Creative Disruption: The Changing Landscape of Technology

Computers in Education

Since the beginning of verbal communication, it has been the role of one generation to pass the knowledge it has acquired down to the next generation, so that the learned material does not have to be relearned all over again. Over time, passing on this information has evolved and pushed a constant striving for new ways of distributing information. Here we'll look at how technology has affected - and continues to shape - education.

Expanding Education's Reach

As part of the search for new ways to impart information, teachers have always looked for ways to include students who could not be brought into a classroom. The first known occurrence of this was a 1728 advertisement in the Boston Gazette by a teacher named Caleb Phillips, who was seeking students for a course in shorthand writing with lessons to be "sent weekly". With the development of postal services in the 1800s, modern distance education continued to develop.

Soon thereafter, traditional colleges and universities got into the act. The University of London, tracing its program to 1858, claims to have been the first university to provide distance education courses. Its program, now known as the University of London International Programmes, continues to this day, providing graduate, undergraduate and diploma courses from the London School of Economics and other schools. By the end of the 19th century, the University of Chicago and Columbia University were also engaged in distance education in the United States.

The type of distance education used throughout the majority of the 20th century came in the form of "correspondence courses," in which students received either a complete course or individual lessons with homework assignments in the mail. Students would complete assignments and mail them back to the instructor. At the end of the course, students would either go to a testing center to take an examination on the honor system or simply receive credit for completing the course. Many well-known American universities had such programs and some, such as the University of Maryland, worked in conjunction with the U.S. military, which provided courses to service men throughout the world.

I took such a course while working as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense in the early 1960s. It was an introduction to data processing course that encompassed both the relatively new use of electronic computers and the older electrical accounting machines developed at the the Army’s Fort Benjamin Harrison educational facility in Indiana. While the course was comprehensive, it was not very useful to someone already working in the field. It was good reference material but the turnaround was too slow for someone who was only able to work on the material in spurts.

It was actually not my first exposure to distance education. From 1957 through 1982, CBS, in conjunction with New York University, broadcast "Sunrise Semester" at 6 a.m. Eastern Time each weekday. The courses covered a wide range of subjects and could be simply watched by any viewer or taken for actual NYU credit by signing up and paying a fee.

Distance Education Goes Digital

It soon became obvious as computers and telecommunications became more ubiquitous throughout both colleges and the business world that these systems could be used for business education as well as traditional courses. In the mid-1970s, I had occasion to use the first generalized computer assisted instruction system, Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO). PLATO was at the University of Illinois as a teaching device for its students. The subsidiary of Control Data Corp. I was working for at the time provided the machines on which the system ran. The training that I took provided introductory material and then asked a series of multiple-choice questions. If the answer provided was correct, the system went on to the next question; if incorrect, it explained the correct answer. Although rudimentary by today’s standards, PLATO generated excitement as to where computer-assisted education might go as it did provide forums, message boards, online testing, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, multiplayer games, and other components that became staples of later systems.

PLATO and other systems of that time required access to terminals connected to large mainframe systems, mandating that the large majority of users would have to be on a campus or at work in an office and that their connection had to be dedicated to the educational system to which they were connected. The reach of educational systems grew dramatically with the introduction of Because It's There Network (BITNET) in 1981. BITNET was introduced by Ira Fuchs at City University of New York and Graydon Freeman at Yale University. Running initially only on IBM mainframe systems and later also on Digital Equipment Corporations’ VAX systems, BITNET brought together, at its high point in 1991, 3,000 nodes at almost 500 educational institutions worldwide. It provided email connections throughout the network and mailing lists (primarily through LISTSERV mailing list servers), allowing users to join lists for more than 10,000 subjects and obtain and share information.

The Internet and Higher Learning

BITNET’s popularity dipped as personal computers came into wider use and the Internet spread rapidly, bringing with it File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Gopher file searching, and, eventually, the World Wide Web. Its users were integrated seamlessly into the Internet. (Learn more about how the Web evolved in A Timeline of the Development of the Internet and World Wide Web.)

Parallel to the improvements in technology and communications was the development of new methods of online education. In the early days of computer networking, game players immersed in the world of the Dungeons and Dragons board game developed online platforms for interactive game playing called multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and then, as more uses were found for them, multi-user domains. The first MUD had been developed at the University of Essex in 1978 by Roy Trubshaw (and later by Richard Bertie) and was connected to the Internet in 1980, becoming the first Internet multiplayer on-line role-playing game.(Read more about gaming in From Friendly to Fragging: A Beginner's Guide to Game Genres.)

Soon there were hundreds of MUDs throughout the world. Their pervasiveness led researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to develop an object-oriented multi-user platform called a multi-user dimension object-oriented (MOO) platform. The first one, Lambda MOO, was developed by Paval Curtis in 1990 and was an instant success, attracting more than 1,000 users. Curtis provided the LambaCore, which represented the programs at the heart of Lambda MOO, to those who wanted to build their own MOOs. In 1993, Media MOO was created at MIT’s Media Lab by Amy Bruckman; Diversity University was created by University of Houston graduate sociology student Jeanne McWhorter that same year. These became the premier educational MOOs.

The benefits of the Lambda core included the ability for users to build their own educational tools and share them with others. At Diversity University, for instance, Professor Tom Danford of West Virginia Northern Community College built a science lab and taught microbiology classes; Albert Einstein College of Medecine neuroscientist Priscilla Purnick modeled a brain and taught neuroscience courses; Marist College Professor Sherry Dingman led a group of high school students in the development of the environment of the Gilgamesh legend. Many others also developed tools for lectures, slide presentations and simulations.

Online Courses Get Interactive

In 1995, I taught the first interactive online course at Marist College, a graduate capstone course in information systems, using the Diversity Universe platform. Students employed by IBM and about to complete the Marist program were transferred throughout the country as part of an IBM reorganization and, rather than have them try to find a course that would combine the elements of their Marist program, we set up an online section of the course. I "met" with students every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we completed the program, during which time the students only had to come to the campus for a final conference and paper presentation.

Although MOOs were successful in educational use, they were text-based only and faded away as the World Wide Web became more popular and Web-based course-management programs were developed for education, such as Blackboard, ANGEL, Moodle and Sakai, came into use. Each of these systems provides facilities for all of the features originally conceived as components of PLATO (forums, message boards, online testing, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, multiplayer games, etc.) as well as the ability to link to websites and include videos, graphics, word processing and presentation files. More and more, these systems are used not only for distance education courses but also to support in-classroom courses as well as "blended courses," a combination of distance and in-classroom courses.

Students and faculty, when presented with the idea of online courses, often seem to think that they will be easier than the more traditional, in-person classroom experience. I have taught both kinds of courses and I actually find online courses to be more difficult. As a professor, I miss the ability to "see" whether students are getting it and knowing when I have to go deeper into a subject - so I must go deeper in all subjects, and provide more material (web links, videos, documents, etc.) and more assessment tools (quizzes, homework, research papers, etc.). That means students have more work and require more discipline because they do not have set hours for classroom attendance and are left to their own time-management skills, which are often lacking. In fact, time-management is a major issue in online education, and is the reason why many colleges have minimum GPA requirements for taking online courses.

One enhanced educational tool came with the advent of Second Life, a graphics-based virtual reality platform, or a graphic MOO on steroids, which educational institutions such as Princeton, NYU, Marist, Monroe College, Ohio University, Emory University, MIT, USC, Purchase College, and Notre Dame flocked to. Although Second Life did not reach the commercial success to which it aspired, the educational experimentation goes on.

Another recent development is colleges' placement of curriculum online at no charge. MIT has been at the forefront of this effort and, as professors from around the world share and use such material, the overall quality of all courses should improve.

Learning in the Future

As I look back in my relatively short involvement with education, it is obvious that there has been mind-boggling development. If we've learned anything from technology, it's that it changes the way we do things, often in very unexpected ways. In education, the ability to gain access to resources from anywhere at any time has changed our notion of what a future classroom might look like. What happens in between remains to be seen. And so it goes ...

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Written by John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on