Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first fully online course

January 17, 2016 Tony Bates

Dr. Linda Harasim: professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC, Canada

Dr. Linda Harasim: professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC, Canada

The first fully online course?

I was talking to Linda Harasim earlier this week (we both live and work in the Vancouver area). Linda is a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University and an expert in online teaching. She casually dropped the following into our conversation:

“Did you know that this is the 30th anniversary of the very first fully online course?”

I was taken aback by this, as I had seen nothing in the blogosphere about this, and asked Linda to elucidate. Here is her response, in her own words.

Linda’s story

The first totally online credit course delivered entirely via the Internet was taught in January, 1986 at the University of Toronto, through the Graduate School of Education (then called OISE: the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). Thus January, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary.

The topic was “Women and Computers in Education”, dealing with gender issues and educational computing. This is a wonderful and noteworthy issue on its own, because the course dealt with the gender bias and lack of interest by girl students and women teachers in educational computing…yet, by its very design and implementation, it became a very notable first…the first fully online Internet course ever.

I had obtained funding in 1983 to investigate the potential of computer networks for teachers in Ontario (the “in Ontario” part was required because it was Ontario Ministry of Education dollars). This funding, albeit small dollars, enabled me to research the “field”. I identified and visited Canadian university professors who ran associated computer conferencing forums. I visited professors working with the CoSy (COmputer conferencing ­SYstem) developed at the University of Guelph and University of Alberta educators who were working with the PLATO system and associated with the MTS (Michigan Terminal System) conferencing system called *Forum.

My visits were disillusioning. The notion of using an online conferencing or forum system in which students collaborated to learn—especially through a computer network— was to faculty at the time, foreign and weird. Computer networking, as they assured me, was the art and science of connecting a computer to a printer – not discourse!

The course we launched in January 1986 was designed and taught by me and co-taught with Dr. Dorothy Smith (Harasim & Smith, 1986; 1993), with moral support and encouragement from Lynne Davie. In this course we developed an online collaborative learning pedagogy that over the years has become widely adopted and adapted in online post-secondary courses as well as professional development.

The key was to reformulate a variety of group learning approaches from the face-to-face classroom, ranging from learning dyads, to small project groups, seminars, to large group and plenary discussions.  Online group discussions and seminars have become part of many if not most online university courses since that time.

Interest in the course was very high….by word of mouth, and from 1986 I taught it most semesters and there was always a waiting list to register for the course until I left OISE in 1989. The courses attracted students from across Canada.

As a result I was hauled into the Registrar’s office. She demanded to know why students from other provinces were seeking to register for my courses. She was annoyed, not pleased, as she reminded me that ‘This institution is the ONTARIO Institute for Studies in Education’.

There are many memories and noteworthy issues to recall:

  • most of the students were accessing by 150 baud or 300 baud modems, which is slower than we can type;
  • there were tremendous difficulties in geographical access…and absolutely no information on how to access the university network which was in those days BITnet (Because Its Time network). Students were amazingly brilliant in figuring out the dumb network access procedures. Access was command driven. (Will anyone today even understand the immense challenges and the procedures required and the many attempts needed to get online and then to stay online in the 1980s?)
  • Bell Ontario contacted me to ask why so many people in the province were trying to get on the network. Who was I and what was I doing? This came as a shock to me, because it was almost impossible in those days to actually reach anyone inside Bell Canada (a black box) and the fact that they reached out to me demonstrated their level of frustration and confusion as to why anyone at all should want to log on to a computer network. It was through that totally unexpected phone call that I was able to confirm their obtuse hieroglyphics for public access to BITnet: the use of 2 dots or 3 dots (<..> or <…>) depending on where in the province you were connecting from.
  • The first course combined 20 for-credit OISE graduate students and 20 not-for-credit teachers who were engaging for professional development.  The reason for the non-credit participants was because I had obtained funding from the Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario, as part of an investigation of the potential of computer networking for education. Part of this funding was used to purchase the Participate online conferencing system to be used on our course.
  • The course was an amazing, amazing success, which I had always thought would happen because of my vision of online education and my belief in the potential of computer networks to enable online collaborative learning. I had this undefined vision that continues until today. I thought through the design. What does collaboration mean with a group of people scattered across time and place? How does one design and implement it? I sought and obtained external funding for the technology. I designed and taught the course, although most of the OISE administrators were not at all clear on what this meant.  Who was?
  • I taught a blended approach in 1985, then went totally online in January 1986. However, the two weeks over the Christmas break prior to the launch of this first course was the first and greatest experience of doubt that I’ve ever had. I began to worry about all sorts of ‘what ifs’, and spent the holidays coming up with Plan B, Plan C and all sorts of other plans to deal with the possibility that no one would log on or participate. In fact, the very opposite occurred. There was a deluge of participation and the major problem was how to deal with the very clear need being expressed by teachers and graduate students for communication, community and collaboration in their teaching and learning.

Since the 1980s, I have been continuously teaching online university courses to the present day: graduate and undergraduate courses, totally online, and also blended (mixed mode) courses, as well as conducting professional development and teacher training in the field of online education.

Besides being the 30th anniversary of the very first totally online credit course in the world, January 2016 also the 30th anniversary of online collaborative learning pedagogy, and of pedagogical research in online education.  Moreover, the 30 years of teaching online and research online education resulted in the articulation of the theory of Online Collaborative Learning (2012).

However, some of the key pedagogical and institutional issues remain unresolved or overlooked and in my view, these seriously need attention if the field is to meet its promised potential.


It’s always dangerous to claim to be the first in anything. Some wiseacre will always come up with something even earlier. Linda is very aware of this, and would really welcome feedback from others on early pioneering efforts that in those days were not easily connected to one another. The pioneers were often working in isolation.

Nevertheless, Linda’s launch of her course in 1986 was embedded in a wider context. Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff at New Jersey Institute of Technology had run blended courses since the early 1970s, and Marlene Scardemalia and Carl Bereiter, also at OISE, developed CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Systems) around 1986, primarily to research knowledge construction in computer-supported k-12 classroom teaching. The University of Guelph had developed CoSy, an online conferencing system but were not using it for teaching fully online courses in 1986. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), developed at the University of Illinois, was the first generalized computer assisted instruction system, developed as early as 1960, but even by the 1980s it ran on a private network and required expensive, specialist terminals and there was little or no direct online interaction with a professor, a tutor, or peers.

So Linda deserves, in my view, the credit for the first Internet based, fully online course. It took nearly another ten years before the first web-based online courses appeared in 1995 (again, Canada was in the lead, with the University of British Columbia offering web-based online courses, with one of its instructors, Murray Goldberg, developing the first learning management system, WebCT, which was later bought by Blackboard  Inc.). It was another 22 years after Linda’s first online course offering before MOOCs came along (again pioneered in Canada by George Siemens, Dave Cormier and Stephen Downes at the University of Manitoba). Furthermore, Linda’s first online course wasn’t a flash in the pan. Linda has been pioneering, teaching, researching and theorizing about online learning for the last 30 years (she must have been very young back in 1986!).

Of course, proving a negative (no such courses before 1986) is very difficult, so if there are other claims, let’s hear them. In the meantime, I’m opening a bottle of (Canadian) bubbly to celebrate with Linda. Can’t find a 1986 vintage though.

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