Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Generations before universities’ shift to online classes this semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cornell university was making strides in remote instruction – including some of the earliest, and one of the largest, distance learning programs in the United States. “Cornell was among the pioneers of extension education, particularly in home economics and nature study, with Liberty Hyde Bailey being a driving force behind both,” said Corey Ryan Earle, a visiting lecturer in American studies who teaches a popular course on Cornell history. Bailey, a horticulturist and the College of Agriculture’s first dean (1903-13), believed that education’s primary mission was to serve the people.

As a professor in the 1890s, he led extension and outreach – farm visits, home studies and bulletins. With state funding secured for a nature study program, he hired naturalist Anna Botsford Comstock in 1898; and began the Rural School Leaflet in the early 1900s, published at Cornell and distributed for more than 50 years. “He felt strongly about bringing education and knowledge beyond the walls of the university and into rural communities. It’s a great parallel to what’s happening now,” Earle said. Bailey “placed great emphasis on women’s education, and so it was in 1900 that he invited Martha Van Rensselaer to campus,” said Eileen Keating, university records manager and archivist in the College of Human Ecology.

“He had been successful in developing the Farmer’s Reading Course in 1896,” which covered such topics as soil, how plants get nutrients and rationing feed for farm animals. “And now he wanted MVR to do the same for women,” Keating said. Bailey sent a letter to rural women across the state in 1900, asking them which topics they would like to have addressed. The letter received 2,000 responses. In 1901, Van Rensselaer designed a correspondence course, the Reading Course for Farmers’ Wives, providing homemakers with information on timesaving steps, sewing, and keeping a garden as an adjunct to the farm kitchen. “It was so well received, in 1903 three courses for credit were offered on campus, and by 1907 the Department of Home Economics was established in the College of Agriculture,” Keating said. Beginning in 1908, Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose co-directed the new department, which became the School of Home Economics in 1919.

The College of Home Economics was established in 1925 and in 1969 became the College of Human Ecology. “The college was also ahead of its time when using radio and television” as part of its extension mission, Keating said. She cites two examples from the 1940s: professor of textiles and clothing Helen Powell Smith’s “Let’s Make A Dress” radio program, and professor of food and nutrition Hazel Hauck, who appeared on the Voice of America (VOA), which provided home economists with a way to spread their message internationally. “Remote learning was not the term used at the time,” Keating said, “but faculty knew they had a mandate to get information to the public, and they used the available technology to do just that.” As the university begins online classes this week, faculty members are diving into a range of modern educational technology.

“Faculty are thinking about the most important elements of their in-person teaching and how to translate and even enhance them in an online format,” said Julia Thom-Levy, vice provost for academic innovation and professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “One such area is active learning, where all students are engaged and work through the most difficult concepts, with frequent feedback from their instructors.” Cornell instructors are exploring innovative and creative ways to engage with students online, she said. “I think the work we are doing now,” Thom-Levy said, “will shape the way we teach going forward in unexpected ways.”