Universities and the Pioneering of the Internet

A brief discussion amongst Beyond Distance colleagues regarding the BBC television programme “The Virtual Revolution,” raised the question of what role was played by education in the pioneering of the internet. “The Virtual Revolution” made only a very brief mention that it was four universities, linked together as ARPANET, which comprised the forerunner of the internet. In fact, universities, research and education were the shaping, driving force behind the entire development of the internet.

J. C. R. Licklider, whilst working as a Professor of  Psychology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960, published a paper entitled “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in which he wrote, “The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

Licklider, J.C.R., “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, vol. HFE-1, 4-11, Mar 1960. Eprint

In 1962, Licklider wrote memos detailing his idea of a “Galactic Network,” a globally-connected set of nodes through which users could access documents and data from any other node. Later that year, when he was appointed head of computer research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he managed to convince his teammates and successors of the value of the idea of the computer network. It was DARPA which realised Licklider’s vision, bringing ARPANET online with the four universities in late 1969. The idea was for researchers to be able to share data and information with each other, regardless of location.

Other internet developments occurred at research institutions and universities. Packet switching was developed by both Donald Davies of the UK National Physical Laboratory and Leonard Kleinrock at MIT; the Domain Name System (DNS) at University of Wisconsin, Mosaic (the predecessor to the Netscape browser) at University of Illinois. And of course, Sir Tim Berners Lee first proposed the idea of hypertext whilst working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

Not only has research and learning shaped the internet, but consequently the impact of the internet on research and learning cannot be overstated. Distance learning, in the past only carried out on paper and by snail mail, has been revolutionised by e-tivities and multimedia material delivered via the internet. Distance and on-campus students alike benefit from podcasts and other materials organised and offered 24/7 to anywhere by means of virtual and personal learning environments. Here at Beyond Distance in January 2010, while snow paralysed much of the UK, we were able to virtually gather dozens of participants from every continent except Antarctica to study and discuss learning futures through our completely-online Learning Futures Festival. Even if television misses this side of the story, we will continue to develop the education side of the internet story.

Terese Bird


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