This was originally published on TheTimes-Tribune.com and appears in full below.
By David Singleton
A revolution in education had its roots in the mining tragedies Thomas J. Foster witnessed almost daily as a newspaper editor and publisher in Shenandoah in the 1870s.
Aghast at the coalfield carnage, the Pottsville-born Mr. Foster advocated for better working conditions and stricter mine regulations, leading to Pennsylvania’s adoption of the Mine Safety Act of 1885. However, the new law, which required miners and inspectors to pass a safety exam, created a new problem: how to prepare the workers, many with only a basic education, to take the test.
To try to help them, Mr. Foster published an advice column in The Colliery Engineer, a mining journal, but found it to be inadequate to the task.
The solution he finally hit upon would establish him as a distance education pioneer and make Scranton one of the globe’s most popular return addresses.
In 1890, two years after moving to the city, he founded the Colliery Engineer School of Mines, America’s first and the world’s most successful mail-order educational institution. It enrolled its first students the following year.
The enterprise used a variety of names until Mr. Foster incorporated the International Textbook Co., when the school became known officially as International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and unofficially as the World Schoolhouse.
As conceived by Mr. Foster, the mission of ICS was to provide “practical men with a technical education, and technical men with a practical education.”
It was an unqualified success. As the ICS expanded its course offerings to include electrical engineering, architecture, plumbing, commercial education and more, its enrollment burgeoned. By 1900, one in every 27 Americans had taken a correspondence course through ICS.
Mr. Foster remained ICS president until his retirement in 1916. He died in Scranton in 1936 at age 93.
In 2006, ICS transitioned from correspondence to online education and changed its name to Penn Foster. It has enrolled more than 13 million students since opening its doors.
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