We Are ... wherever you are: Penn State marks 125 years of distance learning

Mike Dawson
December 11, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In 1892, for the first time, Penn State offered a way for people to learn without coming to the campus in State College. While students were being taught by Penn State’s faculty in the classrooms of buildings such as Old Engineering and Old Botany, so were farmers in rural Pennsylvania and across the country, thanks to the U.S. mail.

More than a century later, students from around the world have access to a Penn State education. People from South Korea, Brazil, Spain and dozens of other countries use computers and the internet to access their course work online, through Penn State World Campus.

While the way the University has delivered education at a distance has changed drastically since 1892, Penn State’s commitment to providing access to higher education remains as strong as ever.

What started with correspondence courses for farmers 125 years ago evolved over the years alongside the latest advances in communications technology. Here is a look at some of the historical highlights.

Correspondence courses

In the late 19th century, the United States was teeming with industrial might. Cities burgeoned with new manufacturing plants; immigrants streamed in from Europe looking for new opportunities. However, life in rural areas was hard and isolating, and farmers had to travel to the nearest towns to get their mail at a post office.

One way the country’s leaders hoped to improve rural life for this population was by having the mail delivered, at no cost, to their homes. The Rural Free Delivery program was in its experimental phase when, in 1892, Penn State began offering non-credit agricultural courses.

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Penn State published catalogs of its correspondence course offerings. These documents are now located in the archives of Penn State’s Special Collections Library.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives / Mike Dawson

The first courses were in plant life, farm drainage, breeds of horses and propagation of plants — topics of interest to these student-farmers, who would receive the course materials through the mail.

Within two years, the popularity of the program was evident — 339 men and women in 25 states and Ontario, Canada, had enrolled. Within five years, the rigor increased, as quizzes were included.

Eventually the coursework expanded from just agricultural topics. In 1922, one of the first home economics courses was offered — in home furnishings.

Thousands of people would go on to take these courses. By the end of the 1920s, 38,000 people had taken at least one course via correspondence at Penn State. In 1963, there were 200,000, and in 1977, the total number of enrollees, since the program’s inception, topped 400,000.

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This report from 1974-1975 shows the number of correspondence courses in agriculture that were offered. The course in home vegetable gardening was sold to 1,805 students.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives / Mike Dawson

Among the most notable alumni are the founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, who spent $5 in 1978 to take the short course on ice cream-making by correspondence.

While Penn State’s history in distance education began in the College of Agricultural Sciences, other colleges had their own offerings as well. In the College of Health and Human Development, Sara Parks pioneered Penn State’s first distance-education degree program, aimed at working food-service professionals. In addition, the College of Engineering offered a nationwide correspondence training program for people who installed automatic-sprinkler fire-control systems.

Radio and television

The development of broadcasting technology paved the way for Penn State to expand distance learning, starting in the 1920s, when the University opened a high-power radio station to offer live radio courses to students as far away as California.

In the 1950s, amid growing student numbers, Penn State installed a live instructional television system connecting 24 classrooms with a studio that allowed for a one-way video feed and two-way audio transmission of courses on campus. The system was used to deliver courses in accounting, engineering and other disciplines, into the 1980s.

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Television was used to broadcast courses. This photo from the 1950s shows the production for a course offered in the College of Home Economics.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives / Mike Dawson

In 1965, another milestone occurred when Penn State launched WPSX-TV, which reached about 250,000 students in 22 Pennsylvania counties and produced for-credit courses, working with teachers to create instructional programs. The station became WPSU-TV in 2005, part of WPSU Penn State, which also includes an FM radio station and digital platform.

In the late 1970s, WPSX-TV joined with other cable TV operators to establish PENNARAMA, a 24-hour cable channel available across the Commonwealth that also offered for-credit courses. The system evolved into the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN).

Around the same time, Penn State took advantage of satellite technology and installed its first downlink so it could receive signals. By 1987, access to satellite technology had expanded — the campuses were equipped with downlinks, and the University Park campus with an uplink, to send signals. In the early 1990s, the College of Agricultural Sciences delivered live workshops and other media through a satellite network for farmers, child-care providers and others at Penn State Extension’s 67 county offices.

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Penn State offered an art history course broadcast through WPSX. This photo shows the broadcast schedule in April 1968.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives / Mike Dawson

The Internet

Penn State was one of the earliest adopters of online learning when, in 1998, it launched Penn State World Campus, utilizing the latest distance-education technology — the internet.

At the beginning of World Campus’ first semester that January, there were 44 students, four educational programs and plans to increase both figures over time.

The courses were designed so that students, no matter how far they were from State College, could get a Penn State education as long as they had a computer and internet access. They took quizzes and exams online, participated in discussion forums and used email to communicate with their instructors and advisers. Online learning gave students the flexibility to complete their course work when it was convenient for them — in the evenings, on weekends or whenever they had time.

World Campus administrators leveraged already existing distance-education programs and reputable programs taught at the University Park campus. Among the first offerings was a certificate in noise-control engineering, or acoustics, designed for employees at companies involved in the development of submarine technology. Another of the first online programs was an undergraduate certificate in turfgrass management.

As the late 1990s turned into the early 2000s, World Campus added more programs in the sciences, business, education, engineering, homeland security, liberal arts and more. The number of students increased, too, as more people discovered the convenience of learning online. Some of these students were adults getting a college degree for the first time; others were looking to finish the degree they started on a campus years before. Still others wanted to advance their careers with a master’s degree, or sought personal fulfillment by learning something new.

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The College of Agriculture celebrated 80 years of distance education in 1972. These negatives of the celebration are found in the Penn State Special Collections Library.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives / Mike Dawson

More recently, World Campus marked several milestones for Penn State’s storied distance-education history. It opened its first doctoral degree program, in nursing; and U.S. News and World Report ranked Penn State World Campus as the No. 1 provider of online bachelor degrees in the country. In 2018, World Campus will turn 20.

Today — 125 years after the birth of distance education at Penn State — there are more than 14,000 distance learners taking courses online through World Campus in more than 150 degree and certificate programs.

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    This document, in the Penn State Special Collections Library, shows a list of correspondence courses offered by the College of Agricultural Sciences starting in 1892.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives / Mike Dawson

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Last Updated December 14, 2017