25 years of EdTech – 1996: CMC

I’m revisiting the previous post on Bulletin Board Systems slightly here. One of the interesting things about this series is the way others are bringing great stuff to my attention. For instance, David Kernohan has covered much of this in better detail than I can (sometimes I hate that guy with all his knowledge stuff).

The reason I’m revisiting Bulletin Board Systems with the concept of Computer Mediated Communication is that it’s a good example of how a technology develops into a more generic educational approach. CMC became a popular phrase around this time and represents higher ed really beginning to engage with online tools in a theoretical, conceptual manner, comparable to the way they had with early developments in open education. CMC was, as David notes, particularly driven by a shift from text based systems to graphical interfaces. When I joined the OU we were using the FirstClass system. It allowed us to automatically allocate students to groups, set up groups with different permissions, sync offline, thread and structure conversations and allow a high degree of personalisation to users.

Such systems were forerunners to VLEs, both technically and socially. CMC systems made ease of use simple enough that the pedagogic benefits could be realised. This is again a recurrent ed tech theme – when the barriers to use of a particular tech become low enough (and in the case of smart phones, say, almost invisible), that its use can be generalised. From CMC we got online tutor groups, e-moderation, forums, conferences, and so on. For a long time these were the issues that concerned ed tech academics. It was online tutor groups for the OU that was particularly relevant. There were a number of courses that experimented with this before I got there. I tried implementing one on an existing course, which was an indication the software was becoming easy enough to use to expand to broader application, and that there was an appetite from some students for an all online experience. Gradually the viability of it as an approach gained credibility until it would be the norm (some 15 or so years later – we don’t like to rush these things).

If the benefit of the web was the removal of barriers to broadcast and publishing, then what CMC delivered was the ability to collaborate at a distance. This is arguably more powerful in education than the democratisation of broadcast, but it gets to the heart of different views about education. The use of the web to disseminate info cheaply (see also MOOCs) is the infinite lecture hall model. The use of the net to facilitate collaboration and discussion in groups at a distance speaks to a more student focused, less industrial model. In this we see another common theme – technology brings underlying beliefs regarding education into focus, and then gives them steroids.

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