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How my journey to creating my own virtual classroom began.

Designing my own virtual classroom was not on my roadmap.

Looking back, from where I am now, the road seems a bit more clear, but looking forward, it was difficult to see where I were headed. My journey to creating my own virtual classroom began with a phone call on my first day in a new job in September of 1994.  

I was a Research Assistant at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL). CBL was part of the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies (CEES).  It was one of 3 remote research labs located in Maryland. I was an undergraduate student at nearby St Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), paying my way through college, and I was fortunate to have landed such an amazing job. 

I was assigned a desk in a shared workspace with some of the graduate students. There was a single computer in our shared workspace, a Mac IIcx, with a tiny 13 inch color display. The computer was connected to the Internet, but I had no idea what that really meant at the time.  I picked up the phone and dialled the number for the campus help desk, Larry Lentner answered the phone, ‘Hi this is Larry in the IT department, how can I help you?’ Larry was the system administrator for the campus.  I asked him simply “I’m supposed to get on the internet but I don’t know how to do that, can you help me?”

Over the phone, Larry told me to double click on that icon that said Mosaic 1.0. Then click in the address bar at the top of the window and type in this long string of characters. He explained that this was called a URL and it was like an address but for computers on the internet.  When I hit return, a simple page of information with a few pictures appeared on the screen. The page background was grey with rather blocky black text, some words were blue and had an underline. There was also a picture on the page, although it was not very clear, and I could see each line of the image appear as it was slowly being drawn on the screen.  He told me to click on the blue underlined text and as soon as I did the page changed and a new page began to be drawn on the screen.

“Cool!” I exclaimed, “How do I make one of these?”

Larry instructed me to “go up to the View menu, and select View -> Source. This is the HTML code that you need to write to make a page like this.”  Over the next hour or so, Larry helped me Telnet over to the main campus Solaris server, and then how to use a Unix program called pico to create a text file, enter the basic html code I could see in the view source window, and then save the file into my newly created www directory on the server. Then I entered the url for my new website and suddenly a whole new world opened up for me. 

These webpages simply amazed me. Every time I would find a new web page, I would go to the View menu and read the source code to see how they had added that image, formatted the text, created a table, whatever the cool new trick was, I learned how to replicate it on my own pages. This was so much fun, I could publish simple pages on the world wide web and other people all over the world could see them. Amazing.

That simple first lesson taught me many things that have stuck with me ever since. First, the web was an open platform. Anyone that could access it, could easily view the pages of information, and the source code for constructing those pages.  With a little basic knowledge, anyone could make their own pages and all you needed was access to a web server and you could publish your own web page that could be viewed by anyone in the world.  Powerful!

But, the lesson actually went further than just how to view, write, and publish a web page; it also taught me about the power of networks and unix.  The internet was more than just webpages that contained information, it was a global connection of computers that could be accessed from anywhere if you were connected to the internet.

That small Mac IIcx was physically located in a building on one side of the campus, but the Solaris computer I was accessing was physically located on the other side of campus in the basement of another building. Since both computers were on the same network, when I opened the telnet window and typed in a simple command, it was as if I was sitting at the keyboard of the server. The next question I asked, as it turns out was truly profound, ‘Can I access this Solaris server from a computer at SMCM where I was a student?  Larry’s answered with a simple ‘Yes, of course, it’s the internet’.  I just had to find a telnet window and everything I had just learned would work from any computer connected to the internet, anywhere in the world. Wow, ok I was going to have to try this.

As a Research Assistant, my main job was to do library research, finding relevant scientific journal articles related to the Ecological Economics work our research team was conducting. CBL was a satellite campus of the UMD system, and we were located roughly 60 miles from the main campus and the Libraries there.   We did have a small research library on our campus in Solomons Maryland,  so the next day, I headed over to the library and met Kathy Heil, the librarian and she taught me how to use a Victor to search the library catalog for the entire UMD system using the one computer that was in the library.  

That Victor system, let me search for articles at any library in the entire University of Maryland system, across all of the various campuses, all at one time.  This just completely blew my mind.  I had been used to using the card catalogs at the libraries of every school I had attended.  The very idea that they were all accessible via a special computer running this program called Victor was simply amazing.  Then Kathy, calmly corrected me by saying, no, it has nothing to do with this computer, you can do this from any computer, you just have to telnet to the campus and then you can access Victor and the whole catalog just like this from anywhere on the internet. I had to try this!

I recall running across campus back to the little shared IIcx in the shared graduate student office space, opening the telnet program and typing in the commands to open Victor that I had just learned, and wow, she was right, there was the entire library catalog system, just like I had just learned to use in the library.  

Ok, this was crazy pants, did it really work from anywhere though?  I had to find out.  I hopped in my little beat up pickup truck and drove the 30 miles from CBL back to SMCM where I was an undergraduate biology student.  I went straight to the one computer lab on campus, we had these fancy NeXT computers that I didn’t really understand at the time, but they had Telnet on them and they were connected to the internet.  I logged in, opened Telnet and typed in: telnet space and my CBL email address, hit return and a single word appeared on the next line – password:   It worked!  I entered my password and not only could I access Victor, but I could also use that pico program Larry had taught me to use to write webpages with, connect to shared drives and access files on the campus, jump from one solaris server to the next to run programs, and much more.

I logged out of the NeXT computer, walked out of the computer lab and headed upstairs to join my friends for dinner in the campus dining hall.  I recall sitting at dinner, telling my friends what I had just learned and one of them asked if this telnet thing could work from any computer, even the one I had in my dorm room.  Interesting, I hadn’t thought of that, wow that would be pretty crazy if it would, I had no idea, but I said I would try it and let them know. 

After dinner I headed back down to the campus computer lab and asked at the helpdesk if there was a way to connect my Mac Classic II in my dorm room to the campus internet.  They asked if I had a fax modem, which I did, it was this little black box that when I borrowed money to get a computer to take to college with me, the person at CompUSA had suggested I purchase this thing that I would certainly need.  It was a Zoom modem that I think was 9600 bps. The helpdesk person then handed me a sheet of paper with instructions for connecting my modem to the phone line in my dorm room, and a floppy disk that contained the programs I needed. 

It took a few hours of trying but finally the little zoom modem in my dorm room started screeching and these weird sounds and then the ‘Welcome to St Mary’s College of Maryland’ screen appeared in the telnet window of my own computer.  Now for the real test, could I get to my CBL account.  I entered the command and sure enough, after entering my password, the ‘Welcome to the University of Maryland, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory’ welcome screen was printed in ascii characters across my screen.  

Within the first few days of starting this new job at CBL, I had learned to browse the world wide web, write and publish my own website, and access computers and resources connected to the internet from anywhere in the world.  I learned that it was possible to work from anywhere I had a connection to the internet.   The physical location no longer mattered as long as there was a connection to the internet.  

So began my journey to creating my own virtual classroom.