The Birth of Distance Learning

Barry Lenson

My children, I want to tell you a story from the dawn of time. We are talking about a time when a computer was as big as an elephant, when the Internet did not exist and when a mouse was something you didn’t want in your kitchen.

Yet even in those days of bearskins and clubs, distance learning courses did exist, in the form of correspondence courses.  Whatever you wanted to learn, there was a course you could buy. New lessons would be delivered weekly by your smiling mail carrier. You would complete your assignments and send them back by mail. Eventually, a diploma would arrive.

Some classic correspondence courses  . . . 

The Famous Writers School claimed to teach people to become novelists. This school died a well-publicized death when a disgruntled former student sued, claiming that the course hadn’t taught her to make a fortune as a bestselling author.



Charles Atlas “turned weaklings into men” with his he-man  correspondence courses. His most famous ad showed a bully kicking sand into a weakling’s face on the beach – then showed the newly muscled weakling a few weeks later, punching the former bully on the chin. (Apparently such ads did not have to get approved by the legal department in those days.)

Jack LaLanne was another pioneer in the “buff you up by mail” game. Many of his ads showed muscular young men carrying bathing beauties around on their shoulders.  LaLanne is still in business, only today he teaches women to carry men around on their shoulders too.

The U.S. School of Music taught students to play musical instruments. This school is remembered today because it used one of the most successful advertisements in history, created by advertising pioneer John Caples: the famous “Whey Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano . . . But When I Started to Play!”

The Famous Artists School was sort of like the Famous Writers School, except that people learned how to draw ducks instead of how to write novels.  This enterprise made a lot of money for a number of years.

If you took all those courses, you became a piano-playing painter and novelist who didn’t take any crap from anybody.

So what were all these enterprises missing? Very simple answer. They were missing a delivery vehicle that was more efficient than the U.S. Mail. In other words, they were missing the Internet.

Now that we have computers, college degrees and all kinds of amazing things can be accomplished in distance learning courses. Maybe it’s time to rewrite the words of that famous ad . . .

“They all laughed when I sat down at the computer . . . but when I started to learn!”  

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