Bulletin Board Systems
As well as being the convenient 25-year point, 1994 also marks an interesting shift in educational technology. I work at the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University (OU), and for much of its life hitherto the focus of research was on the effectiveness of analog technology. The sort of questions researchers sought to address were: How could the text in printed units be effectively formatted to encourage interaction between the reader and the text? What is the best use of video or audio cassettes within a course structure? How effective were residential summer schools? And so on. By 1994 the shift was more to digital content — multimedia CD-ROMs, and, as we shall see, some nascent online tools. So, 1994 provides a useful starting point for plotting the development of what many now consider to be the definition of educational technology — the use of Internet-related technology in education. However, given my complaints in the introduction about the historical amnesia of educational technology, it would be amiss of me to suggest that the online version of ed tech is the only one. But it is in 1994 that this account begins, and the focus is thenceforth almost exclusively on technologies that are online or radically altered by the possibility of digital, networked approaches.
In 1994 the web was just about to enter mainstream consciousness, and the Internet was gaining more popularity. One of the technologies that old ed tech practitioners express nostalgia for is the Bulletin Board System (BBS). These were really the forerunner for much of what we know as social media and developed the structures and processes (or lack of them) for discussion forums. The BBS operated in a world of dial-up modem connections. Each one acted in effect as its own server, and each user would connect directly to the BBS. This meant that the number of concurrent users was limited, and also that those users tended to want to get online and off again quickly (in the early days you were still paying for connection minutes, like a regular phone call). While they were briefly connected, users would upload, download, and send email, but from our perspective the most interesting part was posting to public message boards. Initially designed to be analogous to the cork bulletin board people would be familiar with, they soon divided into specialist groups and discussion forums. Systems such as FidoNet allowed users to connect to different BBS so they could communicate with millions of people globally. As Internet access became more affordable, the underlying server structure of BBS changed. People could now access BBS from anywhere in the world, for equal cost, but the conventions and communications practices they had developed persisted, and were modelled by Internet service providers such as AOL and CompuServe.
These nascent online discussion forums marked 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 they relied on expensive dial-up, the ability to sync offline was important. But suddenly the possibility for remote students to engage in discussions with others was not out of the question for the average student. The language used to refer to these systems highlights their novelty and that they were occurring in an age when analog dominated. So, they are referred to as “electronic” bulletin board systems, or multi-user systems. Neither of these terms would require specifying now, which is indicative of the large cultural shift that has taken place since their inception.
At the OU they were experimenting with a BBS called CoSy. While some could see their potential, they were still viewed as a very niche application. At the time, the university needed to help people with the entire process of getting online, acting as an Internet service provider, dealing with unfamiliar software and advice on how to communicate appropriately online. This uses up a lot of academic real estate in a course about, say, Shakespeare. The following quote (Mason & Kaye, 1989) about the use of the CoSy system highlights that students did not always share educators’ enthusiasm for the benefits of the technology:
A series of questions about the convenience of electronic communications was included in the questionnaire for the course database. These show that about 60–70% of students returning questionnaires found [online communication] less effective for contacting their tutor, getting help, socializing and saving time and money in travelling. (p. 123)
The application of BBS was often reserved for subjects where the medium was the message: for example, in courses on technology and communication, and even then, students often found the technology frustrating. Despite the inevitable early teething problems, particularly for distance education, the possibilities were revolutionary — BBS had the potential to effectively remove the distance element. The only way students communicated with each other previously was at summer school and in face-to-face tutorials, or via telephone with their tutor. At campus-based universities, BBS were often used in computer labs, for example, to deliver early forms of e-learning, and in this sense can be viewed as the precursor to the Learning Management System (LMS) or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Levine (2018) recalled the use of BBS on campus in colleges during the 1990s, saying they “offered a suite of self-paced classes delivered over the network called ‘Open Entry / Open Exit’ . . . [and] tools for writing/submitting assignments, holding discussions, open class and direct communications” (paras. 3–4). As we shall see with later technologies, the early users of BBS tended to be already well educated, and had above-average earnings (James, Wotring, & Forrest, 1995). This was because they were a niche interest, and required specialist, often expensive, equipment to access. But as we know, if we view platforms such as Facebook as the successors to BBS, this privileged demographic did not persist. This is worth noting because new developments in ed tech, such as MOOC and OER, also reveal a similar user demographic. The question is whether this is permanent or a phase that leads to wider adoption.
Other early indicators that BBS provided that would be significant for ed tech included issues of distributing copyrighted material, Elkin-Koren (1994) arguing that restrictive copyright laws were preventing BBS from becoming effective social forums; the development of online communities, particularly for groups which might be marginalized in conventional society (Correll, 1995); the development of support groups as a means of bringing together geographically dispersed people with specialist interests (e.g., Benton, 1996; Finn & Lavitt, 1994); and conflicts between freedom of speech, libel, and online abuse (Weber, 1995). These are amplified now and society-wide, but their seeds are all evident in the early applications of BBS.
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 this technology would be in one of the first two categories. What was required for it to become a mainstream part of the educational technology landscape was the technical and social infrastructure that removed the high technical barrier to implementation.