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First Encounters with Internet Technology

The following post is my essay I submitted for peer review for my Coursera course, Internet History, Technology, and Security by Charles Severance. The question to be answered: Write an essay about how you first encountered the Internet or an earlier networking technology. Describe the technologies you were using, some of the activities you did “on line”, and tell us how having a new form of communication changed the way you think about the world.

The first two weeks of the course have been an enjoyable stroll down technology memory lane. If you are interested I believe you can still get in the course. Here is my essay:

I was a young chemist sparked by the discovery of computer programming at the end of my college career and then ignited with the purchase of an Apple II computer in 1979. My obsession with this new computational freedom motivated me to open my own computer store with a college buddy in 1980.

Scientific Frontiers Grand Opening 1981

Computer Store Looks to Future

I was programing on an HP 85 and we sold mostly CP/M based computers. Commodore emerged as our main microcomputer product line. A product that we tried to sell which I totally believed in was the “The Source”, it may have been the first online consumer service. Readers Digest believed in this enough to pay 6 million for the service in 1980. It was touted as a self-help service with a Google type dream search of that time. Access to the UPI newswire and conceptually encyclopedia type information had me believing it would change the world. However, technology was based on 300 or maybe 1200 baud acoustic modems with very few local call options. The cost per line of knowledge never built an acceptable ROI, but I do believe we saw the future. I still have one of the coffee mugs that we gave away for promotion.Source Mug

During the same period of time when I owned the computer store I travelled to Las Vegas to attend “Comdex”, pretty sure it was the fall of 1981. I was mostly interested in the battle lines that were forming between Apple and this new IBM PC. But at that show I remember checking out the Xerox Star workstation, famous for presenting the concept of the Graphical User Interface. I was impressed but did not get it. I remember scoffing at the idea of linking your hand via a mouse to activity on the computer screen. Oh well, I was not as imaginative as the Steve Jobs who did see the potential.

After the computer store and a fling with the Oil Shale boom and bust, my career moved to Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Valley, in 1987. I was in heaven, driving through the bay area at that time was like perusing a live PC Magazine. By then I believed in Windows and actually did a lot with HP’s New Wave interface. The Bay area was exciting up until the earthquake in 1989. That combined with the effect of California’s Proposition 13 on public school funding caused me to request that HP move my young family to Cincinnati in 1990. I was a systems engineer supporting the LIMS and LAS market segment, that is Laboratory Information and Instrumentation Management which matched well with my chemistry background. My early viewpoint of the “Internet” was shaped by how great the open access to DOS and Windows apps via the BBS services had become. Do you remember the “Wildcat BBS” software that was the engine for most of those services?

Access to the BBS services in the early 90’s was exploding into viable business opportunities. I used to maintain a “Best of the BBS Apps” floppy disk where I would store the coolest PC tools and screen savers of the day. I would always be asked by my customers for the latest copy of that diskette. The Hayes Smartmodem was reliable, affordable and fast enough to open the door for the geeks of the day to explore the potential of this new world of information. This reminds me of the second technology opportunity that “I did not get”. It was probably late 1992 when a co-worker of mine in Cincinnati was involved with a BBS out of Dayton, OH. He asked me one day if I would be interested in an opportunity to link his BBS to ARPANET a connection he had via a friend at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There was some cost involved and as I remember access was limited to a small number of users, but my question was more about what value ARPANET would provide. I could envision the potential of public access to what the academic community was playing with and open source collaboration seemed to be alive and well. I didn’t see how a path through ARPANET was going to help. But it wasn’t about ARPANET it was about seeing the potential of what soon became the World Wide Web, WWW. We were actually talking about developments taking place in this arena since we were playing with the early concept of HTML and the MOSAIC project in our X-Terminal environment.

It is fun to look back and second guess. There were lots of winners and losers. Remember Ashton-Tate’s dBASE or VisiCalc? I never thought Microsoft would amount to anything and with respect to the Internet they really didn’t. I remember how brilliant I thought Bill Gates approach was to the Internet in wanting to carve out a cost per transaction. Trouble is he never could gain control of the connection. Oh well, it was fun writing this assignment for my Coursera course “Internet History, Technology, and Security” and I am definitely interested in how this peer review grading is going to work.

Impending Disruption to Higher Education

I have spent a lot of time in the last week thinking about what disruption to Higher Education will really look like. I got to spend some time with Richard DeMillo after I read his book, “Abelard to Apple“. The book is an excellent review of what Higher Ed was and in some cases still is. And Richard offers sound ideas about the obvious need to adapt education to our current information rich world. What struck me was that he identified the significance of MOOCs before they had evolved as we see them today under flags of Coursera, Udacity and edX.

DeMillo was a guest speaker for our NWACC Summit which happened to be our 25th anniversary with a major strategic planning purpose. So it also surprised me that discussion amongst the 30+ CIOs from the Northwest also focused heavily on the ramifications of the MOOCs. You see MOOCs are not the disruption, they are just exposing the problems so that we will finally need to deal with the disruption that is already upon us. Many have chosen to focus on the MOOCs themselves, determining how they will inevitably fail to compete academically and with respect to profitability. But it is not about the MOOCs succeeding in our traditional measures. The MOOCs have been funded by venture capitalists who tend to know when a profit is to be made and the Monetization value of MOOCs is starting to become clear. Exposure brings fame and fortune and access to valuable data or clients does as well. Coursera Career Services is not just about about helping their students find a job. I believed for many years that there was no way Amazon could ever make a profit, now I realize there are bigger forces at play.

The disruption comes from the MOOCs exposing the weakness of our traditional Higher Education course and degree delivery system. An obvious threat comes from the career service aspect. That is a domain that Higher Ed needs to control. Our degrees need to be the preeminent standard for validation that learning has  been accomplished. At the foundation of our system is the credit hour. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced this week that it is rethinking the value of the Carnegie Unit for which we have defined the credit hour. Higher Education; we need to respond to this disruption with innovation rather then denial.

They are changing the face of education globally

I checked out Coursera’s course offerings and I have to admit they have a great lineup of quality courses. I signed up for “Introduction to Logic” from Stanford which begins soon so I could evaluate the process and quality of delivery, plus I am somewhat interested in logic. Then I signed up for “Introduction to Genome Science” from University of Pennsylvania for a fun refresher to my MS in Bioinformatics where my thesis was “Security of Our Personal Genome”. Purely continuing education but what a huge market that could be. You do realize this is wave 2 of open courseware. Coursera’s quote: We are changing the face of education globally, and we invite you to join us. Let’s assume Coursera is able to competently deliver these courses to any number of students. And let’s assume their student assessment techniques allow them to validate that learning took place. They have the prestigious of elite institutions of higher education. What does this mean?

What if a year from now millions of people are successfully completing courses through Coursera, Udacity and probably other copycat competitors. First Coursera is going to be worth billions and second a benchmark will be established that will define what is a quality online course. What will this benchmark mean? It will eliminate the argument that legitimate For-Profit online providers lack in quality. But more important it will validate the other argument that many of the online courses from traditional non-profit institutions are not worth the bandwidth you are wasting on them. So what does this mean for most of us (higher education)? Our online or blended offerings which we realize we must offer will have to be of similar quality to the free offerings from the Coursera’s of the world. We will have a benchmark. And then we just worry about holding on to our control of accreditation for validating what is a college degree and what is it worth. I am thankful that we will still have the value of the campus experience, but again, what will it be worth.

Update July 17, 2012 – More research universities join Coursera

Universities Moving from Elite to Unique

There must have been a press release by Coursera recently to fuel the many articles today about their new partnership with Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to join their charter partner Stanford. This is all about elite universities embracing massively open online courses, or MOOCs. I think this signals a major move of the changing strategy of higher education. And I think this is significant enough that all universities need to take notice and evaluate how this might affect their course delivery strategy and the future of higher education.

MIT, Harvard and Stanford have shaken things up by driving these MOOCs and in some courses offering a certificate of completion for those who have successfully participated. This is not a credential that has any official meaning, however, why doesn’t it. It can now be argued that one could present their successful completion of a series of courses from these prestigious institutions as validation that learning took place and should now offer a certain level of qualification similar to a college degree. That is extremely scary to higher education, but why not to these universities that have pioneered this MOOC strategy?

It appears from the articles that faculty at these institutions are highly motivated to participate in offering these courses that are open to students outside of their traditional classes. Maybe they are inspired by how Stanford engineering professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng parleyed their efforts into the startup company Coursera funded by $16M of VC money. But why are these universities so supportive? Are they jumping into this just because they can? I don’t think so, I think they understand the transition that higher education is going through and they plan on be at the front end of it. They see that that an online component for a course brings the value of the community. And they have decided to perfect this online component to ensure their leadership in leveraging these communities. Not to grow their online revenue, although that may very well be an outcome, but instead this partnership with Coursera allows them to effectively bring the world to their classrooms. If the paying students who benefit from advantages of F2F also have an opportunity to collaborate with an unlimited number of students from the world, then they win. These institutions will move beyond just “Elite” they become “Unique”.

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