WWW-based online education turns 20 this summer

I’m a little surprised that this hasn’t gotten any press, but Internet-based online education turns 20 this summer. There were previous distance education programs that used networks of one form or another as the medium (e.g. University of Phoenix established its “online campus” in 1989), but the real breakthrough is the use of the world wide web (WWW), effectively creating what people most commonly know as “the Internet”.

To the best of my knowledge (correct me in comments if there are earlier examples), the first accredited school to offer a course over the WWW was the Open University in a pilot Virtual Summer School project in the summer of 1994. The first course was in Cognitive Psychology, offered to 12 students, as described in this paper by Marc Eisenstadt and others involved in the project (the HTML no longer renders):

In August and September 1994, a Virtual Summer School (VSS) for Open University undergraduate course D309 Cognitive Psychology enabled students to attend an experimental version of summer school ‘electronically’, i.e. from their own homes using a computer and a modem. VSS students were able to participate in group discussions, run experiments, obtain one-to-one tuition, listen to lectures, ask questions, participate as subjects in experiments, conduct literature searches, browse original journal publications, work in project teams, undertake statistical analyses, prepare and submit nicely formatted individual or joint written work, prepare plenary session presentations, and even socialize and chit-chat, all without ever leaving their homes. The term ‘Virtual Summer School’ was used to mean that the software packages supplied to students emulate many aspects of a residential summer school, but without requiring physical attendance. As with many other Open University activities, we feel that face-to-face tuition and peer group interaction would still be preferable if it could be achieved. However, there are sometimes circumstances which preclude physical attendance, so we want to provide the best possible alternative. Virtual Summer School was a first step in this direction. This year, it was only an experimental option for a dozen already-excused students, which gave us a low-risk entry in order to assess the viability of the approach.

There is even a concept video put together by the Open University at the end of 1994 that includes excerpts of the VSS course.

And now for your trip down memory lane, I have taken the paper, cleaned up the formatting, and fixed / updated / removed the links that no longer work. The modified paper is below for easier reading:

*************

Virtual Summer School Project, 1994

(source: http://faculty.education.ufl.edu/Melzie/Distance/Virtual%20Summer%20School%20Project)

Background

One of the great strengths of the UK’s Open University is its extensive infrastructure, which provides face-to-face tuition through a network of more than 7000 part-time tutors throughout the UK and Europe. This support network, combined with in-house production of high-quality text and BBC-produced videos, provides students with much more than is commonly implied by the phrase ‘distance teaching’! Moreover, students on many courses must attend residential schools (e.g. a one-week summer school to gain experience conducting Biology experiments), providing an additional layer of support. About 10% of students have genuine difficulty attending such residential schools, and increasingly we have started to think about addressing the needs of students at a greater distance from our base in the UK. This is where the Virtual Summer School comes in.

The Cognitive Psychology Virtual Summer School

In August and September 1994, a Virtual Summer School (VSS) for Open University undergraduate course D309 Cognitive Psychology enabled students to attend an experimental version of summer school ‘electronically’, i.e. from their own homes using a computer and a modem. VSS students were able to participate in group discussions, run experiments, obtain one-to-one tuition, listen to lectures, ask questions, participate as subjects in experiments, conduct literature searches, browse original journal publications, work in project teams, undertake statistical analyses, prepare and submit nicely formatted individual or joint written work, prepare plenary session presentations, and even socialize and chit-chat, all without ever leaving their homes. The term ‘Virtual Summer School’ was used to mean that the software packages supplied to students emulate many aspects of a residential summer school, but without requiring physical attendance. As with many other Open University activities, we feel that face-to-face tuition and peer group interaction would still be preferable if it could be achieved. However, there are sometimes circumstances which preclude physical attendance, so we want to provide the best possible alternative. Virtual Summer School was a first step in this direction. This year, it was only an experimental option for a dozen already-excused students, which gave us a low-risk entry in order to assess the viability of the approach.

Below we describe the technology involved, evaluation studies, and thoughts about the future.

The Technology

Three main categories of technology were required: communications & groupwork tools, support & infrastructure software/hardware, and academic project software.

Communications and Groupwork

  • Email, Usenet newsgroups, live chat lines and low-bandwidth (keyboard) conferencing: this technology was provided by FirstClass v. 2.5 from SoftArc in Toronto, and gave students a nice-looking veneer for many of their day-to-day interactions. A ‘Virtual Campus’ map appeared on their desktops, and folder navigation relied on a ‘room’ metaphor to describe crucial meeting places and bulletin boards.
  • WWW access: NCSA Mosaic 1.0.3 for Macintosh was provided for this purpose [in the days before Netscape was released] . Students had customized Hotlists which pointed them to academically-relevant places (such as Cognitive & Psychological Sciences on The Internet), as well as some fun places.
  • Internet videoconferencing: Using Cornell University’s CU-SeeMe, students with ordinary Macs or Windows PCs (even over dial-up lines from home) were able to watch multiple participants around the world. Video transmission from slightly higher-spec Macs & PCs was used for several Virtual Summer School events, including a Virtual Guest Lecture by Donald A. Norman, formerly Professor of Psychology at the University of California at San Diego (founder of its Cognitive Science Programme), and now an Apple Fellow.
  • Remote presentation software: we used a product called ‘The Virtual Meeting’ (from RTZ in Cupertino), which allowed synchronized slide & movie presentations on remote Macs & PCs distributed across local, wide, or global (including dial-in) networks, displayed images of all remote ‘participants’, and facilitated moderated turn-taking, ‘hand-raising’, interactive whiteboard drawing & question/answer sessions.
  • Mobile telephone support and voice conferencing: every VSS student was supplied with an NEC P100 cellular phone, so that they could use it while their domestic phone was busy with their modem (some day they’ll have ISDN of fibre optic lines, but not this year). Audio discussions were facilitated by group telephone conference calls, run concurrently with CU-SeeMe and other items shown above. Our largest telephone conference involved 17 participants, and worked fine given that basic politeness constraints were obeyed.
  • Remote diagnostic support and groupwork: Timbuktu Pro from Farallon, running over TCP/IP, enabled us to ‘cruise in’ to our students’ screens while chatting to them on their mobile phones, and to help them sort out specific problems. Students could also work in small self-moderated groups this way, connecting as observers to one user’s Macintosh.

Support and infrastructure software/hardware

  • Comms Infrastructure: TCP/IP support was provided by a combination of MacTCP, MacPPP, VersaTerm Telnet Tool on each student’s machine, plus an Annex box at The Open University connecting to a Mac Quadra 950 running a FirstClass Server and 3 Suns running cross-linked CU-SeeMe reflectors.
  • Tutorial Infrastructure: each student was supplied with HyperCard, MoviePlay, and SuperCard 1.7 to run pre-packaged tutorial and demonstration programs, some of which were controlled remotely by us during group presentations. Pre-packaged ‘guided tour’ demos of all the software were also provided (prepared with a combination of MacroMind Director and CameraMan). To help any computer-naive participants ‘bootstrap’ to the point where they can at least send us an email plea for help, we also supplied a short video showing them how to unpack and connect all of their equipment, and how to run some of the demos and FirstClass.
  • Hardware: one of our aims was to foreshadow the day in the near future when we can presuppose that (a) most students will be computer-literate, (b) students will have their own reasonable-specification hardware, (c) bandwidth limitations will not be so severe, and (d) all of our software will be cross-platform (e.g. Mac or Windows). We could only approximate that in 1994, so we supplied each VSS student with a Macintosh LC-II with 8MB of RAM, a 14.4Kbps modem, a StyleWriter-II printer, 13″ colour monitor, mobile phone and extra mobile phone battery. Students were given a conventional video cassette showing how to set up all the equipment (see tutorial infrastructure above).

Academic project software

Our students had four main support packages to help them in their Cognitive Psychology studies:

  • a custom-built ‘Word Presentation Program’, which allowed them to create stimuli for presentation to other students and automatically record data such as reaction times and button presses (they could create a turnkey experiment package for emailing to fellow students, and then have results emailed back);
  • a HyperCard-based statistics package, for analysing their data;
  • MacProlog from Logic Programming Associates in the UK, for writing simple Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Simulation programs;
  • ClarisWorks, for preparing reports and presentations, reading articles that we emailed to them as attachments, and doing richer data analyses.

Timetable and evaluation

Students had a three-week warmup period in order to become familiar with their new equipment and run some trial (fun) activities with every piece of software, and formal academic activities took place from August 27th – Sept. 9th, 1994, mostly in the evenings. Thus, the conventional one-week residential summer school was stretched out for two weeks to allow for part-time working. During week one the students concentrated on experimental projects in the area of “Language & Memory” (typically demonstrating inferences that “go beyond the information given”). During week two the students wrote simple AI programs in Prolog that illustrate various aspects of cognitive processing (e.g. simulating children’s arithmetic errors). They were supplied with Paul Mulholland’s version of our own Prolog trace package (see descriptions of our work on Program Visualization) to facilitate their Prolog debugging activities.

A detailed questionnaire was supplied both to the Virtual Summer School students and to conventional summer school students taking the same course. We looked at how students spent their time, which activities were beneficial for them, and many other facets of their Virtual Summer School experience.

[removed reference to Kim Isikoff’s paper and student interviews, as all links were broken]

The future

The Virtual Summer School finished on 9th September 1994 (following our Virtual Disco on 8th September 1994, incidentally…. we told students about music available on the World Wide Web for private use). What happens next? Here are several issues of importance to us:

  • We must lobby for ever-increasing ‘bandwidth’ [i.e. channel capacity, reflected directly in the amount and quality of full-colour full-screen moving images and quality sound that can be handled]. This is necessary not only for Open University students, but also for the whole of the UK, and indeed for the whole world. As capacity and technology improve, so does the public expectation and need [analagous to the way the M25 motorway was overfull with cars the first day it opened– the technology itself helps stimulate demand]. Whatever the current ‘Information SuperHighway’ plans are [just like Motorway construction plans], there is a concern that they don’t go far enough.
  • We must RADICALLY improve both (i) the user interfaces and (ii) the underlying layers of communications tools. Even with the excellent software and vendor support that we had at our disposal, all the layers of tools needed (TCP/IP, PPP, Communications Toolbox, etc.) made a veritable house of cards. The layers of tools were (i) non-trivial to configure optimally in the first place (for us, not the students); (ii) non-trivial to mass-install as ‘turnkey’-ready systems for distribution to students; (iii) non-trivial for students to use straight ‘out of the box’ (naturally almost everything in the detailed infrastructure is hidden from the students, but one or two items must of necessity rear their ugly heads, and that gets tricky); and (iv) ‘temperamental’ (students could get interrupted or kicked off when using particular combinations of software). We were fully prepared for (iv), because that’s understandible in the current era of communicating via computers, but (i), (ii), and (iii) were more surprising. [If anyone doubts the nature of these difficulties, I hereby challenge them to use Timbuktu Pro, a wonderful software product, with 4 remotely-sited computer-naive students using TCP/IP over a dial-up PPP connection.] We can do better, and indeed we MUST do better in the future. Many vendors and academic institutions are working on these issues, and they need urgent attention.
  • We must obtain a better understanding of the nature of remote groupwork. Our students worked in groups of size 2, 3, or 4 (depending on various project selection circumstances). Yet even with pre-arranged group discussions by synchronous on-line chat or telephone conference calls, a lot of fast-paced activity would suddenly happen, involving just one student and one tutor. For example, student A might post a project idea to a communal reading area accessible only to fellow project-group students B and C and also tutor T. Tutor T might post a reply with some feedback, and A might read it and react to it before B and C had logged in again. Thus, A and T would have inadvertently created their own ‘shared reality’– a mini-dialogue INTENDED for B and C to participate in as well, yet B and C would get left behind just because of unlucky timing. The end result in this case would be that students A, B, and C would end up doing mostly individual projects, rather than a group project. Tutors could in future ‘hold back’, but this is probably an artificial solution. The ‘shared reality’ between A and T in the above scenario is no different from what would happen if A cornered T in the bar after the day’s activities had finished at a conventional Summer School. However, in that situation T could more easily ensure that B and C were brought up to date the next day. We may ultimately have to settle for project groups of size 2, but not before doing some more studies to try to make larger groups (e.g. size 4) much more cohesive and effective.
  • We need to improve ‘tutor leverage’ (ability to reach and influence more people). Let’s suppose that we have thoroughly researched and developed radical improvements for the three items above (more bandwidth, nice user interfaces with smooth computer/communications infrasture [sic], happy cohesive workgroups of size 4). It would be a shame if, after all that effort and achievement, each tutor could only deal with, say, 3 groups of 4 students anywhere in the world. The sensory overload for tutors at the existing Virtual Summer School was considerable… many simultaneous conversations and many pieces of software and technology running at once. The 1994 Virtual Summer School was (of necessity) run by a self-selecting group of tutors who were competent in both the subject matter and the technology infrastructure. Less technologically-capable tutors need to be able to deal with larger numbers of students in a comfortable fashion, or Virtual Summer School will remain quite a ‘niche’ activity.

The four areas above (more bandwidth, better computer/comms interfaces, larger workgroups, increased tutor leverage) are active areas of research for us…. stay tuned (and see what we’re now doing in KMi Stadium)!

Who made it work?

  • Marc Eisenstadt: VSS Course Director, Slave Driver, and Fusspot
  • Mike Brayshaw: VSS Tutor & Content Wizard
  • Tony Hasemer: VSS Tutor & FirstClass Wizard
  • Ches Lincoln: VSS Counsellor and FirstClass Guru
  • Simon Masterton: VSS Academic Assistant, Mosaic Webmaster, and Mobile Phone Guru
  • Stuart Watt: VSS Mac Wizard
  • Martin Le Voi: VSS Memory/Stats Advisor & Unix Guru
  • Kim Issroff: VSS Evaluation and <A HREF=”#kim-report”>Report</A>
  • Richard Ross: VSS Talking Head Guided Tour
  • Donald A. Norman (Apple, Inc.): VSS Virtual Guest Lecturer
  • Blaine Price: Unix & Internet Guru & Catalyst
  • Adam Freeman: Comms & Networking Guru
  • Ian Terrell: Network Infrastructure Wizard
  • Mark L. Miller (Apple, Inc.): Crucial Guidance
  • Christine Peyton (Apple UK): Support-against-all-odds
  • Ortenz Rose: Admin & Sanity Preservation
  • Elaine Sharkey: Warehousing/Shipping Logistics

Update: Changed title and Internet vs. WWW language to avoid post-hoc flunking of Dr. Chuck’s IHTS MOOC.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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4 Responses to WWW-based online education turns 20 this summer

  1. Kate says:

    I’m prone to standing on a tiny soapbox of remaindered books at this point: Taylor and Saarinen’s Imagologies. This account of an international online pilot project was what got me started in online teaching. It was published in 1994, and is still a really refreshing, extraordinary read. So I’m thinking the course itself, which put students in the US and Finland together, probably ran a bit earlier.

    Here‘s a 1995 review of the book, which was itself trying to address in material form the emergence of new kinds of publishing. Reading this book still makes me happy.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    And the judges say . . . influential but not a course from credit-bearing institution (educational work group or seminar). Sorry, but thanks for playing :}

    More seriously, thanks for the link and tidbit of biography. I just ordered the book and am intrigued.

  3. Pingback: Internet-based online education turns 20 this summer! | Technologies for Educators

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