Still from Apple’s commercial ‘1984’ – click to see whole video (1 minute)

1985 was a significant year for me. I got my first desk-top computer and discovered the Internet.

The state of technology in 1984

It is hard to remember these days a time when there weren’t computers on every desk connected to the Internet. Up until about 1985, there were three main means of communication available to most people, including most academics and teachers:

  • physical mail services (letters and parcels), which took a minimum of 24 hours, and over a week for international service;
  • telephone calls, which were expensive, especially for long-distance calls;
  • fax machines, connected via telephone, and again relatively expensive.

Secretaries who could type, answer the phone, take notes at meetings, and send faxes were common for anyone in a professional position. I had a secretary until about 1986. Some managers took pride in not knowing how to type. As a result, decision-making was often painfully slow, requiring physical meetings, followed up by days of communicating (and questioning) decisions afterwards.

Until 1985 I was mainly an analogue person. There were microcomputers around from the late 1970s, but they needed specialist training to use (anyone remember DOS?). With regards to education, there was computer-assisted learning, which was based on using computers for presentation of mainly text, and multiple choice tests for assessment and feedback. These were useful for the teaching of facts, ideas and concepts, and for testing memorisation and to a certain extent, understanding. However, for me, this represented a very narrow range of education and was very behaviourist in approach. Computer-assisted learning struggled with teaching problem-solving, critical thinking, and inter-personal communication, all of which to me were essential elements of learning and teaching. Other media, such as television, audio-conferencing, and well designed text, not to mention humans, were far more useful for teaching these higher-level skills.

Then in 1985 Apple introduced the Macintosh desk-top computer. It had a number of features that were different and superior to previous micro-computers. For me, one of its most important features was its elegance. Instead of a hot black box (often located below a desk and near your knees because they were so bulky), connected by a multitude of cables to a keyboard and to a large screen, and requiring software commands to operate, the Macintosh combined the processor and the screen in a small, elegant box, with a slit for a floppy disk, and a standard keyboard in front.

Apple Macintosh, 1985. Image: Wikipedia

More importantly it was much easier to operate than the alternatives, such as the Commodore or Sinclair. The Mac interface was intuitive, and it did colour and animation really well. Before 1984, there was no easily usable word processing software, but the Macintosh enabled MacWrite and Microsoft Word for DOS.

Word processing software had a tremendous effect on productivity. Academics for instance (if they knew how to type) could type in their own text without having to go through a typist. Hooking up a Macintosh to a printer enabled documents to be printed directly. Documents no longer had to go into a typing pool and wait for a typist to become available and do the transcript of handwritten documents. Also, there was a digital copy that remained in the computer, and could be searched, so avoiding the need for printed files and filing cabinets.

However, at the time, most IT support staff were dismissive of the Macintosh. They saw it as a toy, and so I ended up buying my own Macintosh. 

Discovering computer conferencing

However, although Macs and word processing made the production of printed materials for distance education much easier, microcomputers in the early 1980s were still limited in their use for direct teaching. Then in 1984, I was invited to teach on a University of British Columbia summer school in the Masters of Education program. This is where I first met Mark Bullen, who was taking my course, and later became my close colleague at UBC.

During this visit in the summer of 1984, David Kaufman got in touch, and invited me over for dinner one evening. After dinner, David suggested we go down to his basement office where he had a computer linked to a modem.

‘Pull up a chair,’ he said. ‘I want you to look at this.’

He powered up the computer and typed a few instructions into the computer and a screen popped up with what turned out to be an online mailing list. Some had asterisks beside them. He chose one, and clicked on it. A box opened up and he typed:

‘Hi, we’re in Vancouver – where are you?’

He immediately got a response. ‘I’m in New York. How are you doing?’

There were some perfunctory messages changing names and asking about what the weather was like, then I said: ‘Ask him how old he is?’

‘I’m 12’, came back the response. It must have been past midnight in New York.

This was my first introduction to the internet and was a seminal moment for me. Connecting distance students so they could communicate with each other online, as well as their instructors, seemed to me to be much more compatible with my view of learning, as it did to several other pioneer researchers before me, such as Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff (1978) and Linda Harasim (1986). My experience in David’s basement led eventually to a paper published in the first edition of the (Canadian) Journal of Distance Education in 1986 called Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? where I argued strongly for the human communications approach. 

At the same time, several others at the Open University, in particular Tony Kaye and Robin Mason in the Institute of Educational Technology, were also getting really interested in the potential of computer conferencing for teaching. Tony Kaye, who like me was also on the DT200 course team, persuaded the DT200 course team to experiment with a computer conferencing system.

The University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, had developed software called CoSY that enabled computer conferencing over telephone networks using a computer and modem. The Open University purchased CoSy and ran it on a VAX mainframe cluster at the Open University. Students could dial in to a local node using their home telephone line through the modem.

My wife Pat was also a student at the Open University at this time and had enrolled in DT200. On this course students were loaned a microcomputer, modem and printer. These were delivered via parcel mail before the course began, and the first assignment was to set up the computer, connect it correctly to the printer and telephone modem, and send in a short report. This arrived at the same time I was still working on a later part of the course (Block 4). 

Connecting the printer to the computer at this time was no mean feat. The printer had a set of dip switches that needed to be set in the correct positions (up or down), depending on the type of computer. Pat struggled and swore to get everything connected and demanded help.

‘I can’t. I’m on the course team. It would be unethical for me to help you,’ I said – but also I had no idea myself how to do it. I was a (recent) Mac user and the course computer was a PC. Pat managed to set up the computer, printer and modem, and successfully completed the course, without the need for any help from me. This was not the first or only time.

A sea change in educational technology – but the OU was not on the boat

Tony Kaye later wrote an excellent paper (see below) that evaluated the use of CoSy on DT200. He identified several issues that had major significance for the future of the Open University’s teaching.

Although the OU course teams quickly switched over to computers and word processing because it really facilitated the development of the printed materials, there was considerable resistance to computer conferencing and later the Internet. Where they were used, they were in addition to the established media of print and television, but courses needed to be re-designed to make full use of computer networking and later the Internet, and there was tremendous resistance to this, not so much from the academics but from the central administration and especially the regional tutors. There was already enormous investment in print materials and television, and in the regional in-person study centres and tutorial system. The directors of these units held senior management positions, and were not interested in having their power base undermined. The OU had become a massive machine, and changing direction was not getting any easier.

For this reason, I became increasingly frustrated at the Open University. At the beginning, innovation was part of the mainstream, but now the Open University was becoming a victim of its own success. Any changes in teaching around new technologies were being pushed to the periphery or ignored entirely. Although I was appointed a full professor of educational media research in 1986, I was increasingly thinking it was time for me to change, if the OU wasn’t going to.

Up next

  • being attacked with buns from the audience at a CADE conference at Lakehead University (you will be named)
  • why I turned down a job offer at Athabasca University
  • the transformation of the OLI to the Open Learning Agency of BC
  • what lead me to emigrate to Canada

Further reading

Bates, T. (1986) Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Harasim, L., and Johnson, E.M. (1986). Educational Applications of Computer Networks. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education Press.

Hiltz, R. and Turoff, M. (1978) The Network Nation Boston MA: MIT Press (revised edition:1992)

Kaye, A. (1992) Computer conferencing and mass distance education, in Waggoner, M. (ed.) Empowering Networks: Computer Conferencing in Education Englewood Cliffs: Educational Technology Publications Inc.


  1. Tony, I enjoyed reading about your experiences in the evolution of the digital era. However, and prior to the Apple Mac, for me, the digital age began in 1982 with the purchase of the Apple IIe computer. I was the first doctoral student at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education (1982) to submit my draft dissertation using the Apple lle and an OKI dot matrix printer…took 6 hours to print out the dissertation at the rate of 30 characters per second.

    After my initial dissertation submission draft, it only took 5 days to revise and resubmit my dissertation, which caught my dissertation chair by surprise. Not only that, since I used digital OKI dot matrix printer, I inadvertently upset the secretarial staff in that they did not have the opportunity to “type” students’ thesis/dissertations as supplemental income to their secretarial duties. To that end, the Dean, seeing the future of digital manuscripts, required all final thesis/dissertations to be submitted using an IBM Selectric typewriter.

    Didn’t take long for after that to realize the real benefits of the new emerging digital era.

    • Many thanks, Jolly. Wonderful story and thanks for sharing.
      I used an IBM golf ball typewriter for my Ph.D. in 1972, but I had to use two sheets of carbon paper per page for copies and Snowpake to make corrections. It was a really messy business.


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