A hundred years ago, higher education seemed on the verge of a technological revolution. The spread of a powerful new communication network–the modern postal system–had made it possible for universities to distribute their lessons beyond the bounds of their campuses. Anyone with a mailbox could enroll in a class. Frederick Jackson Turner, the famed University of Wisconsin historian, wrote that the “machinery” of distance learning would carry “irrigating streams of education into the arid regions” of the country. Sensing a historic opportunity to reach new students and garner new revenues, schools rushed to set up correspondence divisions. By the 1920s, postal courses had become a full-blown mania. Four times as many people were taking them as were enrolled in all the nation’s colleges and universities combined.
The hopes for this early form of distance learning went well beyond broader access. Many educators believed that correspondence courses would be better than traditional on-campus instruction because assignments and assessments could be tailored specifically to each student. The University of Chicago’s Home-Study Department, one of the nation’s largest, told prospective enrollees that they would “receive individual personal attention,” delivered “according to any personal schedule and in any place where postal service is available.” The department’s director claimed that correspondence study offered students an intimate “tutorial relationship” that “takes into account individual differences in learning.” The education, he said, would prove superior to that delivered in “the crowded classroom of the ordinary American University.”