As we proudly ring in the 60th Anniversary of Distance Learning at UBC in the 2009/2010 academic year, we recognize that we must reflect upon the past to see how far we have come.
Learning at a Distance in Canada
Educational institutions offering distance learning as an alternative form to traditional methods of education originated from the educational needs of populations living far from urban centres. In Canada, Queens University offered its first correspondence courses in 1889 and overcame geographical challenges by employing the North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to deliver material for these courses, in regions without access to the postal service (1999 Open Learning and Distance Learning in Canada Report)1. Author and professor of distance and independent learning, Charles Wedemeyer, stated, “Education should be accessible anywhere there are potential students even if there is just one and even if there is not a teacher in the same place as that student.”2 With the 1908 University Act formally establishing The University of British Columbia, UBC recognized and met the need for accessible education early on, providing learning opportunities and access for students throughout British Columbia as early as 1918.
Distance Learning at UBC: Origins
Distance education is actually a relatively new term; early in UBC’s history, the activities were referred to as extension to describe extending learning opportunities to those outside the campus walls. In the years before the establishment of the Department of University Extension (1936), UBC’s original provider of distance education, the University was engaged in three main extension activities. These included the provision of vocational courses for returning World War I soldiers (1917-1921) and the dissemination of agricultural information to the farmers of British Columbia through short courses. The third activity involved the Extension Lectures Committee (1918-35) which co-ordinated lectures by University faculty throughout the province.3
In 1936 the Department of University Extension was founded after a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York as a means to “improve [the university’s] public relations by offering lectures to the people of the province” (Interview notes with Dean Angus, 1956).4 The Department of University Extension oversaw a number of new and old programs that provided access to education for interested mature students throughout BC. These included: summer school of the Arts, non-credit correspondence (Directed Reading), extra mural (offered outside of regular hours, like at night and during the summer), short courses on and off campus, and conferences and lectures. As stated in a 1955 letter between University Extension staff member Gordon Selman and Col. Logan, “extension started [at UBC] with agriculture…men were brought in who carried science to the farms of the province.”5 This was the beginning of distance courses in which University Extension staff and educators were sent out to smaller urban and rural areas of the province. Other topics delivered via distance education in the late 1930’s included sewing, dairy herding, tractor operation and maintenance, lino block printing, weaving, fibre technology, and art (UBC Presidents Report, 1947).6 The programs initially offered via the Department of University Extension were quite different from the academic credit courses offered today, but they enabled practical engagement between UBC and remote communities across the province.
Another milestone to shape the evolution of extension activities occurred in 1942. The introduction of the rural film circuits by UBC Extension, in co-operation with the National Film Board, was the first introduction of technology as a means to increase access and educational opportunities to people in rural BC communities. Together the National Film Board and UBC operated 5 film circuits in the outlying areas of the province. “Each month travelling projectionists [would] go on tour to those towns and communities in northern BC, Okanagan, East Kootenays, West Kootenays, and the lower mainland and Vancouver Island which are not supplied by a regular theatre service. Approximately 100 communities and 100 schools [were] covered each month” (G.M Shrum personal notes, 1946).7 Distance education had a very different look in the beginning, indeed.
The collaboration resulted in film services being provided by the Department of University Extension’s film library which offered rental options for course videos ranging from $0.25 to $2.00! Similarly, the department provided a Phonograph Record Loan Service where for only $3.00 a year a student could take out two LP’s or 7 standard discs at one time. Distance education used a number of modes to reach students throughout the province; “by using motion picture film, phonograph recordings, the radio and the correspondence method of instruction, we have been able to place the educational facilities of the Extension Department within the reach of all” (G.M Shrum announcement, 1943).8 Originally employed to assist students taking non-credit courses, these resources crossed over for use in the credit courses, once they were established. In the following decade, the advent of television dramatically changed the way distance education was delivered. This technological advancement provided additional methods of delivering education at a distance such as televised courses and video cassettes.9
It was not until 1948 when the Director of Extension, Dr. G.M. Shrum, appealed to President Norman MacKenzie to establish correspondence courses for-credit, recognizing a need expressed by students as early as 1921. There were a large number of enquiries regarding alternative types of educational activities, for-credit, beyond the directed reading courses provided at the time. Students were facing obligations that limited their ability to attend traditional on-campus courses, like geographical isolation, health issues, and family demands.
“In addition to the extremely varied services already offered by the Department there is an increasing demand for extra-mural courses which would carry credits towards a university degree. It appears advisable to consider the possibility of providing correspondence courses for-credit in selected subjects, and of establishing certain evening courses and short courses on a regular basis of credits.”
-Dr. G.M. Shrum (UBC Presidents Report, 1948)10
Approval was granted by President MacKenzie and the birth of distance education credit courses at UBC resulted in the offering of three correspondence courses in the Faculty of Arts during that academic year. On Oct 1, 1949 English 200: Survey of English Literature; Psychology 300: Psychology of Childhood and Adolescence, and History 304: Medieval Europe 500-1300 AD were launched. The 1949-50 Department of University Extension Annual Report reveals that 268 students jumped at this opportunity of education at a distance by enrolling in these three unique courses. At just $75.00 a course, plus $10.00 to cover the cost of exams, wouldn’t you? With this initial success of credit courses, three additional distance courses were approved and incorporated the following year. These three Arts courses were Philosophy 100: Problems of Philosophy, Economics 325: Labour Economics and Labour Problems, and Geography 409: Geography of North America.
The First Few Years of Correspondence Courses For-Credit
The first decade of for-credit distance courses was an exciting time with many new initiatives and programs that shaped the future of distance education at UBC. In 1954, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Department of University Extension, the BC Parent-Teacher Federation, and the Community Arts Council of Greater Vancouver collaborated on the first television workshop. The theme ‘the effects of TV on modern life’ was so successful that a second workshop was designed addressing ‘the audience.’ Interesting statistics were shared by Dr J.R. Kidd, Director of Canadian Association for Adult Education, one of which included that fact that 70-80% of Canadians were within range of a television in 1954.11
The Department of University Extension recognized more than 60 years ago the potential of technology for enhancing teaching and education environments. For example, the department spearheaded the first ever introduction program on the operation and use of digital computers in December of 1956. The Alwac II-E digital computer was used for class demonstration and practice, and later made available for rent.12
The success of for-credit distance education courses was evident right away. The average registration for non-credit Directed Reading after 1935 reached a maximum of 234 students in 1946-47. In comparison, the incorporation of for-credit correspondence courses saw an average of 241 students in its first 5 years alone, with a slow but steady rise from there on. The growing interest for these courses culminated with 1030 registrations in the first decade. This reflects the strong support of the distance programs by the student population. UBC’s contribution to the intellectual life of the province and elsewhere – over and above the traditional on-campus credit programs – was recognized 60 years ago and continues to do so today.
Stay tuned for the second instalment of the “Celebrating 60 years of Distance Learning” article series to learn about the middle years of UBC’s distance learning program.
Do you want a visual representation of the history of distance learning at UBC? Go to the Distance Learning website for more information.
**Extensive information was obtained from UBC Presidents Reports (1947-1955), Department of University Extension Annual Reports (1949-1952), promotional materials, inter-departmental correspondence, and personal notes of individuals.
1Canadian Association for Distance Education. (1999). “Open Learning and Distance Education in Canada.” Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/hip/lld/olt/skills_development/oltresearch/cadeapec_e.pdf
2George Lorenzo. (2004). “Distance Education in Canada.” Educational Pathways, 3(7).
3UBC Archives. (1986) “Department of University Extension Fonds – 1918-1969.”
4Dean Angus. (1956) “Interview notes.”
5Gordon Selman. (1955) Correspondence between himself and Col. Logan.
6The University of British Columbia. (1947) “Presidents Report.”
7G.M Shrum. (1946) Personal Notes.
8G.M Shrum. (1943) Announcement.
9A.W Bates. (2000). “Distance Education in Dual Mode Higher Education Institutions: Challenges And Changes.” SOFF.
10The University of British Columbia. (1948) “Presidents Report.”
11Department of University Extension. 1956. “Information Booklet: The University Serves Your Community.”
12Department of University Extension. 1956. “Information Booklet: The University Serves Your Community.”