While the web was actually invented in 1989, the focus of this book is not on when a technology was invented, but rather when it became relevant in ed tech, which usually results from a certain level of uptake. While the story of the invention of the web is reasonably well known, it is worth revisiting with the knowledge of how it developed, and to identify the foundations in that development that have come to shape so much of educational technology.
Unlike many origin stories where claims are disputed, there is a clear and acknowledged inventor of the web — Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In 1989, he was working as a software engineer at the large particle physics laboratory, CERN. With scientists from around the world working on different projects and generating large amounts of data and findings, Berners-Lee (n.d.) identified that they had difficulty in sharing information:
In those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it. Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer. Often it was just easier to go and ask people when they were having coffee. (para. 1)
Although Berners-Lee is the acknowledged inventor of the web, he was not operating in a vacuum. His proposal (Berners-Lee, 1989) brought together the Internet as a means of linking computers, and hypertext as a method of writing linked documents. By 1990 Berners-Lee had developed four technologies that made the web functional and that still underpin it:
HTML: Hypertext Markup Language, an easy to use markup language to produce web documents.
URI: Uniform Resource Identifier (also known as URL), a means of giving any page or resource on the web a unique address so it can be linked to and located.
HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol, a data transfer method that allows web resources to be retrieved across the Internet.
Web browser: a piece of software that utilizes the previous three technologies to allow a user to navigate and use the web.
The fundamental design principles were as significant as the specific technologies in the development of the web. Berners-Lee (1989) identified that for success any such system needed to be open, and not a proprietary system owned by any one corporation. The technical attributes of the web can also be seen as giving rise to its social attributes. It was designed as a communication system, around principles of robustness, decentralization and openness. In terms of robustness, the web was built on the Internet, which was designed to survive attack, failure, or sabotage of any particular part and still function as a meaningful communication system, in other words as a network system, with no centralized, and thus vulnerable, control. This aspect is fundamental to how the web shaped society. With a decentralized system, no single node is, theoretically, more important than any other. Inherent in this is a democratization of communication. Although the ability to pay for search engine results and game algorithms would skew this, in principle the web page that any individual publishes is as significant as those from any large corporation, news outlet, or government. An open system, therefore, follows from the decentralized approach, so any compatible computer can connect and participate.
From these technological features, then, a system evolved which had no central authority, meaning that it was difficult for established agencies to control what was published on the web. What anyone could publish and debate was not governed or censored. In many ways, the Internet acts like a living organism, driven by these social values, and in this both the potential for good and ill was established. Much of this book will explore how these features developed in educational terms.
By 1995, the web browser was becoming reasonably commonplace, with Netscape dominating. With Facebook pages and WordPress sites created at the click of a button now, it is difficult to remember the effort but also the magic in creating your first web page using hand-coded HTML. I used to run Open University summer school sessions where we taught people HTML and over the course of a morning got them to publish a page online. The realization that anyone in the world could now see their page was a revelation. This act now seems like the mythical mudskipper crawling from the sea to the land: a symbolic evolutionary moment.
At this stage, the web still required a degree of technical expertise and was awkward to use, but it was on the way to becoming easy enough, and sufficiently interesting, to be moving beyond pure specialist interest. People regularly made proclamations that nobody would shop online, or that it was the equivalent of CB radio. Even at the time, these views seemed misguided: we could not predict smart phones and ubiquitous Wi-Fi but being able to dial up and connect to information sources anywhere was always going to be revolutionary — and particularly so for education. What the web browser provided (although it would take a few years to materialize) was a common tool so that specific software was no longer required for every function that you sought to carry out online. Prior to this file transfer was performed through File Transfer Protocol (FTP), email through specific clients, bulletin board systems through software such as FidoNet, and so on. The browser provided the potential to unify all these, and more, in one tool. In this the browser was like the HTML specification that underpinned it — in many ways it was inferior to bespoke versions for any specific function, but its generality made it good enough. This was one reason that many tech people failed to appreciate the significance of the web, they could always point out the superior functionality of their favoured software tool. Unix geeks sniffed at the simplicity of the web compared with what they could realize through command language interfaces. But “good enough” is usually the victor in terms of popularity if it can be made universal — Facebook is a more recent example of this phenomenon.
Learning to hand-code HTML presented a significant barrier to the popular adoption of the web. However, web publishing tools such as FrontPage emerged, which allowed people to use templates and simple menu functions, and then click “publish.” More broadly, Angelfire and GeoCities were online providers that helped people create websites with their templated tools. Many universities ran a default service for staff to generate their own pages. These were nearly always based on Unix servers, and because of the way the file structure was specified in Unix, each user had their own directory which was accessible by typing ~. Hence universities ran “tilde” servers, with web addresses such as www.uni.ac.uk/~mweller. A certain university style developed for these rather vanilla websites, which sometimes persist to this day.
Even in this simple design, the nascent possibilities of the web for education were evident. Firstly, it made communication, and as a result, networking, much easier. Even though social media didn’t exist yet, it was still possible to find the work of a scholar at another university and send them an email. This was, by some distance, easier than relying on an introduction or adopting the more intrusive and less reliable method of telephoning. Secondly, the uploading of publications to your own website marked the beginning of consideration about the dissemination of knowledge and the relationship with publishers which would lead to much of the open access developments. Thirdly, academics began to share teaching resources in this way, which as with publications, would plant the seeds of the open education movement.
Therefore, in this early, often amateurish, development of what became known as Web 1.0 we can see 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 programs, for instance) or shipping physical copies of books, videos, and CDs, this was a significant change. It not only altered how single function distance education institutions such as the OU operated, but also lowered the cost of entry into the distance education market, so now all other universities could effectively become distance, or hybrid, education providers.
The web laid the foundation for nearly all the technologies that follow in this book and is the one we are still feeling the impact of most keenly. Much of ed tech is essentially a variant on the question: what does the web mean for us? In teaching, the development of LMS, OER, and MOOC, as well as related pedagogic approaches, are all examples of this. In research, the use of blogs, analytics, and Web 2.0 tools have all been significant. For academics and universities responding to the cultural shifts caused by social media, video, and the dark side of the web has become strategically important. The removal of the publication filter that the web provided was often touted as the most significant socio-technological change since the invention of the printing press (e.g., Giles, 1996) and, 25 years later, that view does not seem like hyperbole.