25 years of EdTech – 1995: the Web

Before someone jumps in and says “actually the web was invented in 1989”, this series isn’t about when they were invented, but when I feel they became relevant in ed tech. So don’t be that guy. It’s now 1995, in my personal history this is the year I joined the Open University. At the interview I said “so have you thought about using the web to deliver courses?” I think they interpreted this as me knowing more about it than I did, but hey, I got the job. The web browser was becoming reasonably common now, with Netscape (*sniff*) dominating.

I won’t go all nostalgic about the early promise of the web, at this stage it was still techie and awkward to use. People regularly made proclamations that no-one would shop online, or that it was the equivalent of CB radio. Even at the time these seemed ridiculous, even if we couldn’t predict smart phones and ubiquitous wifi, being able to dial up and connect to information sources anywhere was always going to be revolutionary. And particularly for education. What the web browser provided (although it would take a few years to materialise) was a common tool so that specific software wasn’t required for every function. In this the browser was like HTML that underpinned it – it wasn’t as good as bespoke versions for any specific function but its generality made it good enough. I had this argument repeatedly with tech people at the OU, who would always point out the superior functionality of their favoured software tool. Good enough always wins out in popularity if you can make it universal (Facebook is another example of this).

Learning HTML was always going to be a barrier and web publishing tools such as FrontPage came along, before we all switched to Facebook pages or WordPress sites. But I recall the magic of running OU summer schools (which, ironically I and the web would help make redundant) where we taught people HTML, and got them to publish a page online. The realisation that anyone in the world could now see their page was a revelation. In this are the important aspects of what the web gave education – the freedom to publish, communicate and share. For distance education which had previously relied on expensive broadcast (the much loved OU BBC programmes for instance) or shipping physical copies of books, video and CDs, this was a game changer. It not only altered how single function institutions such as the OU operated, but it significantly lowered the cost of entry into the distance education market, so suddenly all other universities could now become distance ed providers. Of all the technologies I will look at in this series, the web is the one we are still feeling the impact of most keenly.

Now, excuse me, I’m off to listen to some modem dial up noises:

6 Comments

  1. Did you all run a tilde server for faculty where they could have their own web page? Something kinda like this: http://contemporary-home-computing.org/prof-dr-style/sg/hero.png

    Olia Lialina calls it the Prof. Dr. style, and I worked on a few of those pages as late as 2005, and Andy Rush had some awesome OG worksheets for getting up and running with your own site using FTP and text editor. It was hard, but links were still magic. The very first instructional technology assignment we had as part of a class was in the Winter of 1995 when a Russian professor had us hard linking words in Notes from the Underground as a kind of annotated vision of the text. Our links would lead to research on a word or passage we did, and I thought that was crazy. We could write our research in a text document with marked up HTML, and it would link from the main text to reveal embedded research. That whole thing still seems magical to me, and very much inline with what still strikes me as relevant. Big fan of this blog series..

    1. Ha, yes! Those pages had _all_ the style. What I loved about HTML was that it was just easy enough – it was still too techie to ever reach the levels of uptake we have with Facebook, but you could teach people it. I gave an HTML workshop to OU staff, and years later one of the guys, who was an engineering technician, came up to me and said “that workshop changed my life”. He learnt HTML and became the department’s web guy.

  2. Oh heck, you are *SO* spot on with this. I’d forgotten for years about the CB radio comparison (with the underlying implication and sneer of ‘this is a thing only a tiny group of isolated nerds do’).

    I started at UKOLN in the same year, and quickly developed – had to – an argumentative style against many academics who would stand up, outraged, at events and start arguments that followed the same path:

    Professor Dinosaur: The web is a disgrace! Anyone can publish anything on there! Universities should not allow, promote, or spend resource on providing it. It goes against everything we do!

    Others including me: Why is it a bad thing that anyone can disseminate, as opposed to just a few?

    Dinosaur: There’s no quality control! Editing and peer review have quality control! Protection of quality standards yadda yadda yadda.

    Others: You think every book and paper is automatically high quality? And everything that is online is automatically low quality?

    Dinosaur: I’ve been published in [name of journal]! It took me years of academia to reach that standard! It is ground-breaking research of the highest quality!

    Others: I wrote a page using Dreamweaver during your talk and published it on my academic departments own website. Three hundred people have read it already.

    …and so on. There was one event in November 1995 where a professor, who was the visiting speaker, said at the end of his keynote that people who used “The World Wide Web” were obviously sexual deviants. He discovered during an incident at the conference dinner that he’d picked the wrong audience and times had changed.

    The first issue of Ariadne (still going) went live January 1996 and a small minority – but a very vocal and well-connected minority – of senior academics were apoplectic with rage at this. And I’m not exaggerating; complaint letters to The JISC (as it was), HEFCE, Department of Education, that Ariadne bypassed traditional (“quality”) processes, and people didn’t even have to leave their desks to read the content of the journal, which seemed to really upset some professors. Kudos to the senior people running The JISC at the time who were unambiguous in their pushback against this.

    Every dinosaur his tar pit…

    1. Hi John, sorry this comment ended up in spam for some reason. Man, I recall those arguments about quality control too. I remember a colleague when I demonstrated blogs said “hmm, so students could post links – worrying”. It was a real cultural shift.

  3. Hi folks,

    1995 – I’d just started at an Australian University and had a bit of time before my first classes. Downloaded a tiny little web server called ZBServer and installed on my work desktop computer started to write some HTML for teaching concepts to my students. I used HotDog Pro by Sausage Software as an HTML editor.

    Couple of reflections:
    1. If only I knew then what I know now
    2. Why are we still expecting university academics to be web designers? It hasn’t worked in the last 23 years.

    Cheers

    Mark

  4. Oh My – – Looking back at hi-tech in education I remember when the video cassettes were introduced. Then, we had Kaypro with portable computers (yes, suitcase sized but “advanced models” using CP/M had a hard disc) & technology in teaching-&-learning really took off. Interesting times thinking back on the way it was.

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