If you can wax on about stuff from 25 years ago…. (the blank is left for you to fill in). Feel free to make your own modem sound noises as you scroll on by.

No secret here, that I can go on and on about the early web days. It’s no desire to wind clicks or time travel, but is, to be honest, rewarding to have been there for this whole internet arc. Even if it is aiming for a burning trash fire.

This one springs from Martin Weller, who has being mining his memories into several 25 years of _____ collection, most recently, his book on 25 Years of Ed Tech (available in all of the good open variety versions). It’s good stuff Martin shares, because his vision is looking forward from that past.

I have to like a book dedicated to one’s pals:

To my two canine writing buddies, Teilo and Bruno, on whose walks most of the ideas in this book were developed, and who listened patiently to my musings on MOOC and metadata.

I knew through my other project work with Clint Lalonde that he was working on the serialized audio book version of Martin’s book (nice theme there on a site running on the Open ETC). One of the best parts of weekly meetings with Clint is that after dealing with project issues, we just get a chance to share about other projects.

When I heard that Clint had invited a bunch of folks to record reading chapters, released serialy as a podcast (I may have heard of about it first in conversation with Ken Bauer), I thought, “hmmmm, I did not make the cut” but that’s okay.

But then I got a nice invite from Clint’s colleague Laura Pasquini to join a segment of an ancillary “Between the Chapters” podcast. And that struck as being more fun, because it would not be reading but just talking about a chapter of the books.

And oh was it. I’ll blab on about it, but here it is for you to listen to along with show notes.

Yes there was some goofiness as we tried to recreate modem sounds. It was a lot fun to ramble on.

I almost hesitated when Laura suggested talking about the first chapter on 1994: Bulletin Board Systems. In 1994 I was 2 years into my edtech career as a mullet haired instructional technologist at the Maricopa Community Colleges, dabbling with early HTML and Macromedia Director Multimedia.

I was aware of BBSes, and perhaps had tried using a few, it was not a strong memory or experience for me. The reason I saw was Martin had referenced a comment I made on his blog post when he was working out these ideas.

I felt it was less about BBSes as a platform or a thing and more about what people were able to do, connect, in this systems where it was all text conversation. I went back to an innovation that was in place and high use when I got to Maricopa (1992)… a home grown system created at Glendale Community College called the Electronic Forum.

When I got to Maricopa the Electronic Forum was pretty much a brand name in use at several of the Maricopa Colleges, often referred to as “EF.” But maybe the most telling factor was that this edtech was not spawned by a programmer or a technologist, but from the mind of Glendale Community College English teacher Karen Schwalm.

I knew Karen later as the faculty director of Glendale’s Innovation Center. She was a very strong voice for faculty leadership in the use of technology and student-centeredness (before it became a buzzword).

I cannot really tell the Electronic Forum origin story well enough, but with some searching I found a brilliant summary of it in the ERIC archives in a publication called Vision ’90. The Maricopa Community Colleges Journal of Teaching and Learning. Volume 2. It looks like it was produced from the part of the organization that later became the office I was employed with. The relevant article is on page 54 “The Electronic Forum: Linking Students to their Future” by Cyndi Greening (I remember Cyndi as a super talented media faculty at Mesa Community College).

Like hundreds of other English instructors across the nation, Schwalm waged an ongoing battle with declining skill levels in verbal and written communication. Like other instructors, she wanted to offer students a means for improving those skills as a component of their course work. Facing a week that was already consumed with preparing and presenting course lectures, correcting assignments, fulfilling departmental responsibilities, and serving on committees, she knew that the project would have to be easy to implement and simple to maintain. Then, she struck upon an innovative idea — the union of an old concept with a new technology.

She contacted Christopher Zagar, then the director of GCC’s High Tech Center, and proposed her plan. She wanted students to keep a community “learning journal” on the computer. She reasoned that students, using pen names to ensure anonymity, could make candid entries on virtually any topic of concern in this “electronic journal.” Entries could then be read and commented on by members of the class. This would improve their writing skills along with their reading, reasoning, and computer skills. Since the purpose of the journal was to encourage students to write, she needed to document only how many words each student had written and how often he or she wrote in the class journal.

Zagar assured her that it could be done. He created the programming to integrate the student records with the electronic journal, thereby limiting participation to a specific class. He set up reporting capabilities to document such items as the number of words per entry, journal subject areas, and writing activity by student identification number. At Schwalm’s request, he also set up the journal to use the language of writing, not computing. Finally, he established the means for students to change their pen names at will.

This all sounds like run of the mill features — but remember this was in the late 1980s. There were no mobile devices and not many faculty or students had home computers. A lot of the activity took place in the Glendale High Tech Center “pits” large open computing labs. And this environment was all text based. By the flip of the 1990s, it was possible for students to connect via dial up modem.

But there’s more, and as you read the next quote, keep reminding yourself that this was 30 years ago.

The benefits for the students, from the simple improvement of computer and communication skills to the difficult-to-assess effects on networking and social transformation —are surprising nearly everyone involved.

“The original purpose of the journal was to improve writing skills. It was to be writing for learning rather than writing for evaluation,” said Schwalm. “What we discovered was that the journal gave a voice to silenced or marginalized students. For instance, a student who never spoke in class was very active on the journal, contributing over twenty thousand words in one semester.” Citing recent research on classroom dynamics. Schwalm says findings indicate that minority, handicapped, and female students are most likely to remain unvoiced in the classroom. Because of social, cultural, physical, or instructor bias, these students often do not communicate, or communicate in a very limited way in the classroom. The electronic journal, she discovered, put everyone on equal footing.

(emphasis added by me)

Okay, for those now calling out for giving voice to marginalized voices– this was the practice of faculty at Maricopa in 1990.

Greenings article goes on to describe how the use of the Electronic Forum broadened across disciplines, Math, Science, Criminal Justice, and more.

As the use grew in course focused use, Karen and Chris also saw a place for open community discussions:

In addition to the classroom journals, Chris Zagar and Karen Schwalm estab- lished two open electronic forums at GCC. The “Public Forum,” which is administered by Schwalm, is open to everyone on campus and in the community for the discussion of anything. “The Dialogue Forum – The Forum or the Thoughtful Discussion of Anything at All,” is also open to everyone but is limited to the discussion of serious subjects. Kirkpatrick administers the dialogue forum. She reveals that religion, ethics, morality, domestic violence. family abuse, the Smitty’s situation (involving the death of a black men at the hands of employees at a local grocery store), and the conflict in the Middle East have all been discussed on the dialogue forum.

I extracted Cyndi’s article as a PDF since it has so much quotable bits in it:

I could find a number of bits about the Electronic Forum from the publications our center did, but here is another snippet from a 1994 issue of Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine:

Karen Schwalm of the Department of English at Glendale Community College in Arizona developed a tool called the Electronic Forum to extend her class activities beyond the walls of the classroom. The Forum gives students ways to connect to the Internet through electronic mail, mailing lists, and gopher. Using the Electronic Forum, students react to the content of the course and share “exploratory, ungraded, risk-taking” responses with other students online. The Forum also gives students ways to assume anonymous or different identities and take part in discussions on a local or global scale.

Schwalm relates how this conferencing gives students a chance to take part in the global conversation on the Internet and thus opens up new possibilities for essay material. Karen Schwalm relates her excitement when the students discover the power of language and the diverse viewpoints expressed on the Internet. Students find new meaning in their writing. This process can sometimes change the relationship between student and teacher. As Schwalm reports that “we are finding that computer conferencing, especially when it involves access to the Internet, muddies the distinctions between teacher and student.” Electronic communication challenges the knowledge of the instructors in the face of students who can often quickly gain network expertise. Karen Schwalm points out, “we all become learners and teachers simultaneously.””

This was approach to using technology that was not just about technology was embedded in the Maricopa system in 1994. And yes, the web happened then on Martin’s timeline, but the Electronic Forum continued to 1999. The Wayback machine even has Karen’s announcement published as an email announcement to the Maricopa system wide Network Services Meeting Minutes:

The Electronic Forum, which just celebrated its 10th birthday last Saturday, will close at Glendale this Friday. During the past decade, EF has provided students at all 10 colleges (and at Pima CC, ASU Main and ASU West) with opportunities for electronic mail and group communication in support of both formal and informal learning. Over 275,000 Maricopa students have had accounts, and at GCC alone, students have sent 4.4 million email messages. That’s a lot of writing!

Many, many faculty throughout the district and across disciplines have used EF discussion groups in their classes, but I want to thank those first brave souls — Eileen Shiff in Child and Family Studies, Jack Rose in Administration of Justice, and Lynn Ann Wojciechowicz in English — who started early and helped us find new ways of fostering student interaction electronically. What they learned helped us all and will continue to help us as we move to new systems for supporting student communication.
Finally, of course, thanks go to Chris Zagar, who took the skeleton of an idea and programmed it into reality. He has always asked me hard questions about teaching and learning that resulted in a far broader vision for EF than I had ever dreamed.

As a side note, I recognize the format of that message, why it is an “A1”! When I got to Maricopa, and into the early 2000s, our system-wide email was the VAX based DEC “All-in-One” email system. People did not say “email” the verb or noun was an “A1.”

But I digress here. There was a rich culture of text based technology, not just for communication, but for teaching and learning at Maricopa. The way the Electronic Forum evolved, from the vision of a teacher like Karen and brought to life with the support of a technologist like Chris, was the norm at Maricopa. I need a whole other series of posts to talk about the faculty lead system wide initiative for innovation called “Ocotillo”.

Hardly anyone even seems to know this history.

This is an ongoing thread I hope to have time to spin out more. I more or less stumbled into the Maricopa system that was well into a deep history of planning and focus on technology integration that was rooted, centered, and strongly driven by faculty interests and student needs. This system was thoughtfully thinking about the future of technology at least back to the mid 1980s.

Again, I was not much involved with this but definitely aware of it.

And as usual, most of “the field” knows nothing of Maricopa. As usual, community colleges are overlooked. This even struck a chord in something unrelated, but again a reminder of the typical overlooking.

In my years at Maricopa (1992-2006) this was the norm, and BIPOC people where decision makers and leaders from the Chancellor level down to college presidents, academic deans, and faculty. It called for a response, not a “like” or a GIF, but some history:

I don’t know if I have a book in me, but there is quite a bit of the Maricopa history I’d like to pry open. I have a lot from my experience (1992-2006) but there’s a whole lot that precedes it.

And it’s forgotten.

Featured Image: Smartmodem flickr photo by Beige Alert shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license modified by superimposing the x-ray glasses dude from the cover of 25 Years of Ed Tech (actually the purple version from 25 Years of Ed Tech: The Serialized Audio Version.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. Sorry about the cut. Next book we’ll get Martin to write about 50 years and then I’d be able to accommodate all the awesome people who I would have liked to have had reading chapters, like yourself. At any rate, I think you ended up hanging out with the better half of this particular project with Laura and it inspired this excellent post :).

    I have always been impressed when you start talking about Maricopa and the number of wonderful projects that emerged from there.

    Your bit about “As usual, community colleges are overlooked” really rings true for me as I began my ed tech journey at a college in the mid 90’s and saw so many wonderfully innovative projects happen in those early years. One in particular from a Psychology instructor named John Conklin who, around 1998/99, ran 4 simultaneous sections of an Intro to Psych course and gave all students the option each week of coming to the f2f class, or doing the class online. Those who showed up showed up, and those who wanted to be online did the week’s activities online. Today, of course, we know the model as HyFlex. But at the time it was really experimental. As I recall, didn’t really work the way the instructor hoped. But still, represented some very student-centric thinking around flexibility that I did not see reflected in other institutions at the time.

  2. Yeah the time intervals in which things occur, and then get displaced seem to always blot out what really got accomplished back in the day. I was always a fan of loosely coupled systems that served individuals well. No need for these monolithic swiss army knife tightly coupled LMS where you’ve got everything under one roof. But none of the rooms in that house suit anyone really well. So you try and integrate a 3rd party service or tool or purchase a building block and hope THAT more people will adopt it. One after another. Electronic Forum sounds great in that it suited people really well and there was no need to try and sell it to people after it got adopted. That’s the hamster wheel now I fear in Higher Ed Tech generally.

  3. I hear you. The stuff we did at MiraCosta College will go basically undocumented and unremembered. Hard to keep track of the history while you’re busy making it. I applaud you.

  4. How about MTS at UBC in the ‘80s and early’90s giving teachers accounts all around the province as a way to overcome the huge distances between us. Maybe even some ProD would come out of it. And it did. SFU had the EdTech Lab run by David Porter and David Bell. The Lab hosted a conference called ‘Connect ‘90’ in, you guessed it, 1990. Then there was the ‘Logo in Paradise’ way out there in Paradise Valley near Squamish. I forget the exact date but early ’90s would be close. There were Logo Camps around the world linking up to share some of the crazy stuff we did with the little Turtle in real time. Marv Westrom from UBC was involved and the two Davids were there.

    1. Thanks Graham, I always would guess there’s more history stored in human associative memory than I can tap into via machines. UBC was out there way early with MTS, found this snippet http://mtswiki.westwood-tech.com/mtswiki-index.php/MTS%20at%20UBC I love this definition of MTS on the Wiki home page:

      This is an attempt to capture some of the history of MTS, the Michigan Terminal System, prior to GNU/Linux, probably the most successful network mediated collaborative software development effort. MTS grew out of the energy, creativity and sheer chutzpa of a dedicated group of University of Michigan programmers who didn’t know they couldn’t write an operating system when IBM failed to deliver the one that they had promised.

      And you can’t go wrong with Two Davids (I still get to work with one of them)

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