Independent Learning: About & History

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About & History

Student Studying Indepedently

Independent Learning is a program that was developed as a correspondence course program dedicated to making educational opportunities available to learners who could not complete coursework on the UW-Madison campus.

At the end of the 19th century, Wisconsin residents were taking advantage of correspondence courses offered through institutions in Illinois and further east. Independent Learning offered Wisconsin learners living in remote regions of the state access to University of Wisconsin education, and in this way embodies the Wisconsin Idea.

Today, the Independent Learning program at the University of Wisconsin is a collaborative program between UW-Extension, UW-Madison, and other UW-System Academic Partners. Independent Learning offers self-paced courses in a wide variety of subject areas. You can start any course at any time, and take up to a year to complete each course.

Many students find that our courses are accepted as transfer credits to satisfy degree requirements either at the University of Wisconsin or at other institutions.

A Noble Profession

By David Werther

Thanks to his wife’s watchful eye, while shopping in a secondhand store, historian John Thelin had the opportunity to pursue a packet of letters, exchanges from a correspondence course. What caught his eye was that the coursework was quite old, 1891, and the instructor now legendary. [1]

Richard Ely, who would later found the American Economic Association and whose controversial work led to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents’ declaration, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth may be found” was the instructor. Professor Thelin, commented on the letters,

My recollection is that the exchange of correspondence and examination questions with instructor’s comments by Ely took place when he was a professor of political economy at The Johns Hopkins University. Fascinating – incredibly thoughtful essays by the student and equally patient, thoughtful marginal comments and summary statement by Ely. [2]

While a professor at Johns Hopkins, Richard Ely taught political economy via correspondence for the Chautauqua Correspondence College, authorized as the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts by the State of New York to grant diplomas and degrees. [3] Ely’s Chautauqua colleagues included the Hebrew scholar, William Rainey Harper, who directed the college. [4] Harper not only endorsed correspondence study but considered it to be superior to traditional forms of education.

The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom. [5]

The Chautauqua correspondence program ended in 1891, the year William Rainey Harper became president of the University of Chicago and instituted a correspondence program there. [6] That same year the University of Wisconsin formally began its extension work, including correspondence study; a year later, Richard Ely came to Wisconsin to direct the program. [7]

By 1894-1895 the University of Wisconsin offered 63 courses through correspondence study, including: one in each in Botany, English Literature, French, German and Physiology; two each in Bacteriology, Economics, Hebrew, and Greek; four in Music; and seven each in Arabic and Mathematical Physics. Cost for a course with 16 lessons was $4.00 plus postage. [8]

The University of Wisconsin’s correspondence program initially ran from 1891 to 1899. A variety of factors contributed to its curtailment, including President Chamberlin’s departure to the University of Chicago. [9] In 1903 Charles Van Hise began serving as president and-recognizing the need to study the complexities of extension work-in December 1905 he requested $250 from the Board of Regents to facilitate the study. [10] The Board approved Van Hise’s request and correspondence courses were up and running again in 1906.

The Rhinelander Daily News identifies high school principal, Paul Nystrom, as the first student in the re-established program.

[Nystrom] saw college as a key to future professional opportunities . . . The ambitious principal completed enough Correspondence courses between 1906 and 1908 to enter the University with a junior standing. He was graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1909. Nystrom service for a time district representative for the UW extension in Oshkosh and in 1914 completed a Ph. D. degree. [11]

After noting Nystrom’s doctoral degree, the Daily News states “His progress in the field of education from that point is recorded today in Who’s Who in America.” [12] That progress included an assistant professorship in Political Economy at the University of Wisconsin, an associate professorship in Economics at the University of Minnesota and full professor of Marketing at Columbia University.

Nystrom coined the phrase “the philosophy of futility” to describe the superficiality of a culture of consumption.

This view of life (or lack of a view of life) involves a question as to the value of motives and purposes of the main human activities. There is ever a tendency to challenge the purpose of life itself. This lack of purpose in life has an effect on consumption similar to that of having a narrow life interest, that is, in concentrating human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption. [13]

Such superficiality is far-removed from the Board of Regents’ encouragement to engage in fearless sifting and winnowing in the search for truth. In the tradition of the early correspondence instructor, Richard Ely, Independent Learning instructors assist students to think clearly and deeply, sifting and winnowing. To borrow a phrase Vice Provost Jeffrey Russell used at the start of the 2015 Annual Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, this is “a noble profession.”



1. John Thelin, “Professors and Online Learning,” Inside Higher Ed, July 10, 2012

2. Personal Correspondence with John Thelin, August 18th, 2015

3. Edmund Janes James, “The Latest Phases of University Education,” The World To-Day A Monthly Record of Human Progress, November 1904, 1470.

Michael Grahame Moore, From Chautauqua to the Virtual University A Century of Distance Education in the United States Information Series No. 393, (Columbus, OH: Center on  Education and Training for Employment , College of Education, The Ohio State University, 2003) 6.

4. Barbara L. Wright, “A Quite Radical Idea: The Invention and Elaboration of Collegiate Correspondence Study,” in The Foundations of American Distance Education A Century of  Collegiate Correspondence Study edited by Barbara L. Watkins and Stephen J. Wright (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1991) 3.

5. Wright, “Radical Idea” 4.

6. Frederick M. Rosentreter, The Boundaries of the Campus A History of the University of Wisconsin Extension Division 1885-1945 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1957) 11.

7. Joseph F. Kett, The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in American, 1750-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 186.

8. Chester Allen and Charles A. Wedemeyer, “Extending to the People” The Story of Correspondence Study at the University of Wisconsin (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Extension Division, 1957) 26.

9. Allen and Wedemeyer, “Extending to the People” 21.

10. Allen and Wedemeyer, “Extending to the People” 33-34.

11. The Rhinelander Daily News, July 13, 1956, 10.

12. Daily News 10.

13. Paul H. Nystrom, Economics of Fashion (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1928) 68.