One step above "Do-It-Yourself for Dummies" but a long, cavernous leap below an actual education (at least in Trope Land) is the Correspondence School, an educational institute that forwards all its courses by mail.
Course offerings are many and varied. You'll be amazed by what you can learn by mail — magic powers, hero training, how to talk to girls — everything you could possibly want to know and more, all for the price of postage!
Due to the distant and anonymous nature of these schools, quality varies wildly, and you're more likely than not to wind up with A Degree in Useless. But every once in a while (well, more often in fictionland), the heroes discover a correspondence course that actually works — usually to the amazement of the professor teaching it!
A common plotline in comedic mystery stories is the kid who's taking a correspondence course in detection — usually getting in over his head because he hasn't gotten important lessons yet. Another common gag is for the course to be in something you probably shouldn't learn by distance — like scuba diving or hot-air ballooning.
A more modern equivalent to this are online courses, which replace the mailed lessons with lessons downloaded from a website. Now that every major university has a distance education department, simply saying that somebody got a degree online isn't enough; modern examples drive the point home by giving the school a shady name like "Cayman Islands Internet University".
- Ah! My Goddess once features an exorcist named Shiho who is learning exorcism from a correspondence course.
- One of the Nintendo Comics System comics had Toad become a reporter via one of these. Wooster, in something of a Servile Snarker moment, points out that the entire curriculum consisted of sending them a check.
- One Aniceto comic book story has the titular brujo awaken an ancient Egyptian mummy... which speaks fluent Mexican-dialect Spanish. When asked how "Simple. I took a correspondence course."
- Donald Duck's cousin Fethry swears by various correspondence courses and often shows up at Donald's house in order to either practice his newly acquired skills on a "volunteer" or persuade Donald to start a business with him based on whatever he's been studying. The results are predictable. One comic revealed that apparently the "university" responsible for the courses advertises on the back of a cereal box, so we can probably conclude it is not exactly a highly respected institution.
- Superman once exposes a crooked correspondence school. Naturally, the plan for catching these ordinary criminals involved Clark Kent engaging in art forgery, Time Travel, and Superman unwittingly providing the inspiration for masterpieces by Rembrandt and William Gainsborough. Oh, comics...
- In A Sky Of A Million Stars: Both Katsuki and Izuku finish middle school with Aldera Junior High's online schooling program. Katsuki because he can't stand to go back to the actual school again, where he's center attention of the rumor mill, and Izuku because he's still in the middle of recovery and can't afford to leave U.A.'s care facility yet.
- Memorably odd Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfiction The Riddle of Steel starts out with Shinji getting hold of a probably unlicensed Conan the Barbarian-themed correspondence course about being a Barbarian Hero, likely inspired by the one in Sourcery mentioned below. He turns out to be surprisingly good at it, but from that point onwards things get... strange.
- A major plot point in Bedknobs and Broomsticks: Eglantine learns all her magic from a correspondence course, but the school folds before she can learn the final and most important spell. During the first half of the movie, she hunts down the headmaster, Professor Emelius Browne, who, it turns out, doesn't know magic at all — and, more importantly, doesn't know the final spell. The second half of the movie is spent recovering it and then using it against the Nazis.
- This was used in the live-action adaptation of the Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, to Hand Wave the problem of Twoflower, a tourist from a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Imperial China with bits of Japan thrown in, not speaking much of the local language and Rincewind having to act as interpreter. This was fine in the book, albeit handled rather inconsistently, but would have got rather annoying on screen.
- Old movie, The Fuller Brush Girl:
Sally Elliot: It only took you a year to finish that correspondence course.
Humphrey Briggs: Yeah, but that was a six-month course.
- Waiting for Guffman:
Clifford Wooley::I had a... hankerin' to be an actor when I was a young feller when I got out of the Coast Guard, but I... I went to taxidermy school instead... well, I took a correspondence course.
- In The Story of Luke, Luke got his cooking degree this way.
- In The Shawshank Redemption, Tommy completes his GED by correspondence course, supervised by Andy. Out of necessity, since he's in prison.
- In Harry Potter, Filch is a Squib (a Muggle Born of Mages) who attempts to learn magic by following a correspondence course. Because of the nature of magic in the Potterverse, we know it's a fraud, but it's all Played for Laughs.
- Actually, Kwikspell (that's its name) is not a fraud, but geared to mages with trouble using their magic, not squibs. Mages are said (on the ad itself...) to have a high degree of satisfaction; squibs cannot because they do not have magic.
- Sourcery features a young man named Nijel who's taking a correspondence course in being a barbarian hero, allegedly written by Cohen the Barbarian himself (and implied to be written by one Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler).
- In Witches Abroad, Magrat is learning martial arts through mail-order courses sold by "Grand Master Lobsang Dibbler".
- In P. G. Wodehouse's short story "A Voice from the Past", Sacheverall Mulliner becomes a domineering Strong Man by taking a correspondence course on developing an Iron Will.note
- Bertie Wooster's analysis of Steggles also deserves mention: "Machiavelli could have taken his correspondence course."
- In an Ukridge story, "The Long Arm of Looney Coote", the narrator writes that the speaker at a political meeting apparently "learned his elocution in one of those correspondence schools which teach it by mail."
- Harry Dresden at one point took a correspondence course in Latin, the language wherein official White Council meetings are conducted. It was... less than successful, but this allows him to Dog Latin for his spells' magic words (which explicitly need to be Foreign Sounding Gibberish to protect the caster from weird feedback).
- Taken by Edward Bloor takes place 20 Minutes into the Future in Florida, where the main character Charity goes to school at a variant of this. It is school broadcast through webcams.
- The titular character in Jean Robinson's The Strange But Wonderful Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon tries to make up for his perceived shortcomings by taking "Dr. Louis Flamel's Home Study Course in Cosmic Awareness". Due much more to his can-do nature and knowledge of gardening than to the course, he manages to start his own plant-service business and gain the respect of his aunt and uncle and the other kids in the neighborhood.
- Raymond F. Jones' 1945 short story Correspondence Course: A disabled American war veteran tries to better himself through a correspondence course that teaches how to build and maintain something called a 'power coordinator'. Only there is no such thing, at least not on Earth...
- In A Confederacy of Dunces, Mrs. Levy took a correspondence course in psychology and failed abysmally. ("The correspondence school had even refused to give her an F.") Nonetheless, she constantly tries to apply her "knowledge" to her Henpecked Husband and his senile employee Miss Trixie.
- Most of Sophie's World revolves around the correspondence course on philosophy Sophie takes from Alberto Knox.
- Miss Price is learning her magic through one of these in Bedknobs And Broomsticks.
- Lawrence Block's Burglars Can't Be Choosers:
Bernie: Oh, once I was really into [burglary] I got books on locksmithing, and then I took a mail-order course in it from an outfit in Ohio. You know, I wonder if anybody but burglars ever signs up for those courses. I knew a guy in prison who took one of those courses with a correspondence college and they sent him a different lock every month by mail with complete instructions on how to open it. He would just sit there in his cell and practice with the lock for hours on end.
- In the first episode of The Drew Carey Show, Drew is trying to make small talk with the guys in his carpool and sees an ad in one guy's newspaper: "Learn veterinary science through the mail!" "Gee, I'd hate to be the dog in that house."
- Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: X the Owl took courses (and possibly graduated, eventually) from Owl Correspondence School, which had its own Fight Song.
Owl Correspondence School
We love you best!
- In an early episode of M*A*S*H, Radar was taking a creative-writing correspondence course.
- Radar also got his high school diploma via correspondence course. Col. Blake gave him his final exam.
- In The Secret World of Alex Mack, Dave gets A Day in the Limelight of sorts when he takes a "How to Be a Spy" course on tape to find out Alex's identity. Amazingly enough, he succeeds, but decides to keep it a secret in agreement with the course's final lesson: "If you discover a secret, no matter how big it is, it's best to keep it for yourself" (which, if you think about it, goes against the very purpose of working as a spy).
- In one season of Last of the Summer Wine, there's a Running Gag in which Seymour attempts to run correspondence courses. Nobody applies for them.
- Monk took a correspondence course in swimming, and received a card labeled "How to Swim" upon graduation. When he actually had to swim for the first time, he attempted to read the instructions on the card while swimming.
- In the Lynda Carter episode of The Muppet Show, most of the Muppets decide to become superheroes by buying such a course on becoming a superhero. The package comes with a costume and book titled "Invincibility Made Easy", which is filled with nonsense advice on how to perform acts of superhuman ability, none of which work.
- In the Community episode "Advanced Criminal Law," Jeff, while trying to make a case that Britta is insane, refers to Greendale as a place "that correspondence schools make fun of."note
- Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul got his law-degree online from the University of American Samoa, which other lawyers don't take entirely seriously.
- In the absurdist song "Yo-Ya" by the Israeli rock group Poogy, a man takes a correspondence course in swimming from a "famous lifeguard". When he finally enters the water, he immediately drowns.
- The Burkiss Way started out as a "correspondence course" administered by the good Dr. Emil Burkiss, who would, for instance, help you develop a muscular body by lifting up all that heavy money and sending it to him. While the later series abandoned this premise, they still had titles on a theme of Avoid Like the Plague, The Burkiss Way.
- Aperture Desk Job: During the 18-month time skip, Grady took a mail course to become, and get certified as, a probation agent, which somewhat makes up for the fact he made you take the blame for blowing up the warehouse while testing the toilet turret.
- The hero's backstory in Quest for Glory is that he saw an ad for the "Famous Adventurers' Correspondence School" in his town and decided to take it. Persons who pass the course receive a heroic cloak and tools related to their class (lockpick kit for a thief, sword, and shield for a fighter, magic spells for a wizard). You lose the cloak in later games, but the correspondence school is constantly brought up. You actually visit its headquarters in the final game: the guy who runs it is the only guy in the company, goes by the name of Famous Adventurer (TM) (Yes, the trade mark sign is part of his name). He's not at all surprised that the correspondence course works (after all, that's why he wrote those books), and he's actually pretty impressed with your heroic tales if you tell him about them. The Famous Adventurers' Correspondence School was actually Defictionalized by the series creators, launched as The School for Heroes. In a general subversion of the trope, Famous Adventurer (TM) is actually quite knowledgeable about adventuring, and if his past stories are true (And we know some are), he's quite the Retired Badass and is in fact one of the Hero's best source of advice through the game on solving the trials and general lore. He also fully admits that his courses are nothing but a starting point for one's adventuring career.
- In the Rival Schools games, the nameless class rep learned Dan Hibiki's infamous Saikyo style through correspondence courses.
- Vega Strike's stock communications include this as one of the taunts:
Privateer: [to Pirate] So, flying license by correspondence course, I see.
- In Command & Conquer: Generals, if you defeat Dr. Thrax in the Generals Challenge, he'll say "Erm, perhaps I shouldn't have gotten my degree from a mail-order college."
- The main character in Weaving a Basket (or Something) is taking a basket-weaving course from the "Scarlet P. Pastrami International School of Fast and Easy Life Skills."
- In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura. technology degrees and skills are developed through correspondence courses with Tarant Polytechnical University. These are legit courses that provide both basic technological know-how in the relevant discipline and practical schematics for Item Crafting. After all, the adventurers of tomorrow can't just sit around the university all day when there are dungeons to delve!
- As you "Make Your Name" as a monster-hunter and shunter of thugs in Fallen London, people will ask how you got so good at being a killing machine. You can tell them that you're one of the many success stories of "The Adventuress' Correspondence Course", apparently set up by The Presbyterate Adventuress, a famous soldier, explorer, and mercenary. Given the kind of insane feats of strength and skill you accomplish in the game, her course must have been effective; dockside brawls in particular show her style puts heavy emphasis on Improvised Weapons and using your environment against your enemies.
- Fairly popular at Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe, since a lot of the students look too weird to be out taking regular courses, and at least one student may never be able to leave her room again without being a biohazard threat for everyone around her. Then there's Timeless, who simply doesn't sleep anymore and needs something to fill in the hours.
- Homestar Runner: A Parody Commercial in the Strong Bad Email "theme song" features Crazy Go Nuts University's "Online E-Niversity", a blatant diploma mill which claims you can complete a year of schooling with a single click and quickly earn a "shady online degree" in such fields as "Business Administration", "Business Abomination", "Infotainment Technology", and "Marriage Apothecary".
Senor Cardgage: I got fourteen degrees while on my lunch take. Now I can legally prescribe marriages in the state of Kansattica.
- Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama once claimed to have taken correspondence courses on Murderology and Murderonomy.
- In the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) cartoon, Donatello used one to further his education beyond super genius, only to run into problems with getting the degree itself: he has to pick it up in person, and the university mistook him for "Miss Dona Tello". It turns out the owner of the university was looking for a mate as part of a Genius Breeding Act, which is why he wanted "Dona" to appear in person.
- In a House of Mouse cartoon, "How to Be a Spy", Goofy thinks his neighbor, Clarabelle Cow, is spying on him, so he takes a Correspondence Course in How to Be a Spy to retaliate. Hilarity Ensues. Especially because Clarabelle was spying on him out of love and taking a "How to Get Your Man" correspondence course.
- These obviously exist in real life, although the choice of lessons tend to be a lot less colorful here. Famous distance schools include the Art Instruction School (see below), International Correspondence Schools (famous for their ads from the 80s featuring Celebrity Endorsements from the likes of Sally Struthers and William Shatner that burned the phrase "Do you want to make more money? Sure, we all do," into the brains of a generation), and the Charles Atlas exercise routine. Nowadays, a lot of them are available online. Chances are this page's ads are of them.
- Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, took an art course from Art Instruction School. He later became an instructor there.
- Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took an ice-cream-making correspondence course from the Penn State Creamery which enabled them to start their ice cream business.
- The Open University subverts most expectations by being one of the UK's largest and most well-respected universities (no Oxbridge, but far from embarrassing either).
- In the United States, MIT has it's OpenCourseWare project, the goal of which is to make all of the school's graduate and undergraduate offerings available online. The program was the first of its kind and has since been copied by many other institutions.
- Almost every major university in America now has a distance education department, some offering full degree programs. Some of these are extensions of mail-based services that date back to the 1960s and earlier, but widespread Internet access and standardized platforms for content deployment have made classes much easier to manage. While primarily-online schools like the University of Phoenix still carry a stigma in some circles, their perception is improving as graduates enter the workforce and prove themselves. Of course, the diploma mills have modernized too; for a few hundred dollars, you too can earn a PhD or a black belt.
- That being said, however, it is easy to be scammed with these types of institutions. Make sure you're getting your online degree from an actual accredited institution, and not a diploma mill.
- A few decades ago, before the Internet was widely available to residential homes, it was not uncommon for these types of classes to be held via a PEG Channel. Some places (generally remote, rural areas) still do this. In Britain, the BBC carried programming from the aforementioned Open University up until well into the Internet Age, often in late night and early morning slots on the assumption that they'd be recorded by VCR. Preserved examples can be found on YouTube.
- As mentioned in The Diary of a Young Girl, the people living in the secret attic took distance classes under the names of the people hiding them from the Nazis.
- 2020's COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of schools to switch to virtual classrooms.
- Many military personnel take courses like this. Some times, it's for general education, others it's professional. The US Navy built a massive catalogue of courses covering basic electronics, seamanship, and other topics of interest.
- This is also a typical way for prisoners to advance their actual, formal education, should they be signed to a related program. While details vary between countries and penal systems, on average, prisoners will attend correspondence courses with legit, authorised education facilities when it is deemed either too risky or too expensive (or the prison simply lacks proper facilities) to have a special class for 1-5 inmates. Correspondence courses are among the most common activities with the outside world prisoners take, if not for education, then at least to pass time.