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ACS Distance Education was born in 1979 under the name Australian Horticultural Correspondence School.
It was the brainchild of John Mason, a graduate of Burnley Horticultural College who had after a career as a Parks Director, been involved lecturing horticulture and related subjects at several Melbourne colleges, including Burnley where he studied a decade earlier.
In late 1978 he became aware that large numbers of applicants were being turned away from Burnley each year. There simply were insufficient places available for the number of people wanting to study horticulture.
The answer seemed obvious. Develop distance education courses. At first John tried to secure support from the government. The college principal was very supportive; but as is often the case; bureaucracy and lack of funding made progress difficult. After a few months and little progress John decided to simply write a course, and with help from a colleague who had marketing experience with CAE (Council of Adult Education); a plan was born.
The first course was Horticulture I; developed over mid of 1979 and launched with an advertisement in Your Garden magazine in August 79. That first advertisement generated 37 enrolments. Clearly there was a need to be met.
Throughout the 1980's the range of courses grew as did the staff and scope of operation. Within a few years the scope of courses was expanding. At first additional courses were developed in Landscaping, Propagation and Garden Maintenance; then beyond horticulture with courses in fitness, business, environmental studies and writing.
From Pen and Paper to Cutting Edge Technology
At this stage Courses were written and edited with pen and paper, then typed onto stencils and individual pages of course notes printed one at a time. Those notes were then compiled and stapled together. This was a time before computer technology was ever used by small businesses, nor by most colleges or schools. John’s brother was studying I.T. at RMIT at the time and encouraged a move to using computers. We purchased our first computer and dot matrix computer printer in 1981. John and (wife) Leonie set about learning to use and apply a technology that was at the time largely foreign to them, and largely foreign to almost everyone else. Within months, they had worked out how to adapt this new technology to developing, managing and delivering distance education, using an early word processing system developed for Apple II computers (called Zardax). In 1986 Zardaz was fast becoming redundant, so everything was transferred from Zardax on Apples to Wordstar on PC’s. A few years later it was transferred to Wordperfect on PC’s then to Microsoft Word. Through the 90’s John’s son (David Mason; by then a trained and experienced programmer) built an LMS (Learning Management System) and courses began being delivered online. Recognising that online delivery was problematic for some people (eg. With poor internet connections), and that others learn better reading printed materials than working off a screen; these other options were maintained and continued to be developed and improved. In 2016 a completely new online course delivery system was developed with far more features, and after a year of testing and improving, courses began being moved to this new cutting edge system in 2017. The transfer was completed in 2018. New features and improvements to programming have continue in that system since.
In 1985 ACS moved to a commercial premises and opened a retail garden & book shop which operated for 18 months. With the school continuing to grow much faster than the shop, the business moved away from retailing (except for mail order books) in 1986.
Engaging with industry
ACS and it’s principal have always engaged with real world industry. It has always been a s important for staff to be selected on the basis of past and continuing involvement with industry (having worked in the “real world” beyond education, and been active with industry bodies and events). ACS embraced the idea of professional development long before it became trendy.
In the mid 1980’s ACS also formed a horticultural business called Let's Grow, in partnership with garden media personalities Glen Heyne in Melbourne; and Graham and Sandra Ross in Sydney. Let’s Grow brought together a number of garden industry businesses (including Maxicrop, Din San Nursery, Lilydale Turf, Kwik Kerb, Bonsai Farm; and others. As a group, Let’s Grow organised displays/promotions at events including the Royal Melbourne Show, The Homes Show (in Melbourne) and for 2 consecutive years shows at the National Rhododendron Garden at Olinda. Through the mid to late 80’s it also exhibited at major shows in Canberra and Sydney
From 1986, both with Let’s Grow, and also by itself, ACS exhibited more extensively at garden shows, farm field days and other exhibitions. We also began organising exhibitions and providing consulting services to exhibition companies.
From 1988 for 5 years, ACS contracted to organise a Garden Show as part of the Royal Melbourne Show for the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria
In 1991, with expanding interest from the north of Australia and beyond, a second office was established in Queensland on the Gold Coast
The Internet, Accreditations and Affiliations
The 90's also saw another major change in the school with the introduction of the internet.
ACS was one of the first colleges to put significant resources into developing web sites; and following that into developing an online training system. We have been delivering courses online ever since. As such, the profile of ACS web sites grew well beyond what would have been expected for a small college that it was. It maintains an extremely strong web presence even today, because of the foundation laid in the early and mid 1990's.
With this expanded web presence came an increased international awareness of ACS and our unique range of courses. This attracted attention from many quarters.
In the late 1990's courses were sold or licensed to a number of other countries. The government of Bermuda purchased rights to the ACS Certificate in Horticulture, to use in developing horticultural training for that country. One of the United States largest mail order plant nurseries (Pacifica) purchased rights to the same Certificate in Horticulture, and began teaching this program from a new 400 acre botanic gardens in Oregon.
Writing and Publishing
Apart from teaching; ACS has also always been involved in publishing.
From the early 1980's for around 15 years, ACS principal John Mason, wrote regularly for Grass Roots Magazine. In 1983 the school started regularly contributing to the national garden magazine -Garden Guide -and contributed off an on involvement with that magazine until 2003. In 1988 the school was contracted by Express Publications in Sydney to write a range of Gardening magazines. This arrangement also continued for many years.
Over a period of 30 years, John Mason and staff at the school have also been contracted to write books for both national and international publishers. Over 50 books by John Mason have been published in print by Kangaroo Press, Leisure Press (USA), Harper Collins, CSIRO/Landlinks Press, Hyland House and others. Some of these titles have been exceptionally successful in one way or another. John’s Commercial Hydroponic book was published in 2 editions, with many reprints from 1990 to 2005 and sold over 50,000 copies worldwide. The Environment of Play published in 1982 was prescribed as a text by universities in both Australia and the USA. Farm Management published in 1996 was selected as a preferred reference by a Chinese agricultural college.
Over the first decade of the new millennium, publishing came under pressure from an expanding internet and a growing new industry in eBook publishing. Text books which were previously bought and sold to students for supplementary reading were becoming increasingly difficult to attain; and fewer were getting updated or published. Recognising a need for a dependable source of supplementary reading material, ACS launched a new eBook publishing business in 2012. Staff began writing and publishing eBooks, specifically designed to compliment and support our students in their studies. By mid 2016 we were approaching around 100 titles. New titles continue to be published annually.
In 2013 we entered another partnership, to produce a quarterly "green living" magazine (ie. Home Grown) with a Sydney publisher which lasted for almost 4 years ; only closing due to ill health. Staff continue write for other publications, including the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria’s quarterly magazine.
Evolving and Growing
Throughout the 21st Century ACS has continued to grow internationally. By 2002 it was becoming very obvious that the future growth was more overseas than just in Australia. ACS now contracts staff worldwide. It now operates as two separate but affiliated entities, one in Queensland , Australia; and the other in Stourbridge in England.
Between 1992 and 2004, ACS operated as a registered training organisation offering a range of accredited certificates and diplomas; but as always, the world was changing, the value of formal qualifications was diminishing and the importance of learning becoming far more important than the qualification which the learning led to. ACS shifted it's focus away from assessment and qualifications. ACS still offers a range of qualifications, but the focus has moved more strongly to facilitating learning, rather than providing formal qualifications. This approach allows a stronger focused learning experience. Industry has responded well, and our students succeed because of the superior learning they achieve.
Until 2016, all courses were created to take roughly 100 hours to complete. These could be combined in various configurations to create qualifications. They all involved not only reading but also practical tasks designed to reinforce learning), automated self assessment tests, written/submitted assignments and personal interaction with tutors. In 2016 ACS began to develop a completely new category of shorter, fully automated courses that could be completed in 20 hours. By 2021 there were 65 of these new style courses, in addition to over 600 of the standard 100 hour courses.
In 2007 we launched a new affiliates system, partnering with some leading colleges in the UK and Australia, under the banner ACS Global Partners. By 2012, this had grown to encompass 18 colleges, in 6 different countries, licensing and delivering ACS courses to over 8,000 students each year across the world. Expanding our activity in this way has provided additional revenue and allowed us to expand our development of both course materials, and software resources, for ever improving services to our students. Unlike many other education institutions, we have taken this route to supplementing income, rather than relying increasingly on government funding. We believe that by diversifying our funding sources and avoiding any reliance on government funding; we are developing greater sustainability in the education service we can offer.
As far back as the 1980’s, ACS attempted to incorporate video into it’s offerings. In the 80’s there was surprisingly little enthusiasm from students. In the 90’s there was a little more take up, but production was costly and students on the whole were not particularly keen to be using videos. As the new millennium unfolded, technologies improved, and perhaps attitudes toward using video for learning has changed; ACS identified that a greater demand for video was building.
In 2017 ACS employed a full time film maker and began producing video and embedding video into courses. By 2021 over half of the courses had some video incorporated into them.
The covid pandemic created a stronger need for remote learning. Affiliate activity strengthened considerably over 2020, to the point that over 40,000 people (globally) were studying ACS courses in early 2021.
With growth over the new millennia, ACS has continued to expand it’s development of learning products and services; and the updating and improvement of old ones.