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Before the Internet

Before the Internet: Early ‘Distance Learning’ at UD

vintage Dr. DupreeDate published: Aug. 18, 2020

By Robert S. Dupree, Ph.D., BA ’62

On Jan. 2, 1966, I returned to the University of Dallas for a visit after spending the holidays with my family, and met Donald and Louise Cowan at the front door of Carpenter Hall just as they were leaving for lunch. They invited me to join them, and I happily accepted their invitation. 

It was an important time. Dr. Louise Cowan and Dr. Wilmoore Kendall were laying plans for the university’s first graduate programs, including the breakthrough Ph.D. in Politics and Literature that a few years later was to expand into the Institute of Philosophic Studies interdisciplinary program that would involve the departments of philosophy, theology and psychology, along with the original duo of political philosophy and literary studies. I was excited to learn of these and many other plans for the future that were emerging and was delighted to discuss them over sandwiches at the Cowans’ favorite delicatessen. 

As we were waiting in line for our corned beef and other amenities, Louise Cowan turned to me and asked if I might come back and teach two courses when the spring semester began three weeks later. She explained that one of the professors had requested a leave of absence in order to finish up her dissertation and doctoral degree in Ontario, and someone was needed to fill in. 

I expressed my great interest in doing so, though I had just begun writing my own dissertation at Yale, which was due on April 15, but I felt that I might manage both tasks. The problem was that the Yale Graduate School had a residency requirement, and I would not be allowed to reside away from New Haven until the summer.

When we sat down to eat, President Cowan suggested a possibility: Perhaps a course could be conducted via amplified telephone. I was intrigued by this idea and thought to myself that this was certainly cutting-edge planning, but no more was said about it. Telephone calls beyond the city limits, even to suburbs sometimes, could involve extra charges, and calls to New Haven would have been even more expensive as a result, especially if they had to last an hour each time. 

The next day, Louise Cowan called me, and I visited the Cowans’ home to discuss another plan, which was carried out, and involved my commuting at intervals from Connecticut. I submitted my dissertation in April and returned to teach for the rest of the month and the following May, returning to Yale in early June to receive my Ph.D. That was my first semester of teaching at UD, three and a half years after receiving my B.A. there.

modern distance learningWhat we were later to call “distance learning” and then “online education” was on the verge of being developed at that very moment, but something like it had been going on since the late 19th century. It was known as the “correspondence course,” instruction conducted by mail. I took one such course in high school and one in college. But an entirely new version of distance learning was on the horizon. It was called at first “talk-back television,” a variety of instruction conducted via broadcasts but OVER a “closed circuit” network restricted to participants only. It began to emerge around the time of the first landing on the moon.

In the spring of 1965, six months before my chat with President Cowan about a telephone-based arrangement, a remote-teaching setup had been deployed in Florida. It was called GENESYS, an acronym for Graduate Engineering Educational System and launched by the University of Florida. It is not surprising that its six studio-classrooms included Port Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, along with an Air Force base. 

The space program itself required technological alternatives to traditional educational methods. However, the instruction itself was simply a replication of the classroom setup. It was what we would now call a “synchronous” online mode, consisting of a classroom occupied by the instructor and students but flanked by a control room with a large glass window through which the television camera could capture the professor’s presentations. All six of these studios were connected with cabling provided by Southern Bell Telephone.

Only a limited number of students could be accommodated at each site, but they could participate exactly as they might were they all in the same space together, with the freedom to ask questions and even see the notes inscribed on a pad on the lecturer’s desk that substituted for a blackboard, thanks to a second camera mounted overhead. 

This system offered flexibility, because a course could be originated from any of the six locations and taken by students at all or any of the others. The total number of students was limited to about 25 or so, but the main reason for this innovation was that it allowed institutions to offer highly specialized courses that would not have sufficient enrollment at any given institution but would be economically feasible once additional ones could be involved from other places. 

vintage Dr. Dupree teachingAlso, the possibility for students at one institution to take a needed course that was not otherwise available at their school was especially attractive. Moreover, those at a military base could take courses without having to travel. This “talk-back” alternative was meant to overcome spatial limitations but not in the sense of allowing massive numbers of students. Rather, it was created to facilitate the provision of highly specialized courses that were not otherwise practical to offer but that might be of great importance in certain fields of preparation and training.

Texas Instruments and other technology companies in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were particularly interested in what was happening in Florida. IT president Erik Jonsson had already launched Goals for Dallas in 1964, and the Cowans were to be involved in that ambitious program for improving the city, acquainting them with certain influential persons in the region. Eugene McDermott, also an executive at Texas Instruments, and his wife, Margaret, were subsequently to play an important role in the history of the University of Dallas, but they were also involved in the founding of the Graduate Research Center (later to become the University of Texas at Dallas) as a source of educated and trained employees for their company. 

TI was, among other things, the place where the printed circuit was invented, and it played a crucial role in the development of the personal computer, to say nothing of computers and electronics in general. All of this was going on at about the same time in the 1960s when, through an impetus that began in this rapidly developing electronic industry in the Dallas area along with the need for employees educated and trained in such design and engineering skills, the TAGER network was founded. 

A group of educational institutions in the area banded together to found The Association for Graduate Education and Research (TAGER). The University of Texas at Dallas, which was the expanded version of the earlier, exclusively postgraduate institution, was heavily involved. So was Cecil Howard Green, another founding executive of TI, and the project was sometimes called the “Green Network.” 

Because Southern Methodist University was the only university in the area with an engineering school, it played a key role as well. It studied the Florida model and found a wireless mode of implementation that was far more practical for the region to be covered. Member institutions included Austin College, Bishop College, SMU, UTD, UD, Texas Christian University and Texas Wesleyan College. 

modern distance learningIt is interesting to note that this educational innovation was driven by industrial and economic rather than by cultural forces. Unlike the Florida version, this network was characterized by a series of rooftop dish antennas rather than cabling. Braniff Graduate Building, itself only recently completed, sported our antenna.

Donald Cowan’s speculations about solutions for the distance education problem were fulfilled  by the TAGER project, and UD embraced it gladly because it offered attractive opportunities for the Graduate School of Management, which at the time did not have a great deal of competition from other area institutions. Not only those of higher education but various companies in the region also installed studio-equipped classrooms, allowing employees to take courses for credit without leaving their workplaces. 

There was not much demand for the usual courses in the humanities, economics and the basic sciences, but our Cistercian monk and classics professor Father Placid found a ready audience for his Greek course, since even SMU did not offer that language at the time.

By 1967 the new network was installed. Because the seven educational institutions were not independently broadcasting but fed their offerings into a central distribution center, anyone at any of the receiving destinations could choose a course from a particular one of them. This, in addition to the cable-free structure, was a considerable improvement over the GENESYS setup, to say nothing of the ability to expand the entire network simply by adding a dish antenna and creating a suitably equipped room. 

By the fall semester of 1968, only two and a half years after my return to UD, over 1,000 students were taking courses over the entire system, and that number grew rapidly in the following years, though the decline in local industries led to a drop in course registration for those in engineering and related fields. Because UD was engaged in offering mostly business courses, it was far less affected than other institutions in the network. It took almost three decades before TAGER became irrelevant, thanks to the emergence of the World Wide Web and the internet, but it offered not only professors in GSM experience for what was to come in the online world.

What was it like, teaching or taking a course in a TAGER studio? How were exams and essays handled? The answer is quite simple. A courier from each institution delivered materials to their proper destinations in a packet. Final exams could be supervised either by appointed monitors at each site or simply on television. Otherwise, the whole operation was very much along the lines of a traditional classroom course. A larger number of students could be accommodated per course than was possible in the GENESYS setup, but all participants experienced the company of others, unlike most online sessions, which are addressed to isolated individuals. 

Virtual classrooms in LMS programs like Brightspace or, on a smaller scale, in Google Hangouts or, recently, Zoom, can replicate some of these characteristics to some extent, but the TAGER experience was not radically different from that of a physical classroom environment. In fact, it took place in a classroom, and there were certain advantages for students who could enjoy seeing and listening to the professor without being constantly in his or her line of sight.

Although there was no demand outside UD for the courses I was offering at the time, I did teach a couple in our studio just to see what the experience was like. In one, there were some students elsewhere, so I did get a sense of the actual operation. The lower level of the Gorman Lecture Center was the location of our studio, which is now occupied by the IT offices. Even after TAGER was no longer active, it continued to be a classroom, with the adjacent studio used as a storage space with a curtained window. When I taught there, as I occasionally did, I often felt a bit of nostalgia. 

The TAGER model was replicated successfully in the East and West as well as in the Midwest, but it was expensive to install and had only a limited influence on educational goals in the 1970s and ’80s. For all that, it was an important stepping stone to a future that has just now been tested by the effects of a pandemic on our ability to gather in a single space. Whether or not we will continue to move away from the physical to the virtual classroom, however, remains to be seen. This, too, could pass, replaced by even more effective modes of learning.