Continuing my 25 years of Ed Tech reflections, it’s now 1994. The web is just about to break in a big way, and the internet is gaining more interest. One of the technologies that old ed tech hacks like me go all misty eyed over is the Bulletin Board System. These were popular for the nascent discussion forums online, and mark the first real awareness of education to the possibility of the internet. They often required specialist software at this stage, were text based and because we were all using expensive dial-up, the ability to synch offline was important.
At the OU (I was yet to join) they were experimenting with a couple of systems. While people such as Robin Mason could see their potential, they were still viewed as a very niche application. At the time the university needed to help people with the whole getting online process, dealing with unfamiliar software and advice on how to communicate online. That is a lot of academic real estate to use up in a course about, Shakespeare, say. So their application was reserved for subjects where the medium was the message. For distance education though the possibilities were revolutionary – they had the potential to remove the distance element. The only way students communicated with each other previously was at summer school and face to face tutorials. If we want to talk about the OU becoming a university of the cloud, then this is where it started.
The lessons from BBS are that some technologies have very specific applications, some die out, and others morph to a universal application. BBS did the latter, but in 1994, most people thought they would be in one of the first two categories. What was required for them to become a mainstream part of the educational technology landscape was the technical and social infrastructure that removed the high technical barrier to implementation. More of that in later posts.
[UPDATE – Will Woods reminded me that the early OU BBS was called CoSy]