130 Years of Remote Learning at Queen's

From the Gold Rush through two world wars to the dawn of the internet age up until now, Queen’s University has been delivering exceptional distance learning programs.  

This fall, you’ll be doing something you’ve probably never done – an entire semester remotely. It’s okay to be concerned. It’s always reasonable to be concerned in the face of change and new challenges.

Perhaps you chose Queen’s for its reputation of high-quality education, and now you wonder whether you’ll get that. Perhaps you chose Queen’s for its history, community, and culture, and you wonder how that’s going to look when you’re at home behind a laptop screen.

Fortunately, Queen’s has more than 130 years of experience answering questions just like this. Stories in the Queen’s Alumni Review document how Queen’s has helped shape distance learning in North America since the 1800s, all while maintaining its educational quality, culture, and community.

1878: Queen’s becomes the first university in Canada to offer “extension courses”

In 1878, Queen’s University began offering extension courses to teachers who sought university training. These extramural extension courses were offered bythe Faculty of Arts, as it was then named.

At first, Queen’s offered courses in the same way that the University of London in England did. Students didn’t have to reside on campus (a big deal at the time), nor did they have teachers. Queen’s essentially served as an examining body for the granting of degrees. Queen’s students demanded more, and before long, they began receiving teaching by correspondence. This was all done by letter, since radio hadn’t even been invented yet, and the home phone wouldn’t become common for more than 30 years!

In 1889, the University Senate passed a new regulation allowing home study by any student who was deterred from attending classes by distance or other obstacles. With the introduction of this regulation, Queen’s earned the distinction of being the first North American university to offer “distance education.”

Queen’s efforts to “bring university to the people” were criticized at the time by other institutions who held to the academic functions of the university, or who feared that institutions might lose their “seclusion and dignity.” By the 1930s, however, nearly all those who originally criticized Queen’s University’s actions had followed suit. (Queen's Alumni Review: 1930, vol. 4, p. 90)


Extramural learning materials, 1938-39 (Queen’s University Archives)

1945: “Have you a short course in German, as we expect to need it about three months from now?”

The request above was just one of many that Queen’s University’s Department of Extensions received from service men and women overseas fighting in the Second World War. That letter came from a man serving in the Mediterranean area who expected he’d be in Germany soon. (Queen's Alumni Review: 1945, vol. 19, p. 103)

In 1945, more than 750 service men and women were taking these “extra mural” courses, including 24 prisoners of war (POWs) interned in Germany. Service people paid just $2 per course (versus $30 for civilians). There was no charge for POWs.

Arrangements to get the books to students overseas or in prison camps, as well as the collection of course work, were handled by the Canadian Legion (Think about that the next time you drive by a Legion Hall).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Queen’s was not as strict in the matter of time limits on exercises, as many of the service personnel found it hard to get leisure time and privacy for studying. Interestingly, commerce and Spanish courses were favourites. (Queen's Alumni Review: 1945, vol. 19, p. 103)

1970’s: Queen’s pioneers one-to-one contact for distance learners

In 1971, Queen’s University made “extension learning” the responsibility of the Faculty of Arts & Science. By the late 1970s, Queen’s offered more than 40 correspondence courses to more than 1,200 students per year, entirely by mail. Exams were proctored at regional exam stations, and many students graduated without ever setting foot on campus. These students, hailing from as far as the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, took courses in topics such as ancient history, Canadian politics, and Russian literature.

The completion rate for Queen’s correspondence courses was exceptionally high, thanks in part to the Queen’s focus on one-to-one contact. With email still decades away, students were given times when they could phone instructors long distance, free of charge. This was a big deal at the time. Further, Queen’s provided distance students with lists of others registered in the same course so those living in the area could get together to discuss assignments – a sort of pre-internet social network!  

The university library system also supported students by mailing out both books and recorded lectures to students. Sometimes students would ask for books that were unrelated to their course, and the library would do their best to fill those requests, too. (Queen's Alumni Review: 1945, vol. 19, p. 18)

Interestingly, in 1953, 90 per cent of Queen’s extra mural students were public school teachers working towards a BA. By the 1970s, Queen’s distance learners included homemakers, seniors, prison inmates, military and diplomatic personnel, and even on-campus students unable to register for regular classes. (Queen's Alumni Review: 1989, vol. 3, p. 16)

Final thoughts

Today, Queen’s delivers more than  140 distance courses to more than  4,000 students every year.

Queen’s continues to push the envelope in terms of quality and accessibility. In fact, online learners cite our quality reputation as the number one reason they chose Queen’s for their distance learning.


From Queen’s University Academics

Queen’s has more than 130 years of experience delivering distance education, teachers looking to earn a BA military personnel serving overseas in the two world wars and now to regular students and working professionals today.

The world changes, but what has always made Queen’s distance learning special – from the moment Canada’s first distance programs were introduced – has not. That is a commitment to our students and to high-quality distance education.

So this fall, when you’re studying online through your laptop at home, reflect on the shared connection you have with that Queen’s student in Klondike Goldrush-era Yukon, writing their tests by oil lamp as they watched the long lines of prospectors march by. Or the soldier captured in the Second World War sitting in a POW camp waiting in anticipation for the Canadian Legionnaire to arrive with that unmistakable package – their books and coursework, sent all the way from the Queen’s Library. And when they reflect on the next 100 years of Queen’s history, they’ll remember you – the students who didn’t let a global pandemic keep them from their education.

This is Queen’s history. Of innovation through any situation, unrelenting in its mission to deliver education and support its students, and of uncompromising quality, no matter what.