Thursday, 28 May 2015

The learning technologies of 1990

To celebrate a colleague’s clocking up 25 years on the staff of The Open University, I put together a slideshow to remind us all just how long ago 1990 was. Amongst other things, that was the year in which Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign, Germany was re-unified, and the first Gulf War began. Top films of the year included Ghost, Pretty Woman, Home Alone, and Back to the Future III.

But what was learning technology like in 1990? Three events from The Open University’s history remind us how things were back then.

First, there was a change to the transmission timings of the TV programmes made and broadcast by the BBC for OU students. From the time of the OU’s first course in 1970, when domestic video recorders were many years in the future, these programmes had been transmitted late at night or in the early morning, so that – as became a legendary British curiosity – not only OU students but insomniacs and early risers could study art history, theoretical physics or human psychology in the hours before or after regular programming. In 1990, the BBC moved all its educational broadcasting, including OU programmes, to an overnight “Learning Zone” (“zone” was very much a word of the period) on the basis that people who wanted them would record them and watch them later at a time of their convenience. This marked a technology milestone, in that for the first time the OU was working on the assumption that video recorder ownership was now so widespread that all of its students owned and (perhaps more crucially) were able to program it.

At that time at the OU, only students on certain courses were required to have a computer, or at least access to one. The minimum specification of that computer had been the subject of much debate, being eventually fixed around the capabilities of the Amstrad 1512: an IBM PC “clone” from the company of Alan Sugar, who was then famous not for firing apprentices but for manufacturing cheap and sturdy computers for the business market. In 1990 however, the argument erupted again when the minimum specification was breached by a computing course which – because of the requirements of a database package – demanded that students have a computer with TWO floppy disk drives, instead of just one. (Most personal computers at this time did not have a hard disk drive, let alone a CD-ROM reader.)

In 1990 an internet connection was also a rarity for domestic computer users, though about two thousand OU students and lecturers were required to have one in order to use CoSy, an early computer conferencing system. Such things were new and unfamiliar to those outside academic science and the computer industry; CoSy had to be accompanied by a long and detailed manual, in which operations were explained through the analogy of working on a desktop with different files and folders which might be open or closed. (Few people other than users of the Apple Macintosh had experience of a windows-icon-menu-pointer system; Microsoft’s attempt to create a rival system called Windows had only reached version 3.0 in 1990, and was still vastly inferior to the Mac OS.)

These kinds of trips back into the past can be great fun. (So can seeing what kids of today make of the cutting-edge technologies of yesteryear.) But if we find the VCRs, floppy disk drives and dial-up internet connections of 1990 quaint, we should resist the temptation to imagine ourselves superior to the people we were back then or to congratulate ourselves on how much progress has been made. Rather we should be reminded of how many of the technologies which now seem so obvious and central to our lives will in fact prove transitory and doomed to ultimate obsolescence. William Gibson, the author of the 1984 SF novel Neuromancer and regarded as something of a prophet of the digital world, once commented on his attitude to new technologies:“whenever I’m shown something like Google Glass, … [I imagine] what it would look like in the display cabinet beside the cash register in a [charity] shop - I try to imagine how they'll look in ten years time. It's a very good exercise for putting it in perspective. In a charity shop you'll find all the once-new technology, gathering dust as all things do.”

That’s the great thing about history: it can give strip away our temporal chauvinism and give us perspective. How will the learning technologies of today look in 25 years time, I wonder?

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