things, a time when education was a national concern. It was the post-Sputnik era, and national attention was on improving the quality of education from elementary school through university to keep America competitive. When the new station signed on the air on March 1, 1965, Marlowe Froke, the founding station manager, worked with school superintendents around the 29-county viewing area to organize the Allegheny Educational Broadcast Council. The AEBC was a membership organization of school districts that helped to select and to incorporate into local school classrooms instructional TV series that were broadcast every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The station acquired series from across the U.S. and Canada, and, with funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, also produced programs that were seen locally and statewide. One example is Investigative Science for Elementary Education, developed with Dr. Paul Welliver from the College of Education. ISEE helped elementary students to observe natural phenomena and understand the scientific principles around them. Perhaps the most popular K-12 instructional series was What’s in the News, a weekly current events series for grades 4-6. It was originally hosted by Stu Chamberlain, who went on to a career at ABC Radio in New York, and later by Katie O’Toole, who now serves as President of the Centre County Historical Society. Eventually, What’s in the News was picked up by PBS and seen in schools across the country.
WPSX also maintained a University of the Air service for adult students. It offered video-based college courses that combined weekly broadcasts with occasional class meetings at Penn State campuses around the viewing area—a model distance education model similar to the concept introduced in Great Britain’s Open University, which fostered a movement that had a longstanding impact on distance education internationally. We also broadcast a GED high school test preparation course called Your Future is Now.
The 1970s saw major developments in technology that eventually changed both the scope and the structure of Penn State’s distance education program.
It started with networked cable TV. In the mid-1970s, Penn State partnered with several cable television operators around the Commonwealth to create PENNARAMA, a 24-hour educational cable TV channel operated by WPSX and broadcast on a group of cable networks around the Commonwealth. PENNARAMA greatly increased the reach of media-based distance education well beyond central Pennsylvania and allowed the University to expand the number and variety of courses offered. In response, the responsibility for administering video courses moved to Independent Study by Correspondence, making the courses accessible to students in a wider geographic area.
The other part of the revolution was satellite. In the mid-seventies, the Appalachian Regional Commission funded the Appalachian Educational Satellite Program (AESP) that used an experimental ATS-6 satellite to deliver video-based courses to teachers, firefighters, and other professionals up and down the Appalachian mountain range. Penn State participated in that program, working through Intermediate Units and Penn State Commonwealth Campuses. Then, in 1978, PBS decided to distribute all of its national programming via satellite. PBS created the Adult Learning Service, which acquired courses from colleges and universities and licensed them to local institutions around the country through member PBS stations. Suddenly, not only could Penn State receive video courses from producers around the nation, but we could originate our own programs to PBS stations around the country and, through them, to other colleges and universities. PBS had created a national marketplace for distance education.
Several new national consortia grew around national satellite delivery:
· Community colleges formed the Telecourse People to market their video courses to other institutions around the country.
· AG*Sat, headquartered at the University of Nebraska, used satellite to allow Cooperative Extension offices nationally to share expertise.
· The International University Consortium, headquartered at the University of Maryland University College, adapted distance education courses from the British Open University and made them available to member institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere.
· NUTN—the National University Teleconference Network—headquartered at Oklahoma State University—took a somewhat different approach. It used the PBS satellite network to offer live video conferences to colleges and universities around the nation. Penn State’s first NUTN teleconference gave nuclear engineers around the country their first view of video from inside the Three-Mile Island core after the near-disaster there.
The College of Engineering used live satellite to deliver a graduate program in Noise Control Engineering to staff at companies in the northwest that were involved in naval submarine construction. Students would meet at receiving sites in the companies to watch live lectures, interacting with faculty via phone.
In 1980, Penn State re-structured its educational media resources. It combined the on-campus media services of UDIS with the distance education resources of Continuing Education and created the Division of Media and Learning Resources. This brought together Public Broadcasting and Independent Study by Correspondence (renamed Independent Learning) from Continuing Education, and Audio-Visual Services (including the Audio-Visual Library), Photo and Graphic Services from UDIS. It also included a new unit—the Department of Instructional Media—that integrated instructional video production for both on-campus and distance education, as well as programming for K-12 and adult distance education across all delivery systems. Instructional Media became Penn State’s link to national organizations like AESP, IUC, NUTN, the PBS Adult Learning Service, and others.
We also began to produce video courses for national distribution. I recall two courses in the Smeal College—one in business logistics, the other in accounting—along with a series of interdisciplinary courses in Science, Technology, and Society developed through a partnership with Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln University that explored topics like bio-ethics and the limits to resources.
By 1993, it was clear that distance education was emerging as a strategically important element of Outreach. The University created a Task Force on Distance Education to explore how best to position Penn State for innovation and growth. The Task Force recommended that the resources of Independent Learning and Instructional Media be combined into a new Department of Distance Education, led by an Associate Vice President for Distance Education.
At that time, a lot of attention and innovation focused on the use of interactive fiber-optic video networks to connect multiple sites with live video and audio. Videoconferencing over fiber optic phone lines was seen as the next frontier. The University had begun to work closely with the AT&T Foundation to explore how this new technology could best be incorporated into distance education.
With Foundation support, Penn State launched the Innovations in Distance Education project, which brought together a group of distance education leaders at land grant universities and historically black institutions to explore critical policy issues. The project resulted a set of guiding principles for faculty involved in developing courses and teaching online, and reports of three higher education policy symposia on administrative policy issues, the role of faculty, and student support. While the original technology context was interactive video, the policies and guidelines that resulted from this program were very helpful as the Information Revolution –and distance education—moved online.
The first web browser—Mosaic—was launched in 1993. Penn State had made great strides in educational computing on campus, but those innovations had not been extended to off-campus programs. However, when the College of Engineering and Public Media collaborated on a distance education program to prepare recent alums to take the professional engineering certification exam, they approached the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for funds to build in a computer component—an online test simulation to give students the experience with the professional engineering exam. It was an important first step. Within a few years, the Worldwide Web—powered by Mosaic and other web browsers—would change everything, just as satellite changed broadcasting. And our relationship with the Sloan Foundation would be critical to our ability to lead in this new environment.
In the spring of 1996, President Spanier returned from a conference at the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE), where he had learned of plans to create a new distance education university—Western Governors University—based in online technology. He called a small group into his office. His feeling was that we had two options in the face of the coming online revolution: (1) embrace online learning as the new platform for distance education or (2) get out of the field altogether, as online would, he felt, overshadow other legacy approaches. He asked Jim Ryan and me to develop a discussion paper on the idea of an online “World Campus” and in September announced plans to pursue that idea. He then appointed a “study team” of leaders whose areas would be affected to work together to come up with a vision, mission, and business plan. Meanwhile, we met with leadership in each college to identify degree programs that might lend themselves to online distance delivery. The study team report was presented to the Faculty Senate early in 1997.
Meanwhile, we had been working with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on several smaller projects—including transforming the Noise Control Engineering program from satellite to online. Sloan also gave us a small grant to do preliminary market research on ideas suggested by the colleges. By summer of 1997, they granted us $1.3 million to get started. The World Campus went live in January 1998 with the first courses in five programs, enrolling 48 students that first semester.
The World Campus continued to grow over the next two decades and is now well-established in an increasingly competitive environment. Penn State has emerged as a national leader. Penn State was a charter member when the Sloan Foundation created the Sloan Consortium—now the Online Learning Consortium—to share lessons among the institutions that it funded. In 2007, the World Campus and the Consortium launched the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning—IELOL—a leadership program that has provided professional development for more than 300 leaders from around the country and beyond. For the last ten years, it has been led by Dr. Larry Ragan, who initially led the instructional design function for the World Campus.
Just as the Industrial Revolution was in full flower when we launched correspondence study, today, the Information Revolution is in full blossom. The World Campus will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Twenty years. That’s about the same time as elapsed between when we first started using satellite and when we launched our online campus. We should expect the technology to continue to change. We should also expect the social need for distance education to continue to evolve.
Twenty years ago, the adult student population consisted mainly of baby boomers. This year, the last of the millennials—people born in 1999—entered college. Their older generation mates are now our adult students. They have very different skills, interests, and attitudes about technology and that will also change how we serve them at a distance. They also have much stronger need for access to lifelong learning. They also grew up with social media and will assume that this should be part of their educational environment.
It is hard to predict what may come next, but I think it is safe to say that society will continue to be shaped by technology and international communications and that the need for lifelong professional education and research and technology transfer will bring distance education further into the mainstream and multiply the ways we use technology to engage learners and communities on many fronts. I know Penn State is actively exploring that future and look forward to the next generation of innovation.