25yearsedtech,  ALT

25 Years of EdTech – 1994: Bulletin Board Systems

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]


  • Alan Levine

    Wonder though if you classify early social/connective systems here in the states like AOL, Compuserve which might be called BBS (a private, fee based comm system operating over the phone system until later moving to TCP/IP and later dying). But is BBS about the platform or the mode of mostly text based threaded dialogue, which you still see in interest-based web forums (anytime I research something about my Ford F-150 truck, I seem to end up in some enthusiasts forum)

    At the Maricopa Community Colleges system where I started in 1992 there was a thriving BBS system developed at Glendale Community College in the late 1980s. Like many things innovative then in the system, the Electronic Forum (EF) was an idea driven by a faculty member, English teacher Karen Schwalm and programmed by librarian Chris Zagar.

    But this was not built first as a system for home access, since not many students had the technology at home, but using the internal computer network Maricopa put in during the 1980s. Glendale had two large open computing labs, staffed with instructional tutors, and offered a suite of self paced classes delivered over the network there called “Open Entry / Open Exit”.

    They had significant non niche success in multiple academic areas in both the self-paced courses and regular classroom ones. I do not recall much about the features of the system, but vaguely recollect tools for writing/submitting assignments, holding discussions, open class and direct communications. I could not find much record of this online, but there was some research into how it effectively supported students who were typically not participating in class.

    Oh here is a note on its closing on tenth anniversary in 1999, and that it was eventually used across all ten maricopa colleges

    I’ve been digging through and putting back online a batch of the Instructional Technology activity that was going on in the system from the late 1980s- this report “It’s a River Not a Lake” gives a good snapshot of what the system was doing and aiming at in 1994 http://mcli.cogdogblog.com/river/

    • mweller

      Thanks so much for this Alan (and sorry it got waylaid in spam). One of the interesting things is that this series is bringing out lots of comments on old applications and not just in a nostalgic sense, but rather what we can learn from them. When I’ve done the 25, maybe I should wikify it to make it a resource.

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