The Victorian MOOC

It is 1873. Something unique is about to happen.

A steam-train gathers speed in the background. Carriages on cobbled streets. In a dark room children sleep. In another room, a man reads a newspaper. In the kitchen a woman sits. She takes out a notebook, envelope, stamp and a package of brown paper containing a book and and a letter. She saves the string and paper from the package in a kitchen drawer and opens the book with bright eyes and begins to read. The book is “Epochs of Modern History” by Edward E. Morris.

Another woman sits, alone, in a quiet small schoolhouse. She picks out a pocketbook, pen and a newly delivered parcel with a sheaf of papers, and a book and sits down to read. There is a letter. It contains detailed feedback on last month’s math problems.

A black woman sits at a table in Louisiana. She speaks French to two children going out the door. She tidies the kitchen table, clears dishes and bread. She takes out a notebook and a pen and sits at the cleared table. There is a package that she opens with a letter and a book on Art History. There are photographs and engravings too. The letter contains an exam, with a specified duration, and instructions not to open it until she has time to complete it.

Another woman opens a book at a table where a maid lays out lunch. On the table are posters for Universal Suffrage and public sanitation programs. There is fine china and charity at the table. She sits at a drawing room table and opens a package. There is a letter, from Ellen Swallow Richards. It says, please find enclosed your first book as part of the Sanitation Science course from the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. It introduces the instructor who sent the book, and asks about the student. Has she ever studied before? Is she new to the subject? Doe she work?

We are in Boston in the 1870s. It is not a woman’s world. Harvard is closed to women. Louisiana State. George Washington University. Roanoke. NYU. All closed to women. The list of institutions that refuse women is extensive, exhaustive, exhausting. And yet women, in pursuit of education, opportunity and knowledge sit in drawing rooms, kitchens, porches, and schoolhouses across the continent, opening packages from the same organisation: The Society to Encourage Studies at Home. The packages are filled with books and papers; there are letters crowded with answers, questions, feedback, criticism, resources, learning and encouragement posted from over 200 volunteer Society teachers — almost exclusively women.

The Society to Encourage Studies at Home is a 19th century network of women who connect across the continent over the postal system. Women may be significantly disbarred from third level education, but they are not disbarred from organising, networking, connecting and educating. And this is what they do. They organise and educate one another. They organise departments, schools, libraries, curriculum, instruction and education. An institution. On a massive scale. They reach out to ten thousand students over twenty-four years. It is a massively open postal university.

It is a revolution in Victorian education. 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.

This is the story of how Anna Ticknor in her fiftieth year, and over two hundred women volunteers, leveraged the postal service — the most advanced, accessible and democratising information technology of their day — to provide support, education, opportunity, and resources to women regardless of race, location, class, or financial disposition. Women who were actively, explicitly, and implicitly excluded from education. It’s the story of an edtech revolution that came to be called the “Silent University” — The Society to Encourage Studies at Home, founded in 1873.

Women, education and the political context

“There have been instances, and I have seen such, of females…. They graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile.”
— Dr Edward H Clarke, In Sex in Education or A Fair Chance for Girls, 1873

In 1873 Harvard’s Dr Clarke writes his pro women’s education book. He suggests that women should have access to education, but argues that those who study too much in puberty will become infertile. This counts as a progressive and liberal perspective, shockingly liberal to some parties. 1870s Harvard, for one, does not allow women to register for courses (it remained all male until the 1940s, awarding degrees to women only in the 60s). The first woman to graduate from a French University does so in 1861: Julie Victoire Daube. NYU allowed female undergraduates in 1953. Princeton? 1969. In the 1870s access to education is an occasional privilege for women, rather than right.

Pioneers did stake hard fought claims. Sophia Jex Blake applied to the University of Edinburgh to do medicine in 1869. Harvard had already refused her application explicitly because of gender. She is refused at Edinburgh as the University will not co-educate, and will not educate a woman singly. Six more women apply to circumvent this. Blake recounts finding a dead sheep in the anatomy hall, placed as a message to the new cohort of female students — in Blake’s words, the “male students explained that “inferior animals” were now being allowed to study medicine.” She completes her course. The awarding of a degree is opposed by the University Court and the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. She sues the university to force them to confer her degree…unsuccessfully. Her licence is finally granted in 1877.

In other cases, where women did graduate from medicine many Medical Societies refused to recognise their accreditation, and encouraged members to do the same.

In 1869-70, about 1% of the 18-24 year old population attended a third level course. 79% of these were male. About 15% of Bachelor’s degrees in the US were conferred on women. None received doctorates or masters.

By 1868 women’s suffrage in a very limited form (often voting rights in local election for female property or business owners) existed in Pitcairn Island, Norfolk Island, Finland, the former Kingdom of Bohemia, South Australia, and the UK.

Sweden, Corsica, and New Jersey had granted and then rescinded their limited suffrage. In the US Susan B. Anthony was fined one hundred dollars by a U.S. court for voting in a Presidential election and a subsequent case found that the constitution did not extend voting rights to women.

In 1873, the year of the Society’s founding, Montana, Nevada, Iowa, Kentucky and North Carolina legislate to allow women to control their own earnings. It takes another 37 years, until 1920 to be exact, when suffrage is extended to some women in all states (but not, for example, to Native American or African American women).

Opportunity for women was sparse.

“In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen that disappointment in every woman’s heart until she bows down to it no longer.”
— Lucy Stone, Quoted in A History of Woman Suffrage, 1855

Enter Anna Ticknor, and the Society to Encourage Studies at Home

A bright-eyed woman sits at a bureau in a room of her own. She is in her fifties, well dressed, focused. There is the sound of pen on paper.

She writes:

“The students are of all sorts, rich and poor, cultivated and half educated. We do not seek the rich, because they should employ teachers; but many of them seek us…”

A second letter on a different day:

“The generation now rising must stand well on the shoulders of the preceding ones, since such things are done to lift it…”

And a third:

“Has anyone told you that your little paper on Shakespeare, the one you sent to Miss C as it were, for her private reading, was read at the annual meeting two weeks ago?…I read it myself and saw Mr Longfellow and Dr Holmes, close by me, nodding to each other, smiling approval…”

The woman writing is Anna Eliot Ticknor. Opportunity is sparse, hard won, and grudgingly given to women because of distance, time, circumstance, finance, and political and cultural bias. She sets up a distance University for women to counter and overcome these obstacles. It is the first of its kind in the U.S., possibly in the world.

The Victorian MOOC

A Victorian MOOC uses the handwritten letter rather than an auto-response email.

Ticknor writes a personal letter of acceptance to each of her ten thousand students. She introduces each student to their instructor, by letter. Their instructors, in turn, write many letters to their student, and they, many letters to their instructors. Instructors send parcels of information, books, notes, essays, exams, assessment, encouragement, and feedback across the US. There is no campus, no building to attend. No podium or lecture hall. No travel. There are parcels and post-offices and letters and stamps.

Her MOOCs were built from the bureau in her drawing room with pen and paper in the same way that George Siemens or Stephen Downes might build a MOOC from a laptop and a wifi connection today. And that pile of handwritten correspondence sitting on her bureau to and from instructors and students is what makes her an Edtech icon, and a genuine network engineer. A stack of paper rather than a stack of internet protocols connecting women to educational opportunity across the US.

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.

The Society allowed a marginalised demographic — women — to leverage technology and expertise to provide educational opportunity on a continental scale to themselves, remotely. Traversing political, cultural personal financial and historical obstacles. It funds itself. It organises itself. It sets its own curriculum, fees, ideals, and pedagogy. It connects need to opportunity across massive distances.

The Postal Service as proto-Internet

“Technology is synonymous for connection with other people”
— Sebastian Thrun.

“A worldwide communication network whose cables spanned continents and oceans…it revolutionised business practices…and inundated it’s users with a deluge of information…. The benefits of the networked were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium.”
— Tom Standage writing in the Economist in 1998

“An organization at once simple and elastic, easy of expansion should numbers increase and readily adjusted to more varied needs as they might arise”
— Elizabeth Agassiz

The key to understanding how the postal service MOOCified learning is in understanding it as a network technology. Elizabeth Agassiz is describing the Society, above. Specifically she’s describing that most modern of networked ideas. Scaleability. The Societies, technology, platform and networks were highly scalable.

Standage, above, is describing the telegraph — the Victorian Internet he calls it. Thrun is talking about Google glass. Both could be talking about the Web, the railway, the radio, telephone or the postal service. They are all networks or technologies that connect people, disseminate information, and change the power relations of the information landscape.

For the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, the postal service provided networking, educational and information dissemination opportunities denied to women previously. It disrupted power, it connected the geographically distributed and the educationally disenfranchised. It was (almost) ubiquitous. It was cheap. It was scaleable. It allowed individuals at the margins to sidestep authority, self-organise, network and effectively disseminate information rapidly, with a reliability, speed and low cost previously unimaginable across massive distance.

These are precisely the characteristics we invoke to understand and explain our own information technology revolution. The Victorian postal service was the internet of its time — the Victorian MOOCification of learning.

Let’s unparcel the Postal MOOC a little more. Give me an M….


The Society’s courses were massive. 10,000 students in 24 years. It’s massive geographically. It stretches across the US, and has some students as far afield as Japan.


That it targeted women is probably the prime aspect of its openness. The Society aimed to provide a space for women to develop a habit of reflective thoughtful reading. And its key that they target women. They explicitly target those who cannot afford private tuition. They target women who are unable to travel to a brick-and-mortar institution. They target women who are unable, or disallowed from following their own educational desires. All women are accepted, but it’s the disenfranchised and disadvantaged they seek out. To be accepted initially, a woman had to be “at least 17 years old and pay a fee of two dollars that covered the costs of printing, postage, and overhead.” The low cost of tuition is feasible as tutors work for free. There are over 200 tutors. They are all volunteers.

The Society was an edupunk crowbar jemmying open the lid of opportunity to those explicitly denied access to it. It was cheap, open to all, and provided opportunity in a context where so many institutions were closed to women. The Society is, most definitely, Open.


This was 1873. They were not online. But they were networked, which is the functional, node based altruistically revolutionary idea behind online networked learning.

Here’s George Siemens defining the network:

“A network can simply be defined as connections between entities. Computer networks, power grids, and social networks all function on the simple principle that people, groups, systems, nodes, entities can be connected to create an integrated whole”

Packets of information spanned the U.S., carried over the postal network, connecting distributed learners with resources, instruction and each other. In Connectivism anyone who can pick up a wifi signal owns knowledge. In The Society to Encourage Studies at Home, anyone who can lick a three-cent stamp owns learning. It was a network, like Social Media or TCP/IP. It connected people and created an integrated whole of informed and informing women.

Here’s how that network worked.

Applicants applied by letter. Ticknor replied to each and every one, by letter. Applicants were contacted by their instructors by letter. Who sent out their books from the library as packages. Students read the books, made memory notes (notes, from memory, rather than while reading) after they had read the books which they posted back to their instructor. The instructors sent them a letter with feedback, and set their essay and exams on the books by post. And they sent them out their next book, starting the cycle of reading, reflection, assessment, learning, and feedback again. Students were encouraged to talk to one another, and send each other books and specimens over the post, and teachers peer collaborated on techniques, tools, books, and specimens in person and over the post.

All by post. All networked by train tracks, depots, post offices, and pigeon holes that snaked across the country. A month to communicate rather than a moment. Kitchen tables and stamped envelopes rather than Starbucks and wifi passwords.

The nomenclature is different from the modern web, but the functionality is familiar, ancestral, and iterative. A technology. Leveraged to provide information and expertise, remotely, to geographically, financially and politically disadvantaged learners who self organise to create distributed communities with a common aim.


Departments of Science, French, German, Sanitation Science, French, History, Art and Literature, offering over twenty courses. An academic year from October to May. An allotted teacher accessible by post to every student, with monthly scheduled feedback and tasks, and a set regime of study.

There were no awards, and exams were not competitive or standardised — they were set by instructors on a case by case basis. But there were curriculum, schools, departments, and faculty. There were courses and reading and a central lending library. There were instructors constantly in touch with students.

So, it’s massive, open, networked, and it offered courses. It leveraged technology to provide educational opportunity to geographically distributed learners who were politically and culturally marginalised. It did this cheaply, with a functioning revenue model, using a network that bears comparisons to modern digital ones. The postal MOOC.

Why is this important?

Because of what it achieved, because of who achieved it, because of how they achieved it. Because it has been forgotten, and because the modern narratives of disruptive innovation only work if inconvenient truths are not inconveniently remembered.

Who achieved it?

Women. It was for women, and by women in the age that it was.

Women, self-organising over the postal network, provided opportunity, support and resources for each other, regardless of class, location or financial context in a society which actively militated against their access to education.

Extraordinary women. Ordinary women. Women of accomplishment, and women who came to be accomplished. Amongst its corps of instructors were women like Ellen Swallow Richards,the first female graduate of MIT, the first woman to graduate from chemistry in the US. Elizabeth Agassiz, co-founder and first president of Radcliffe college. Lucretia Crocker, pioneer of discovery education in mathematics and maths professor. But the Society drew its instructors from its own students too…

 “Long before anyone else, least of all myself, had discovered on my part for a teacher, Miss Ticknor thought she recognized such aptitude and promptly put me in a position to test it, placing me at the head of a department for deaf ladies”

What did they achieve?

It was the first postal school or University of its kind in the US. It was profoundly open. It reached out to approximately ten thousand women. There was no venture capital, no edupreneur ethos, no profit motive, and no government help. It paid for itself using its own minimal fees (between one and three dollars per year), and the dedication of volunteers.

It provided opportunity to thousands overcoming the barriers of gender, politics, history, geography, finance, and time. A flexible learning solution for those too time poor to attend brick-and-mortar schools? That’s the Society. A ubiquitous technology that puts learning within reach of thousands at the lick of a stamp. Most of them disadvantaged, and without degree-level education.

Julia Stiglitz says of Coursera “About 80 percent of our students have an undergraduate degree and 40 percent have a graduate, and Thrun at Udacity “Over 50% of our students already have an advanced degree”.

xMOOCs are targeting people who already have access to opportunity. And they are targeting them badly. There’s a 515% completion rate for xMOOCs, depending on the brand.

The Society targeted people outside educational opportunity, and had a claimed success rate of 65%. Sixty-five percent success.

It’s difficult to know what success looked like for the Society. Curriculum and tests were highly personalised to the student and not standardised. There were no awards or qualifications. But success probably looked familiar. Demonstrated learning and persistence over time, based on interaction with instructors, assessment of notes, and essays. Books read and reflected on. Progress shown in the ad hoc tests sent out to students. But the difference is stark.

Ticknor, her 200 teachers, her administrators, and her 10,000 or so students did nothing else, this would be enough to put them in the educational hall of fame. To make them edtech icons. To secure a place in educational history.

Harriet Bergman put the importance of the Society superbly, and succinctly.

The means were simple: an enlightened, modern curriculum; a lending library; and a warm correspondence between woman teacher and woman learner. Ticknor and her friends wanted to give away what men had long refused to allow women to buy: a liberal education.”

How did they achieve it?

“Big breakthroughs are what happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”
— Daphne Koller, Coursera co-founder

The medium — the postal service — wasn’t the message. The medium wasn’t the solution, the silver bullet, or the answer to education. Education wouldn’t be solved by laying more track or developing faster engines. The medium was just the medium. The Society focused not on the novelty or even the value of the network per se. The network wasn’t the answer. Rather, the relationships it facilitated were. Technology is not for connecting people to content. Ironically, Sebastian Thrun put it well. “Technology is synonymous for connection with other people.” It’s connections made, and not lessons served. It’s conversations had versus minutes of video watched.

The desperate need was not only for content — books, essays, curriculum. It was for content resourced with access to empathetic expertise. The warmth, support, empathy, and understanding that were at the heart of the project seem key. So were the resources and method. In a student’s own words,

Through all I recognised the “hand at the helm” – Miss Ticknor who always knew where I stood, how I had succeeded and how I had failed, and was ready with advice or encouragement”

And another:

“My first knowledge of the society came at a time of much perplexity, when circumstances rendered a collegiate course impractical, and its equivalent was difficult to find. Intelligent study and the stimulus of other minds, without publicity or absence from home, was very desireable for me, and possible under no other system. It met exactly the need of the moment”

Another woman described her 15 years of learning and teaching with the Society as “amongst the happiest of my life.”

Ticknor’s own ethos was one of warmth, encouragement, support, access to resources, and regular access to expert instruction and feedback. Each learner had an instructor. Each instructor regularly corresponded with their student. Each student stayed with an instructor for a long time and corresponded back and forth. Each relationship was allowed to determine its own course. And each instructor followed their students development closely. Reading their notes, reading their essays, setting their exams, setting their reading in response to their needs.

It took the modern xMOOC concept of education scalability, where scant resources are stretched through technology to provide education massively and imagined it differently. Rather than replacing the relationship between instructor and student with technology, networks and big data, it imagined the network as something that would support that relationship.

It had warmth, support and actual, regular, scheduled access to instructors. It had personalised feedback. It had small data rather than big data. It had volunteers — some of whom stayed with the program for decades. It had guidance and access to guides and feedback grounded in the relationship between student and teacher as a key cornerstone of its mission.

What’s been forgotten?

There’s a scant handful of academic papers, a wikipedia stub article, and two source materials that are the major repositories of the Society’s memory. History has, for whatever reason, neglected its footnotes here. We talk about Skinner, Piaget, Freire and Papert. Khan and Thorndike. Koller and Bloom. All with good reason. But the Silent University of the Society has existed in academic quietude since its passing into history. We should be talking about Ticknor and Thrun.

Perhaps the fact that it took over thirty more years after the Society’s closure for women to be granted suffrage, and nearly six decades for NYU or Harvard to accept women as undergrads is a clue here. Victors write history. Narratives suppress factual knowledge to underpin privilege.

Currently, in the more modern narrative of edupreneurial disruption, it’s an entire hIstory that’s elided. Past generations may have rendered the Society relatively silent for the purposes of pushing a dominant narrative. The present generation of edtech entrepreneurs is no exception. The dominant narrative in edtech now is of the relentless innovation of modernity in the face of the implacable conservatism of history. And it’s a Silicon Valley and elite institutional narrative.

“Education really hasn’t changed in the past 500 years. The last big innovation in education was the printing press and the textbooks.”
— Anant Agarwal

“Education hasn’t changed for 1,000 years”
— Peter Levine, Udacity board member

“It’s interesting because public education hasn’t changed that much in 150 to 200 years and there had been almost no technology going into it”
— Don Burton , Kaplan Edtech Accelerator director

History has been forgotten in the drive to innovate. The modern memes of technologically innovative idealism and educational altruism disenfranchise history, suppress memory, and fail to learn from the successes of history, and the disenfranchised have been sidelined, much as they always have been. Idealism has withered in the entrepreneurial vine. In Audrey Watters’ words,

“We now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of ‘disruptive innovation’.”

The Society was a profound meaningful disruption of the educational status quo in favour of the profoundly disenfranchised who successfully self organised to provide access for themselves to that which they were in desperate need of and from which they had been disbarred. Determination, idealism, need, and the suddenly new possibilities of technology collided to create meaningful, genuinely disruptive opportunity.

Modern MOOCs have extended their elision to the disenfranchised more generally, and the Sebastian Thrun’s pivot, to take one example, has been from one of idealism to one of enterprise.

“I care about education for everyone, not just the elite.”
— Pre-Pivot Sebastian Thrun

“Students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”
— Post-Pivot Sebastian Thrun

More than 80% of Udacity’s demographic have a degree already.

Other institutions have turned from aspirational founding ideals to practices, courses and MOOCs that fail to reflect this aspect of their originating zeal.

“I would like to make it so that education was a right, and not a privilege”
— Daphne Koller in aspiration.

Over 70% of Coursera participants already have a degree — Coursera in actuality.

If History has forgotten the Society, and eduprenuers have usurped innovation, then Thrun’s pivot, and EdX and Coursera have also forgotten the dispossessed. The Society achieved something that modern mooc innovations have so far failed to do:  Openness. Access. Egalitarianism.

The failures of history are condemned to repetition if we fail to listen. The successes are available if we care to tend to the past. The core lesson of what has been termed the paleo-history of education technology is perhaps this. Edtech is not disruption. It’s iteration.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Maha Bali and Jessica Knott.

[Photo, “laughter lines” by Fio, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.]

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