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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter July 13, 2019

A brief history of distance education in Chemistry at McGill University in Canada

Ian S. Butler


Distance education began as correspondence courses in the 1700s, chiefly to connect rural communities with secondary and post-secondary educational institutions located in major cities. Since then, owing to the overwhelming improvements in communication technologies over the past two centuries, distance education is now well-established and is a major educational approach employed throughout the world. This paper will include a brief overview of the history of distance education in general and a description of some of the author’s personal experiences with respect to distance teaching of university-level Chemistry courses since he began his academic career as a professor over 50 years ago.


Distance education is considered to have started in 1728 when a teacher named Mr. Caleb Philipps advertised in the Boston Gazette that he would give shorthand lessons by correspondence using the local mail service. Over 100 years later, in the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman in England, who curiously also taught shorthand, used postcards to connect with his students. This latter modest beginning led to the formation of several Sir Isaac Pitman Colleges throughout the country (Holmberg, 2005; Tait, 2003).[1] The first known correspondence school in the US, The Society to Encourage Studies at Home, was founded in 1873 by the Harvard historian, Professor Anna Eliot Ticknor, so that society ladies would be able to study at home (Bergmann, 2001). In 1858, the University of London was the first to offer distance-learning degrees and the courses were also open to students from poorer financial backgrounds (Rothblatt et al., 1988). Subsequently, a private-for-profit school, based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, called International Correspondence Schools, was founded in 1891 and it eventually had an enormous enrolment of over 900,000 students, chiefly immigrant coal miners striving to improve their education, especially with respect to mine safety (Kett, 1996). This school was the first to introduce the idea of selling complete textbooks to the students rather than just mailing them individual lessons. Next, in 1892, Dr. William Harper, the first President of the University of Chicago, decided to introduce correspondence courses in satellite colleges throughout the rural communities in the State of Illinois (Williams, 1966). Moreover, as the general population in the USA was becoming eager for learning, night schools for young working men, such as the YMCA school in Boston (now Northeastern University, founded in 1896), were established.[2] However, since about two-thirds of the American population in 1920 lived in rural areas, correspondence schools became absolutely essential to their education and these correspondence schools were modeled on those that had previously been established in Australia at the University of Queensland in 1911 (White, 2009). Over the following years, similar correspondence schools were set up elsewhere throughout the world, e.g. at the University of South Africa in 1946 (Lee, 2009).

My own involvement with distance education began shortly after I was appointed as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1966. Two years later, Prof. Denis Gilson[3] and I were asked to meet with Mr. Peter Wigram from the Human Resources Department of Alcan Industries based in Arvida, Quebec to discuss the possibility of us giving some Chemistry courses to the scientists working there. Arvida is located in the Saguenay area of Quebec, about 300 miles north of Montreal, and it is still a major center for the production of aluminum in the world. The company name Alcan derives from that of its founder, Arthur Vining Davis, who was then the President of the Alcoa Aluminum Company, which was responsible for originally setting up the aluminum plant in Quebec (Peritz, 2010). The Alcan scientists were particularly interested in doing courses by long distance if they could be credited towards a B.Sc. and/or a M.Sc. degree.

Ultimately, it was agreed that Denis Gilson and I would develop two distance courses on Main Group and Physical Chemistry (Butler & Gilson, 2000). The lectures would be given by telephone in the evenings from an Alcan business office in Place Ville Marie in downtown Montreal. There would be two telephone lines connected directly to the aluminum plant in Arvida. One of the lines would be a regular telephone line the for the audio transmission, while the other would be connected to an overhead projector. The lecture material would be sent through this second telephone line to another overhead projector located in a meeting room in Arvida. The students would have access to telephone extensions in the room so that they could ask questions. The whole set-up was known as Bell Telephone’s Telescript system.[4] We subsequently presented lectures on a weekly basis and the system worked reasonably well, except for some occasional annoying static on both telephone lines. For instance, a circle drawn on the overhead projector in Montreal would not always appear as a spiral in Arvida! After a few lectures, we discovered that it was quite sterile to be alone in a company office in a darkened high-rise building in downtown Montreal after everyone else had gone home. In my case, I asked my wife, Pamela Butler, to sit in the room with me so that I would at least be able to talk to one person who was physically present.

We gave our lectures two evenings a week for 2 h for a full 13-week semester. This distance-education process worked quite well and students performed satisfactorily in the final examinations. They did find, however, that taking the courses at night was tiring and it was really difficult to follow the lectures after a full day’s work at the aluminum plant, especially since they could not see the lecturers. So, the next year, we decided to blend the lectures together with a 2-week, on-site visit in Arvida. These visits proved to be educational for both Denis Gilson and me as we learnt first-hand under what difficult conditions these scientists had to work. For instance, the air in the small town of Arvida (population about 12,000) was visibly polluted and many of the local car windows were slightly etched, presumably by the small amounts of hydrogen fluoride gas that was being emitted from the chimney stacks of the aluminum plant. This hydrogen fluoride gas was probably produced by the high-temperature degradation of the molten mixture of alumina (Al2O3) and synthetic cryolite (Na3AlF6), which was being used in the Hall–Héroult process for the electrolytic production of the aluminum. Unfortunately, our unusual distance-education program had to be discontinued after the initial 2-year period because Peter Wigram decided to change his job and he moved from Arvida to Montreal, and nobody else at Alcan seemed particularly interested in continuing the program.

In the early 1970s, McGill University embarked upon another form of distance learning – an experiment using modules in three undergraduate courses, one in Linguistics (led by Professor Myrna Gopnik), one in Biology (led by Professor John L. Southin) and one in Chemistry (led by me) (Butler, Gopnik, Southin, & Chambers, 1971). The Chair of my department, Professor Leo Yaffe, asked me to develop the same Main Group Chemistry course that I had given earlier to the Alcan scientists, but this time in a modular form. To enable me to undertake this project, I was given a semester of teaching release and funding to hire a research assistant (Ms. Wanda Trineer). Eventually, nine modules of the anticipated fourteen were developed by us during the Spring and Summer of 1970 dealing with chemical bonding and the chemistry of selected main group elements. These nine modules were entitled: Overall plan of the modules. B1 Atomic Structure and Classification of the Elements; B2 Chemical Bonding, Part I; B3 Chemical Bonding, Part II; M1 Hydrogen – The Simplest Element; M2 Boron; M3 Carbon; M4 Nitrogen; M5 Oxygen – The Breath of Life; M6 Fluorine – The Hostile Element; and M7 The Noble Gases. (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

Figure 1: Overall plan of the modules.B1 Atomic Structure and Classification of the Elements; B2 Chemical Bonding, Part I; B3 Chemical Bonding, Part II; M1 Hydrogen – The Simplest Element; M2 Boron; M3 Carbon; M4 Nitrogen; M5 Oxygen – The Breath of Life; M6 Fluorine – The Hostile Element; and M7 The Noble Gases. The modules labeled OM1–OM4 indicate future modules on some of the heavier main group elements.

Figure 1:

Overall plan of the modules.

B1 Atomic Structure and Classification of the Elements; B2 Chemical Bonding, Part I; B3 Chemical Bonding, Part II; M1 Hydrogen – The Simplest Element; M2 Boron; M3 Carbon; M4 Nitrogen; M5 Oxygen – The Breath of Life; M6 Fluorine – The Hostile Element; and M7 The Noble Gases. The modules labeled OM1–OM4 indicate future modules on some of the heavier main group elements.

Figure 2: Cover pages of two examples of the modules M4 Nitrogen and M7 Fluorine.

Figure 2:

Cover pages of two examples of the modules M4 Nitrogen and M7 Fluorine.

Once this undergraduate course in Chemistry began in the Fall of 1970, the students had access to the modules in individual carrells in the McLennan Library on the main McGill campus. This library was located some considerable distance from the Otto Maass Chemistry building. The students were provided with the appropriate written module booklet containing the course content (usually about 40 pages and around 20 questions), an audio cassette tape and player, and a carousel projector with a circular tray of slides that were linked to instructions on the audio tape. The students could proceed through the modules at their own pace and repeat the work as often as they wished before they decided to go to the Drop-in Centre where the teaching assistants would grade their answers. If the students failed any of the questions, the teaching assistants would send them back to repeat the module until they could answer all the questions correctly. Presentations on this modular course approach were given at an ACS meeting in Boston (Butler, 1972) and, subsequently, on lecture tours in the US (Purdue, Harvard and Columbia Universities) and in Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow and St. Andrews Universities), Northern Ireland (University of Belfast) and the Republic of Ireland (University College Dublin). These particular universities were interested in trying out the modular approach for themselves. It should be mentioned that Professor Emeritus Samuel Postlethwait in the Department of Biological Sciences at Purdue University is considered to be the founder of the Audio Tutorial (or modular) system of teaching, which he pioneered in 1961, and ultimately led to the formation of the International Society for Teaching and Learning (McWilliams, 1977).

The two other experimental modular courses at McGill University in Linguistics and Biology also had teaching assistants available at the same Drop-in Centre, so this was quite a lively pace during its operating hours. All three modular courses were continued for several years and the program was also eventually expanded to other disciplines, e.g. Political Science, in which Professor Janice Stein and my wife, Pamela Butler, developed modules on Politics of the Third World (Butler, Hankin, Balloch, & Stein, 1973). Unfortunately, even though the modular approach did prove to be pedagogically sound, the university had to drop the program because it was too expensive to run with so many teaching assistants being employed.

Around the same time, in 1970, I was asked by a publisher, W.A. Benjamin Inc., to write an illustrated multiple-choice problems book to go along with the General Chemistry text, Chemical Principles, which was being prepared by three Caltech professors – Richard E. Dickinson, Harry B. Gray and Gilbert Haight (Dickerson, Gray, & Haight, 1979). After working with this group, partly during a 6-week writer’s retreat on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the problems book was completed and published under the title “Relevant Problems for Chemical Principles” (Figure 3). This book was co-authored with another colleague from my department, Professor Arthur E. Grosser,[5] and it had detailed answers to the multiple-choice problems and also pointed out where the students might have gone wrong in choosing the incorrect answers (Figure 3). This problem book eventually went through six editions and in the later ones the answers were discussed in terms of both Imperial (conventional) and SI units. The book was deliberately designed so that it could be used independently of any general chemistry textbook and many students found it sufficient to work through the problems book alone in order to pass the course examinations, while only occasionally viewing the recordings of the TV lectures given by Arthur Grosser in individual carrells in the McLennan Library. The first edition of the book was quite heavy because it had one question to a page and the detailed answer was given overleaf. The later five editions were set up more conventionally with a series of questions and then the answers; the title of the book was also changed to “Relevant Chemistry: Problems and Solutions” (Figure 3). Test examinations were provided in all the editions. In 1971, we published another, somewhat lower level problems book entitled “Relevance in Chemical Science” to accompany the textbook “Models in Chemical Science” written by Professors George S. Hammond, J. Osteryoung, Thomas H. Crawford and Harry B. Gray. This second book followed the same format as the later editions of the first one and mirrored the chapter topics of the textbook. However, it could also be readily used independently of any General Chemistry textbook so that students could work though the book at their own pace in any location.

Figure 3: Front cover pages of the two problem books.

Figure 3:

Front cover pages of the two problem books.

A typical example of a general chemistry problem and its solution is given below:

Many elements occur in the earth’s crust as oxides. Predict the formula of the mineral cassiterite on the basis of the common valences of oxygen and tin.

  1. 1.


  2. 2.


  3. 3.


  4. 4.


  5. 5.


Tin is in Group 14 and so its valence is 4. The valence of oxygen (Group 16) is 18 – 16 = 2. Therefore, the formula of cassiterite must be SnO2 [Answer (3)]. Metallic tin is extracted from cassiterite by roasting the mineral with coke in a blast furnace: SnO2 + C → Sn + CO2.

You are probably familiar with tin as the shiny, silver-grey alloy pewter (about 95 % Sn, 3 % Cu, 2 % Sb), which is used to make decorative mugs, candlesticks and tableware. Old pewter (about 80 % Sn, 20 % Pb), which has a darker-grey tone, was first used by the Romans about 2000 years ago. It is much heavier and softer than modern pewter and is rarely used nowadays.

Answer (3) is correct.

Answers (1), (2) or (4). You thought that tin was in Group 1, 2 or 17, respectively.

Answer (5). You thought that oxygen had common valence of 6.

Over the past 40 years, with the rapid development of the internet, online courses are now available for all sorts of topics. These distance courses are extremely popular and there are even universities dedicated totally to distance education, e.g. the University of Phoenix in the US[6] and Athabasca University in Canada.[7] As a personal example, my son-in-law, Dr. Alex Probst, often teaches online courses in statistics from his home near Denver, Colorado to students located throughout the state for university credit. In the UK, the British Open University was founded in 1969 and has now educated hundreds of thousands of students through similar online courses.[8]

The latest developments in the distance-education field have been associated with the so-called “Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which were originally started at the University of Manitoba in 2008 (Barrett & Harpp, 2015.[9] In 2011, Stanford University, quickly followed by MIT and Harvard University, began to offer MOOCs. The MOOCs are free online courses that are available for anyone with a computer and sometimes these courses can be taken for university credit. They certainly afford a fully flexible way of learning.[10] At McGill University, the Office for Science and Society, which is led by Professors. Joe Schwarcz, Ariel E. Fenster and David N. Harpp in the Department of Chemistry, offers a MOOC annually entitled “Food for Thought” about the basic chemistry of food. This course has had total worldwide enrolments (over a 4-year period) of more than 50,000 students.[11] Approximately 25 % of all students in the US are enrolled in at least such one on-line course.[12]

The most recent development in distance education at McGill has been the onset of “simulcast” lectures. This approach was developed by Ken Dryden, a lawyer, who is a former Canadian Federal Government politician and a National Hockey League Hall-of-Famer, involved him giving video conference (webcam) lectures on “Making the Future” simultaneously on large-screen televisions to students located in five different universities throughout Canada – University of Calgary in Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, Memorial University in Newfoundland, Ryerson University in Ontario and McGill University in Quebec.[13] There were only about twelve students in each classroom but the students said that it felt like being together in a large classroom. This approach has now been adopted by the McGill Office for Science and Society/Department of Chemistry, which gave a pre-recorded presentation of the “World of Chemistry” course in the Winter 2019 semester to 1600 students at McGill and to about 75 students located over 1000 km away at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. All of these students were examined at the same time using multiple-choice questions and conventional scantrons.

Clearly, after over 200 years, distance education is here to stay and it has really come a long way since the 18th century when Mr. Caleb Philipps first began teaching students shorthand by correspondence in Boston. There are now numerous papers about the future of distance learning (Traxler, 2018) and the next wave will almost certainly be in artificial intelligence with the development of intelligent digital assistants that are capable of answering almost anything at any time of day. Such devices are already being incorporated into universities, e.g. at Bolton College in the UK with the development of Ada, a student-facing chatbot.[14]

Over the years, our university has experimented with numerous ways of teaching students, including televised lectures. Self-study modular courses with extensive teaching assistant backup certainly work but for us they proved to be both too time-consuming and expensive to run. Probably, the most cost-effective way to go is the MOOC route – many students can be handled in a relatively inexpensive manner as most students have ready access to personal laptops, iPads and iPhones and students can readily download recorded lectures on their devices. The prohibitive cost of a traditional 4-year university degree these days will lead to more and more students opting to do at least some of their courses online for credit outside of the university itself. Several universities have already tried a so-called “blended” approach to education, which involves students taking a combination of online courses and spending several semesters in residence. This approach may become more common in the future. The Universitas 21 consortium affords an excellent example of this blended approach for courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level.[15] It is also possible for students in this consortium to complete a Ph.D. degree at two different universities sortium while being supervised by two different professors.

In conclusion, it has also has been a real pleasure for me to have had the opportunity to be involved in a small way in the development of this important area of education.


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