Image: Bob Fuller, 1985
I am writing an autobiography, mainly for my family, but it does cover some key moments in the development of open and online learning. I thought I would share these as there seems to be a growing interest in the history of educational technology.
Note that these posts are NOT meant to be deeply researched historical accounts, but how I saw and encountered developments in my personal life. If you were around at the time of these developments and would like to offer comments or a different view, please use the comment box at the end of each post. (There is already a conversation track on my LinkedIn site).
Too much information
The period 1980 to 1989 saw a great number of new technologies emerging that were being tried in education. As it was my job at the Open University at that time to research and advise the university on the appropriateness of new technologies for potential use at the Open University, I and my research group were kept pretty busy.
As a result I am going to have to break down my experiences of ed tech in the 1980s into four separate posts:
- audio-graphics, cable TV and teletext, video discs and video-conferencing (the topics of this post)
- satellite TV
- micro-computers, computer-assisted learning and computer-conferencing
- lessons learned.
Hang on tight because it was quite a ride
A decade of technological innovation
In the first ten years of the Open University, the main technological innovation besides radio and television that affected its teaching were first audio-, then video-cassettes. These had two main effects.
First, cassettes gave students more flexibility and control over their learning than the broadcasts did. They could view or listen to a program whenever they wished and as many times as needed.
Second, cassettes were easier than broadcasts to integrate with the other materials, particularly the printed course units. John Mason a professor in the Faculty of Mathematics, developed audio-visual materials that combined audio cassettes with printed mathematics material, an early predecessor of the Khan Academy. This made the material much more interactive, as students could try answers posed in the print, then get feedback from the audio. The AVMRG had been heavily involved in evaluating the effectiveness of cassettes.
The OU had also been using computer-marked testing in some subject areas, particularly the STEM subjects, from the very beginning, and as well as the AVMRG, there was a separate unit in IET researching and evaluating computer-assisted learning, which started experimenting even with AI applications in the 1980s. The development of micro-computing will be dealt with later. However, what was really remarkable from 1980 onwards was a rapid expansion of new audio-visual technologies.
CYCLOPS: an early videoconferencing technology
The Open University had been using audio teleconferencing from the early 1970s in its regional study centres. By the late 1970s, The Open University’s Faculty of Technology, under the direction of the Dean, John Sparkes, was experimenting with a way of encoding pictorial information using a light pen that could be transmitted over standard telephone lines and replayed on conventional television sets. The main function would be a remote blackboard combined with live audio that could be used for distance tutorials, particularly by the Open University’s regional services for students who could not attend the face-to-face tutorials they offered in support of the OU’s courses. It was in fact one of the earliest attempts at a form of video-conferencing. The device was named CYCLOPS.
I was approached and involved in the development of a research proposal for a trial and evaluation of the CYCLOPS system, and a grant of £55,000 for the project was awarded by British Telecom. I hired a research fellow, David McConnell, specifically to work with me on the project.
The CYCLOPS technology was installed in 15 study centres in the East Midlands region, using two telephone lines, one for graphics and one for voice, and used to teach over 600 students across 30 different courses. The Microcomputers in Education Programme (MEP) which aimed to get microcomputers into most English schools, also provided a £3,000 grant to trial its use in three schools. My wife was one of the teachers. She experimented with CYCLOPS for teaching children with severe learning difficulties, while another teacher used CYCLOPS for teaching French to 11-12 year olds.
The trial ran for three years, between 1980 to 1983. The results of the trial were generally encouraging. The equipment was cheaper than microcomputers at the time; it was relatively easy for teachers and instructors to use; and it was highly motivating for most learners. The OU regional services were very supportive of its use, as was British Telecom.
However, in the end, the Open University was unwilling to invest further resources needed to sustain and improve the technology. At a Science and Technology committee meeting, it was decided that the Open University was not in the business of patenting and developing new technologies and was not willing to provide or even seek the further investment needed to turn it into a viable commercial product. This was a bitter blow both to the Faculty of Technology and to myself. I thought it was a great opportunity for the university that was lost.
Video-discs were another technology that was being rapidly developed in the early 1980s. Bob Fuller, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska, had developed an interactive video disc on the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge in 1940. Students could use the video disc to work out why the bridge collapsed and the underlying physics.
Bob Fuller came to the Open University on a sabbatical leave and worked on an interactive videodisc project for an Open University summer school course in materials sciences (William 1983). The lessons invited students to be involved in a trial, The Case of The Blind Teddy Bears. The resolution of the case involved the properties of the plastic buttons and metal-retaining washers of Teddy Bear eyes.
As a result, my team and I had been invited by the Educational Television Association in 1984 to make a presentation on the use of multiple media for teaching, including video discs, cassettes, cable TV, as well as broadcasting, at their annual conference in York. This would be a complicated live presentation in front of a large audience using ‘state-of-the-art’ technology.
Unfortunately, two days before the conference, I broke my right collar bone playing soccer. The hospital set the shoulder, put my arm in a sling, gave me a box of painkillers, told me not to drive, and sent me home. However, my team, which then included Diana Laurillard and Larry Kern, had spent weeks preparing for this presentation, and I was determined to attend if possible, so I persuaded my wife, Pat. to drive me to the conference with all the equipment. Pat was furious with me, but the painkillers worked and I breezed through the presentation, but only because of the heroic efforts of my team that enabled all the technology to work as planned. All I did was stand up, talk, and claim the plaudits.
Teletext and cable vision
Another product that flared then lost its appeal in education was teletext: the transmission of data over telephone lines or broadcasting that allowed symbols (usually letters of the alphabet) to be viewed on conventional television monitors through what would now be called a modem.
There was also a lot of interest at the time in cable vision, dedicated lines that could carry full television services between fixed points. For a long time, these were used especially by universities in the U.S. with multiple campuses, allowing lectures to be relayed to multiple locations. The medical schools across London, England, were at one time connected through a dedicated cable network to share lectures and demonstrations. However, at the time, a dedicated cable network for the Open University’s regional services was not financially viable
It was not until the late 1980s that engineers in Silicon Valley managed to compress data sufficiently to make videoconferencing commercially viable across either public telelephone lines or through wireless transmission, and even then, it needed large and dedicated technology at each location, with professional technical support.
I was involved in a European Commission project that resulted in a three-way video-conferencing link between academics in London (at British Telecoms’ main London office), Nantes in France, and Amsterdam. At the time, the connection was voice activated. In other words, if someone was speaking in France, a person interrupting in Amsterdam (or just dropping something loudly on the floor) would automatically take over the transmission. This is not a good set-up with academics from different countries, without a very determined chairperson. In the end, half-way through, the French contingent just walked out of the conference in exasperation.
Nevertheless, as the video compression technology improved, so did the viability of such services, to the point in 2020 when videoconferencing could be used with home computers and the standard Internet service, through technologies such as Zoom, which proved critical in allowing educational programs to continue during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I will come to some of the lessons learned from these and other developments in a later post. The great thing about a personal blog is that I can always change my mind, but the next post will be definitely about the use of satellite TV in education. It was an area I was heavily involved with during the 1980s. This post will be ready quite shortly.
Bates, A.W. (1995) Technology, Open Learning, and Distance Education London: Routledge.
This book uses for the first time the ACCESS model (a precursor of the SECTIONS model) to analyse the differences between a wide range of educational technologies available in the 1980s, including those listed in this post. Looking back at it, the method of costing each technology is very well covered and would still be very applicable today.
Fuller, R. (1985) From the Dragon’s Lair to the Tacoma Bridge Lincoln Nebraska: University of Nebraska
Media in education and development was a journal of the British Council. Vol. 16, No. 2 edition has several articles on the CYCLOPS experiment.