Lessons from a Victorian MOOC

This article appeared in my Twitter feed last week, and I just got to read it today. And it knocked me out.

It is a story by Keith Brennan of a distance learning experience from the late 1800s called the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, which according to its Wikipedia page, was the first correspondence school in the United States,

The courses were open only to women and over the 24 years of its existence it served 7,086 students and had over 200 correspondent teachers.

How remarkable.

Also remarkable was its infrastructure. Managed by interactions through the US Postal Service, the Society allowed women, who were otherwise only infrequently allowed to have higher educational experiences, to study at that level at home. It presages 20th century efforts like the UK's Open University and Canada's Athabasca University.

It is a first of a kind. The network is spun from a drawing room in Boston where Anna Ticknor sits, and it unravels across the continent over the web of connections created by postal services, couriers and the expanding rail system that connect the country. A network of pigeonholes, postage stamps, and steel tracks.


(Founder)Ticknor built her Society over the railway, and the Postal System that relied on it. Letters, parcels, resources, curriculum, exams, essays, ideas, questions, feedback, all traversing the United States across a network of train tracks and postal depots which crisscrossed the nation, connecting town to town, person to person and learner to teacher. Postal sorters rather than SMTP. Train track rather than fibre optic. Good epistolary etiquette rather than TCP/IP protocols.

I am very interested in the types of environments that promote, support, and foster self-directed learning. I am trying to find out if any of the correspondence from the Society survives and is accessible. I think it would be fascinating to see those letters and the curricula.

Here we have a real, authentic example of personalized and self-directed learning -- without proprietary publishers (that means you, Pearson) and algorithms. Just real and extensive connections.

cover image by MEDIACRAT. Reused under CC BY-SA 3.0