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: