Our history

The Centre for Extended Learning grew out of the innovative Distance Education/Correspondence program that was started in 1968, only 10 short years after the University opened its doors.

The first courses offered were astronomy, electronics, electricity and magnetism, and atomic and nuclear physics. Professors James Leslie PhD. and H. J. T. Smith PhD., the first instructors, wanted an audio component, in addition to written material, to make the courses seem more like live lectures, so they recorded themselves using a reel-to-reel tape machine (see below). In that first year, there were 130 students.

Early tape machine

The early years with lectures on tape.

The correspondence program, renamed Distance Education in the early nineties, has been in operation continuously since its beginning in the Physics Department.

The move to online delivery was a very natural progression for us as new technologies allowed for more interactivity (student-content, student-instructor, and student-student) as well as more immediate feedback for learners. In addition, many administrative systems and processes were also moving to the online environment (course enrolment, access to library resources, as examples). 

Waterloo's first fully online course was offered in fall 1995 (an English writing course developed by an early adopter, without assistance from our office). Environmental Economics was the first online course from our office, and was delivered in fall 1997.  Since that time, all of our new course development has been online. 

The instructors we worked with in the early days were all ‘early adopters’ who were keen to move online. 

Gradually tape duplicating was replaced by web development and instructional design. In the early days, we developed our own “learning management system” as there wasn’t anything in place at the University that was centrally supported. 

However, we’ve always had great relationships with, and support from, our central Information Systems and Technology unit, as well as the Centre for Teaching Excellence, the Registrar’s Office, Library, BookStore and other campus partners.  So we worked together as we learned, and put systems in place to meet the needs of online learners who may be at a distance from the university. 

We’ve certainly learned a great deal since 1995 and we continue to find ways to enhance our learner experiences (also in part thanks to advances in technology).


In January 2010 Distance & Continuing Education was renamed Centre for Extended Learning. We currently have more than 525 online courses and 25 fully online programs, with more in development. Annually, we manage approximately 41,000 enrolments in online courses, representing about 14,000 unique students each year. 

Approximately 75%-80% of our enrolments come from students who are physically on campus.  No distinction is made between a course delivered in-class and the same course delivered online.  All of our students are "University of Waterloo students" (as opposed to "distance" or "online students"), and are able to self-enrol in whatever courses they choose (assuming pre-requisites have been met), and a good percentage are taking a blend of in-class and online courses.