School Computing

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The Internet was evolving for twenty years before Tim Berners-Lee created HTML, HTTP and the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Most independent schools made minimal use of the Internet before 1993, when the Mosaic web browser was first released. This is not to say there wasn't use of email (1965), Telnet (1969), FTP (1973), Usenet (1979), Gopher (1991) before the Web arrived, only that use tended to be quite limited both in terms of who had access and how much access they had. From the mid 1980s tech savvy people were connecting up to BBSs and other network services with dialup modems.

From the mid 1990s on independent schools started connecting their networks to the Internet. This involved obtaining some sort of pipe to an ISP, registering a domain name, learning about firewalls, creating web pages, figuring out policies and practices to deal with inappropriate material on the Internet, and educating the school community how to appropriately use the Internet. Search Engines were new and, while quickly becoming essential, tended to be much less useful than current services like Google.

School pipes to the Internet tended to start with a network modem or UUCP dial-up connection, then move to an ISDN connection, and then a few years later to a fractional or full T1. Some schools leased multiple phone lines in hunt groups for supporting dial-up access from home to school Internet and email resources. Most of these efforts were abandoned as the ISP market quickly developed and provided low-cost home connections to the Internet, and through the Internet the online resources of schools.

Once schools had added LANs and an Internet connections most very soon felt compelled to create Acceptable Use Policies for networked computer use. A major thrust of many AUPs was educating users that the same long established ethical practices used in the analog world also applied in the new digital world that was rapidly evolving. Many early adopters of email had experienced unpleasant flame wars and much effort was put into training new email users to avoid the very unpleasant experience of being flamed. The following is from a September 1994 newsletter to faculty about new computer developments (including email) that had been implemented the previous summer.

Some philosophical thoughts about e-mail. Face-to-face communications, and even phone conversations convey much more information than textual communications. Subtle emotional nuances, tone, and attitude are very hard to convey with writing. It is time consuming, and easy to get things not quite right. might consider adopting a policy of avoiding e-mail when there is a significant emotional or subtextual content to your message. Use of e-mail for messages of this type is inefficient and can lead to unpleasant misunderstandings.
The consultant we used last year to review the Computer Committee's report told us that there is life before e-mail and life after e-mail. JG (the division head) in the opening upper school faculty meeting, and a recent article in the Times, pointed out some of the potential pitfalls of e-mail. If we can avoid the problems more often than not we have available a new tool that can revolutionize communication within our community.

Staffing became a major issue in the mid 90s as people supporting digital technology in schools were asked - or volunteered - to support growing quantities of computers and increasingly complex digital information systems. The struggle to gain respect, acknowledgement and relief from other duties was a near universal experience at the time. Many independent schools found it difficult not only to integrate computers, but also found it difficult to figure out where to place the computer people within the existing school staffing structure. Many schools still have not adequately changed their formal governing structures to reflect the actual importance of information technology. For instance, many schools do not include the chief information officer (by whatever title that person has) in core administrative meetings even though the CIO is making decisions that are increasingly central to the functioning of schools.

The following are from notes prepared for a 1994 meeting with a headmaster about the staffing issue.

Issue of coordinator will have to be sold/forced. It will not come about on its own accord. Key arguments are:
1. Number of computers in school has steadily grown and there is continued demand to add more computers. The computer department staff has remained essentially the same since J.D. was hired.
2. We are out of line for a school our size and with our degree of computer integration in not having a computer coordinator position.
3. To not recognize the non-teaching role that members of the computer dept. play, especially the head of the department, is unfair and unwise on the school's part. The last head of the department was exhausted by this approach, and I am well on the way. The attitude on the upper school principal's part is that I am one his teachers and that work I do to support the entire school community is not really relevant to my upper school work load.
4. Have to put together a fact sheet showing growth of computers and computer staffing at competing schools.

A related issue of this era was the normalization of funding for digital informatio technology. Many independent schools relied on gifts, or special fund raising, for early technology infrastructure improvements. Most school budgets did not contain line items for information technology. During the 90s most schools added technology budgets and those budgets are often now quite significant. Many schools have adopted regular computer replacement policies with replacement cycles varying between 3 and 5 years.

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