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Quest for knowledge more fun as an active hunt

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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

As a boy in the late 1950s, the first time I ever heard about "higher education" was in connection with a carton of blue-covered workbooks that arrived by mail from Scranton, Pa., bearing the bold black letters ICS, which stood for "International Correspondence Schools."

The box was addressed to Daddy. A talented electrician with visions of becoming an electrical engineer, my father never finished high school, and he spent his G.I. Bill money, not on education, but for the down payment on another dream: buying our own home. For a brief season, he counted on correspondence school to fill in some major educational gaps in his life.

Throughout that summer and fall and into the icy, dark winter, Daddy drove home from his job at the C&O Roundhouse in Russell, Ky., collapsed for a few hours' sleep, and then, with coffee and Camels, he perched before the drafting board he had set up in his and Mother's bedroom. There, first with pencil, then with India ink, he mapped out his ever-more-intricate circuitries. We all celebrated as the mail began bringing back his graded work with steadily improving marks. From afar, his unseen instructors offered earnest encouragement.

Ultimately, his demons would derail this, as they undid most of his better dreams, but my father's adventure with what a later generation would call "distance learning" made an impression on me that I couldn't have anticipated.

Watching Daddy work alone at his desk, reading the assignments and then working out solutions by studying and re-studying the textbooks, eventually convinced me that learning was best when it was pursued. Oh, sure, you also could learn passively by sitting and listening in classrooms. You could let the facts and figures rain down upon you, hoping you could absorb some knowledge from the teachers' daily storms of names and dates. But wouldn't it be more meaningful — not to mention more fun — if you actively joined the hunt for information?

I can't say this interesting life lesson took hold right away. For all of my high school years and most of my college career, I was a passive student. I sponged up whatever it took to pass my courses and often not a drop more. I used to joke that I graduated with a list of first-rate books I should have read in college and hoped to read before I died.

Actually, it was not until the arrival of personal computers that I truly began to appreciate personal education. Suddenly, programs could be loaded into my little machine that would teach me foreign languages, chess, gardening, art history, programming, statistics, origami. This magic lantern of a machine never tired of teaching me, even when I was a dull scholar.

Later, when the World Wide Web reached my door, I had a university within fingers' reach: not just history's greatest library, but actual instruction, with audio, video and reading material, usually at no charge.

And it has just continued to grow. Consider, for instance, iTunes U. In the spring of 2007, Apple announced its iTunes Store — primarily devoted to selling downloads of music, movies and apps for its iPods, iPhones and other i-devices — now also would begin distributing educational audio and video content and text files for students within a college or university as well as the broader Internet. Since then it has been updated to include schools from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Participating institutions get their own iTunes U site using Apple's infrastructure for lectures, language lessons, lab demonstrations, sports highlights, campus tours and more. Participants include universities, elementary, middle and high schools in the United States, as well as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom.

Today well over 350,000 downloadable files are available. You can browse by individual universities or search for specific topics across multiple schools. I've used my iPhone to listen to entire semesters' worth of college lectures on everything from Civil War history, the stories of ancient civilizations and the rise of modern capitalism to philosophy and physics. The functions of iTunes U are much like those of podcasts in that you can either download individual streams or subscribe to a stream so that iTunes will automatically download new ones for you.

Meanwhile, distance learning gets ever more serious. As enrollment in four-year colleges begins to fall — it was down 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, says The New York Times — enrollment in online courses has climbed for its 10th straight year. More than 6.7 million students, or 32 percent of the total higher education enrollment, took at least one online course in autumn 2011 (our most recent figures on the subject), and these days students can even complete work for a bachelor's or master's degree at many fine institutions, all online.

For the past three years, U.S. News & World Report has been closely documenting this rapidly changing educational landscape, and earlier this month the magazine published its ranking of the top online courses, including those offered for bachelor's programs as well as graduate programs in business, education, engineering, information tech and nursing. (To find the detailed rankings on the web, Google best online course 2014 "U.S. News").

All this change has resulted in a much more nuanced picture popping up in our heads nowadays when we hear the word "students." Sure, they are often still young, full time, hungry and financially dependent, but more and more students also can be part time, older and already in the workforce. Many of those older students are back in school — perhaps in in-person classrooms, but ever-more frequently in computer-accessed courses — because they've learned that continuing education is one of the keys to thriving in a rapidly changing job market.

And that has to bring a smile to the face of Thomas J. Foster's ghost. Foster was the newspaper editor in 1890 who founded the International Correspondence Schools, the same Scranton, Pa., program that would eventually pique my father's interest 70 years later. Foster founded his unique, optimistic school to provide coal miners in his region with the education they needed to advance in their careers, to enrich their lives and to work more safely. I think Foster would love his online legacy.