You’ve Got Mail: Old models of learning are new again

Isaac PitmanImage via WikipediaDespite the growth of broad-band internet and the increases of online learning, the correspondence model of distance education is still going. According to Wikipedia, distance education dates to around 1728 when an advertisement in the Boston Gazette announced that “Caleb Philips, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand” would offer weekly lessons through the mail. The University of London claims to be the first university to offers degrees via correspondence through its External Programme in 1858. Shorthand was widely used for hundreds of years before recording technologies like the dictaphone took over. We are looking at the correspondence model of education now because we are looking at ways to deliver learning to deployed military, students who live in areas with little technological infrastructure, and prisons. We know the correspondence model works because there are many colleges that use the method and many of us have taken courses that relied on the mail before the internet came along. CSU, Dominguez Hills for instance, had most of its course in their external humanities degree as correspondence until very recently. According to the Bi-Annual Report on Distance Learning, teleconferencing make up 1% of all DE courses in California and correspondence is 2%. Palo Verde College, Lassen College, and Feather River College all still use the correspondence model (mostly for prisoners). Sacramento State University, Montana State University, the University of Florida, and Michigan State all have water management programs that are still available via the correspondence model.

And there is no reason why the courses shouldn’t work. At their best, correspondence courses can be just as effective as face-to-face tutorials with a professor. A search at No Significant Difference shows that their earliest citations are studies that show that there was no significant difference in test scores between face-to-face and correspondence students (search “correspondence” at the site).

My questions though are along these lines: is it possible to introduce a group project in the correspondence model? What about a correspondence-hybrid model where the students use a Google Voice number to create a weekly conference call? This would not require access to the internet except to set up the initial phone number. In California, the community college instructors have free access to the state-licensed Elluminate Live which would allow them to set up an on-going conference call for the semester. This would not work for students in some prison settings, but there has to be a way to write these questions so they could be used by individuals or small groups. An individual with no access to a phone can write out answers to questions and an instructor could collate the collective answers of the class and distribute them back. It is possible that students in the same prison could start a “reading group” for the course. Each one of these scenarios would require a particular set of questions.

If you or your institution has used or is using the correspondence model, leave a comment below or email me – I would love to talk to you about your courses.

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