Learning At 300 Baud

The story of the world’s first Electronic University, which came to life a lot earlier than you might expect given that moniker. Modems were involved.

Today in Tedium: College is expensive—so much so that when a billionaire announces plans to cover the student loans of an entire graduating class, it becomes front-page news and leads to an inevitable flood of “Scott’s Tots” jokes. But college is complicated … and expensive. Which is probably one reason why online education is on the rise. Inside Higher Ed reported last year that 3.1 million students enrolled online exclusively in 2017, an increase of more than 4 percent from the prior year. (And lest you think it’s because for-profit companies were marketing really well, it turns out most of the growth in online colleges was happening with public institutions and nonprofits—for-profit institutions actually fell the year before.) But online learning had to come from somewhere, and it existed long before the World Wide Web. When you could first get credit for a college course from the comfort of your terminal, what did that look like? Today’s Tedium explains. Class is in session. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s Tedium is sponsored by East Brooklyn Labs, which has a new Kickstarter campaign going. More on that in a second.

1965

The year the Educational Testing Service first created the College Level Examination Program, a key offering that helped bring consistency and value to correspondence education. This offering, which plays on the idea that one can earn college credit with knowledge already earned outside of a traditional classroom, is managed to this day by the College Board, is a key part of what made college-level telelearning programs possible as early at the 1980s.

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(Ernie Smith)

How I bought the keys to a college education for a dollar … kinda

I’ve become pretty decent at sussing out a good deal in the past few years, but never did I think that I would be able to buy a whole university for a dollar.

Fortunately, I knew where to look: The Vintage Computer Foundation’s VCF East, where, hiding inside a pile of old software boxes, I spotted it: “The World’s First Electronic University,” a piece of software for the Commodore 64 that pledged to offer me a world of education on a computer.

The Electronic University Enrollment Package, sold for $49.95 upon launch by a company named TeleLearning, clearly thought a lot of itself, and some of that thought translated directly into the at-times odd branding within the package. The box, which is friggin’ massive and proved quite the object to carry around at VCF East, doesn’t even use all of its allotted space very effectively. Inside is a plastic binder, complete with a faux-leathery plastic case—which seems designed less to actually properly fit the information and more to highlight that this is an education product. Beyond the two 5.25-inch floppy disks, the booklet has a list of all the available courses, as well as a list of schools that accept college credit through the College Level Examination Program—a list that, at the time, included 1,700 schools. (These days, it’s closer to 2,900.)

“For the first time you can ask questions, receive instruction, and get advice on anything from computer literacy to wine tasting,” the manual stated, by way of introduction. “Your TeleLearning instructor will take you through the course of your choice step-by-step, from beginning to end.”

One notable thing included in the box? A 300-baud “Knowledge Modem,” which TeleLearning appears to have later sold individually.

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(Ernie Smith)

For fifty bucks, the box itself didn’t get you much more beyond the software and the modem, however. You were still on the hook for paying for the education, as well as any charges you might incur by using the modem. It was the key to your virtual dorm, rather than a way you could access classes for free.

The software had both an educational pedigree—a number of major universities supported it—and a technological one. In the case of the latter, the founder of TeleLearning, Ron Gordon, was the President of Atari when that meant something—during the mid-1970s, at the time when its Pong consoles were the biggest thing out there—and stayed just long enough to save the company from disastrous mismanagement before Time Warner bought Atari out. He was literally the adult brought into the room.

TeleLearning was Gordon’s followup, and it was a pretty interesting one at that, one that’s likely had as many reverberations on modern education as Atari did on video games.

This program, for its time, was considered pretty ambitious and unusual, and received extreme praise from political figures. A New York Times article from 1983 included a quote from Terrel Howard Bell, then the current education secretary in the Reagan administration, who seemed to be outright endorsing the product in a speech at a news conference.

“This couldn’t come at a more propitious time,” Bell said. “The thrilling thing about this is its flexibility and adaptability and its potential to reach all individuals and then to teach them from where they are and individualize the teaching.”

His staff, aware that the perception might be taken the wrong way, was quick to walk back Bell’s comments, making clear that he was excited about the idea of an electronic university in general. But even more effusive in his praise? Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who had this to say:

“The educational breakthrough that the Electronic University promises will provide education on an unprecedented scale,” Bush said. “This affordable, personalized system has the additionally attractive by-product of generating thousands of new jobs in the recruitment of teachers.”

There’s no getting around high praise like that!

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“TeleLearning is the bricks and mortar of a new type of classroom. This is a new means of learning. We don’t take place of the classroom, but we act as a supplement. TeleLearning is a vehicle to deliver the information.”

TeleLearning founder Ron Gordon, discussing the conceit behind the platform that his company created in a 1984 InfoWorld article. Gordon noted that the service, which had about 15,000 regular users by 1985, was often purchased as a gift for computer users, who were often receiving their first machines around the time that the product was released.

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TeleLearning founder (and former Atari president) Ron Gordon. (via the Atari Magazine Archive)

Where the Electronic University sits in the grand scheme of digital learning

Now, to be clear, educational efforts long predated the work of TeleLearning. As I wrote previously, “edutainment” was gaining steam among software users around this time, and found even greater popularity in the 1990s.

It wasn’t even the first networked educational tool. The tool that takes that crown is PLATO, which I wrote about in 2017 in a review of Brian Dear’s The Friendly Orange Glow, was at least two decades old before TeleLearning released its product. But the two products differed greatly, something highlighted by a 1986 Computer Chronicles episode that literally put spokespeople for each technology side by side.

PLATO’s great gift was its ability to teach educational concepts with the technology itself—a powerful tool, and one that proved greatly influential to computing in general.

But where TeleLearning shined was in a more practical way—by actually putting learners in touch with real professors and educators who were working behind a computer screen. It was an Electronic University in every sense of the word, and through the service, it was possible to gain knowledge that could lead to an actual degree—or at the very least, college credit.

It was a further extension of the concept of the correspondence course, a concept that was not new by the mid-1980s—in the U.S., examples of it dated as far back as 1873, with the Society to Encourage Studies at Home created by the daughter of a Harvard professor. (A full history of the society was created at the time of its 1897 dissolution—which not enough organizations do when dissolving!) By the time the Society had shuttered, much larger universities had gotten in the correspondence game, which gained popularity in part because many Americans lived in parts of the country that did not have local universities of their own.

It was a system that had produced a significant infrastructure and was well-established and well-accredited by the time the computer came along—which made it perfect for modernization with the help of a computer.

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How Electronic Universities get their close-up. (Internet Archive)

A 1985 article for Compute focused on another way that The Electronic University innovated: In its use of email. At the time, the concept of electronic mail was still relatively unknown to most of the public, having been invented as a part of the ARPANET network, no matter what this guy says.

Certainly, other offerings existed at the time, such as what could be found on Compuserve and similar services also did this, but the Electronic University stood out because it was very much a consumer product targeted at a non-technical audience.

Running virtual classes through email isn’t the ideal structure, as some of its enthusiasts at the time were quick to note.

Tom Copley, a professor who moved to The Electronic University from Ohio’s Antioch College, noted the one-on-one format allowed him to more closely interact with individual students. But on the other hand, it did not exactly offer the benefits of working with peers—or even other humans.

“You lose the group dynamics of working in a class environment; some people find that very stimulating,” he admitted to the magazine. “Of course, a lot of educators are critical of the class environment. They say the students are being spoon-fed, entertained. There is none of that in this system. Alternatively, though, there are a lot of things you can do, like screen layout, to make it interesting.”

In a review for PC Magazine, writer Dara Pearlman felt that the service was fast and relatively inexpensive given the cost of online access in 1985, but found that the interface (which wasn’t made for real-time chat) sometimes made what were already limited interactions with course professors even tougher:

Technical difficulties kept my Reading Aloud instructor, Amy Spaulding, from responding to my questions for 4 days. Later, when we arranged a real-time chat, TeleLearning’s mainframe computer was down, which prevented our conversation. We rescheduled the chat and were finally able to converse via computer, but that too held its disappointments. The TeleLearning software did a fine job of keeping track of whose turn it was to talk by flashing “Instructor” when it was Spaulding’s turn and “Student” when it was my turn, but I found the process almost unbearably slow.

(Gordon said this was intentional—in an effort to save costs, it only polled data occasionally, meaning that it was good for email messages but unusable for real-time chat.)

So no, this offering wasn’t exactly a particularly educationally stimulating approach—certainly not compared to the plasma screens and impressive graphics of the PLATO system, and definitely minus the multimedia that would be in fashion just a few years later. But an education secretary and Vice President couldn’t be wrong, right?

1989

The year the University of Phoenix started offering online courses. The for-profit school, perhaps the most closely associated with online education today, grew quickly off the move and years later became one of the largest universities in the world because of it. It wasn’t the only school that had thrown its hat fully into the virtual ring, however—so too was Thomas Edison State College (now Thomas Edison State University), a public New Jersey school, focused on continuing education, that was formed in 1972. The school embraced online education early with the help of The Electronic University, and was one of five schools of higher learning that fully accepted college credit from the platform by 1984. Nowadays, more than half of all TESU students don’t even live in New Jersey.

The Electronic University eventually evolved into a platform, later called the Electronic University Network, that could be easily accessed on America Online in the early 1990s, giving it a graphical user interface and helping to improve the interactions that users had with their instructors.

In a 1990 San Francisco Examiner article, the company discussed efforts to move beyond simply offering higher education, into producing products that make it easier for people to get online for the first time. Part of the strategy for the product (which I can’t find any record of being actually released) is that the company hoped to infiltrate “social networks”—the traditional kind, think Rotary Clubs—to help sell the product.

Essentially, the company hoped to sell something that was eventually baked into operating systems and web browsers.

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What the Electronic University Network looked like on AOL. (Shin Yamasaki)

Speaking of, the Web did a number on the company’s model. Throughout the ’90s, the company’s courses remained on AOL, but by 1998, the firm had started on the path of a series of mergers that seem to have turned his onetime innovative product, promoted by vice presidents, into a pile of dust. The only affiliated thing that seems to have survived is an online education counseling service called GetEducated, which was launched in 1989 around the time the AOL version of the service launched.

(Ron Gordon, by this point, had long since left the company and was working on something called MindDrive, a technology that promised the ability to control objects with your mind. Obvious next step, am I rite?)

This all, of course, means that TeleLearning, despite being early to the online university game, didn’t really get to see its groundwork through. It was an important bridge for universities (as well as students) that might have wanted to test out the benefits of a correspondence approach. (While probably not perfect, its strategy of partnering with actual accredited universities, rather than being one itself, helped avoid some of the pitfalls the model would later run into.)

It was, as well, probably the first online experience for a whole bunch of folks.

It’s too bad—because it’s likely that in an age where educational resources are found as easily as by typing in a search bar and online universities are proving important parts of the bottom line for some of the biggest schools in the country—schools as prominent as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT have online course or even degree offerings—it would sure be nice if the folks who helped originate this model got a little more notice.

Sure, the tech wasn’t quite ready, but TeleLearning, like PLATO before it, showed how close it actually was.

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Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks again to East Brooklyn Labs (and their Kickstarter) for sponsoring.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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