Audio-graphics, 1983

I first got involved in audio-graphics in 1980 (yes, that’s right, 31 years ago – I’m very old, and so is audio-conferencing). Paul Bacsich and colleagues at the U.K. Open University had developed an audio-graphics package (with a stylus and pad) that worked over telephone lines with a specially designed computer. It was called CYCLOPS. We got a $100,000 grant from British Telecom and piloted it on the UK’s regional network, delivering through the Open University’s local learning centres, to enable tutors to provide back-up to the printed correspondence materials.  Cyclops was also used to teach French and for helping children with learning disabilities.It worked pretty good (Media in Education and Development, 1983). Unfortunately, the university in its wisdom decided not to patent it or find a commercial partner, so the experiment died. (Sigh – I could have my yacht parked next to Paul Allen’s).

Fast forward to 2011, and many of the features we had in CYCLOPS can now be found in the new Blackboard Collaborate 11, including a stylus and whiteboard that can be shared between participants. Collaborate 11 is partly the result of merging Wimba and Elluminate, both of which were bought recently by Blackboard.

I have to say that Blackboard Collaborate is a big advance on Adobe Connect in terms of the range of tools available (and the big advantage over CYCLOPS is that it is full colour and works on any computer). Collaborate has the following features:

  • full desk-top sharing, application sharing, and web sharing for all participants.
  • everything is recordable and can be archived.
  • it allows up to six simultaneous audio participants for more natural discussion.
  • it can operate in six languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish) with automatic translation (presumably it will also handle English).

This allows end users or students to fully participate, create and share materials in real time, making the learning experience much more closely resemble a normal classroom.

And that is my criticism of all synchronous technologies: they attempt to replicate but not to improve on the classroom experience. Although Collaborate gets rid of the fixed place limitation of a classroom, you still have to be there at a fixed time if you wish to participate actively as a learner. Although the technology itself is much better, the teaching remains almost the same as it was in 1983. Furthermore, it will need some time and training to master all the features to get that sense of presence of a good classroom, even with the new and improved Collaborate.

Nevertheless, if synchronous teaching is your bag, this is definitely a big step forward. Unfortunately I was unable to find any pricing information.

If anyone has used Blackboard Collaborate 11 or has information on the pricing, please let me know – it was the cost of telephone lines in the CYCLOPS project that made the Open University withdraw from the experiment.


Media in Education and Development (1983),  Vol. 16, No.2

Audio-graphics 2011


  1. Hi,Tony
    Many of BC’s K-12 distance education schools use this (well, it’s prior incarnation – Elluminate) for the synchronous parts of their program, which still tend to be asynchronous. Once the video is turned off, removing the tempation to default to talking heads, it seems to be easie to use all the interaction channels (polling, chat, turn-taking indicators, whiteboard, application sharing). The recording features are also really useful for students that miss sessions. Soem schools turn the environment over to their students to support social interactions or group work (designing experiments or games). That’s not to say that lectures and tutorials aren’t the dominant uses for student classes.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tim.

      Yes, I agree that there is an important role for synchronous learning – for instance, students collaborating on a project often want to work synchronously setting up and wrapping up a project, and Collaborate would be an excellent tool for doing this. My main concern, as you said, though is if it is used just as a way of delivering lectures online, although even that has its place if there are alternative routes for student participation. What I like about Collaborate is that it makes it much easier for learners to contribute.

  2. Hi Tony,

    I agree completely that the temptation is there to replicate old models of stand and deliver teaching. We’ve been heavy users of Elluminate and have just been experimenting with this new version, Collaborate. Overall, I find this version of Elluminate/Collaborate much cleaner and more intuitive than Elluminate. One of the features our faculty take advantage of often is the ability to quickly make learners moderators, either in a main room or a breakout room. This ability to “turn the keys of the car” over to the learners and have them able to facilitate sessions with their peers in the environment is one of the most powerful features of the platform, and is a much more engaging and rich use of the platform than just replicating a stand and deliver lecture with slides.

  3. I am looking at the possibility of group learning through distance education – providing interactive classes for adult learners who are separated , either because of distance, or because their current life situation as a carer does not allow them to attend our classes in University of Third Age groups. Will this new Blackboard provide this ? Also what effect does transmission infrastructure have on limiting video /audio ? Finally I would be interested to hear of any experiences in the new Blackboard being used as an interactive real time conference facility for meetings of say 7 peole ?

  4. So was anyone able to give any pricing information – I don’t want to contact Blackboard as they ask when you plan to purchase and all I want is an idea of price. Kevin (Australia)

  5. I was thinking that we are still in the mode of the traditional method and to ensure the attendance during the scheduled classes and that is why I reckon my University may not be moving ahead to completely change into online mode with all the active learning tools available. For me the Elluminate and the Collaborate is news.


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