Computer bulletin boards for distance education students

Roger Atkinson
External Studies Unit
Murdoch University
Whilst the use of computers in education is concentrated on teaching and learning activities, there remains an important unmet need for informal, computer based communications between students. For distance education especially, computer bulletin boards offer a low cost way to create an electronic "grapevine", for students to exchange ideas, air opinions, provide mutual help and services such as news and second hand markets. This paper describes some typical bulletin boards, equipment and management requirements, and experiences at Murdoch University.

This paper addresses three main questions, which are related to a particular view of the wider question: How to be an effective technological innovator in education? Firstly, what is a "computer bulletin board"? Secondly, why promote their use by educational institutions? Thirdly, are there useful insights to be obtained into processes of technological change in education?

Computer bulletin board systems

Computer bulletin boards or "BBSs" have been associated with the world of computer hobbyists - late night tappers on Apple IT, TRS-80 and Commodore 64, people who bought a cheap microcomputer because it seemed an exciting thing to be into. In theory, you should plan the work you want to do with a computer before you buy it, but the hobbyists of five to ten years ago would have scoffed at sensible theories. It was much more exciting to be a participant in the game of inventing new uses for these marvellous machines.

Bulletin board systems were one such invention, following quickly after the advent of affordable home computers, and changing attitudes of telephone network authorities to data communicators in the late 1970s - early 80s. "Putting up" a BBS was a technical challenge to the advanced hobbyist, and exploring BBSs became a new activity for the less advanced. Compared with the serious business of operating a BBS, the functions of computer bulletin boards for information networking were almost secondary matters.

A typical bulletin board installation is a microcomputer with its own telephone line, an auto-answer, auto-disconnect modem, and a bulletin board program. The modem converts digital data signals into analogue signals which are compatible with the telephone network, "answers" each telephone call, and disconnects the call when the remote user disconnects, or when instructed by the BBS program to disconnect a caller. The computer waits for the modem to signal an incoming call, responding by running the BBS program.

The BBS program has to do a large number of jobs. At the communications control level, the program's jobs include sensing and responding to incoming calls; maintaining variables such as the system clock and calendar, count of callers, caller's time on the system, etc; sensing disconnect or log-off and getting ready for the next user; etc. At the user services level the BBS program has to instruct the user; provide the requested service or an error message for invalid requests; prevent the user from unauthorised access to the operating system; etc.

These jobs incorporate many quite fascinating technical details which present a challenge to programmers. However, here we are more interested with the purposes and functions than with technical details. The key point is that bulletin board software is predominantly a public domain and hobbyist phenomenon, evolved through a process of refining and adding to earlier programs done by other persons. (Gengle, 1984).

Earlier bulletin boards enabled users to request only a small range of services. These included "posting" a bulletin for all other users to read, reading the bulletins posted by others, accessing lists of registered users and recent callers, and running programs on the host system. For example, if the BBS program files included one which you needed and you didn't have your own copy, you could run the program remotely using the BBS as if it were your own. (Myers, 1983).

Later bulletin boards added "file transfer" capabilities, which enabled users to "upload" their own programs and "download" programs contributed by others. Bulletin boards became distributors of public domain software as well as distributors of bulletin-type information.

More recent bulletin boards include many refinements and expansions of these basic functions. A popular BBS may require substantial disk capacity to cope with the number of registered users and the volume of bulletins, files and system software. Most provide an electronic mail system with individual private mail boxes, and the addressing and directory functions. These are mini versions of the large scale systems put up by Telecom (Viatel, Telememo), Overseas Telecommunications Commission (Minerva) and various businesses for in-house use.

Withers (1986) has summarised the Australian scene:

There are well over one hundred computerised bulletin boards around the country. These systems are generally operated by individuals or a club, but sponsorship or actual operation by computer-related businesses is becoming increasingly common.

Most bulletin boards are dominated by hobbyists, but some manage to attract "professional" users... Since most users tend to reside in the same town or city as the board, there are limited possibilities for electronic mail.

There are important limitations to BBSs compared with large scale electronic mail systems. Boards are single user systems, that is only one user can be connected at any given time. A board's regular users will be confined to the local telephone district owing to the high cost of STD calls. BBS users cannot take advantage of the low cost, distance independent charges for telephone access to the public packet switched network (AUSTPAC), because BBS operators cannot afford the high cost of AUSTPAC interfacing, compared with telephone interfacing.

Against these limitations, there are important advantages derived from the hobbyist origins. Bulletin boards offer very lost cost access, simple and user friendly operation, openness to all callers, and communication to a common interest group. Users of a BBS will require their own microcomputer installation with a simple modem and communications software. The cost for a minimal installation is under A$700. Each call to a BBS, if in the same telephone district, will cost only one local call fee.

Most boards provide a user friendly welcoming message, eliciting the user's name prior to deciding whether the user is a "visitor" or a "registered user". Generally the former are confined to a "tour" of the system, ending with an invitation to pay a nominal subscription of $5 or $10. Registered users have access to all services and their own passwords. Boards have to be user friendly, because in general the only external documentation available is the telephone number (see, for example, the regular item on BBSs in "Australian Personal Computer").

The openness and common interest features of bulletin boards are important advantages. Anyone with the necessary facilities can ring up a bulletin board without requiring any specific "training" or registration. You can put up your bulletins or upload programs without being subject to editorial control, although a vigilant BBS "sysop" will periodically delete tasteless bulletins and pirated software. You can expect to find a common interest group, though of course the overwhelming interest will be microcomputers. However, there are many significant possibilities for common interest, including a group of students who are studying the same or similar courses at an educational institution.

Bulletin boards for educational institutions

Bulletin boards provide a way for educational institutions to facilitate information exchange in the "common interest" groups formed by students. In the traditional institution, students communicate with one another by meeting in classrooms, corridors and canteens; by participating in clubs; by using student noticeboards, etc. Full time students on the campus have ready access to these channels of communication, but for part time and external students communications with other students are an unmet need.

There would be universal agreement that students benefit from communications with one another. There are practical matters such as buying and selling second hand books, equipment and other items, and finding accommodation, entertainment and other services. There are academic matters such as opinions on courses and the performances of lecturers; decisions on course selection; examination tips and mutual help on assignments. There are ideas and gossip items to be exchanged.

Will a low cost bulletin board function effectively as the electronic equivalent of the "campus grapevine"? The answer to this question depends upon having a reasonable number of students who already have their own microcomputer installation with modem; the willingness of an institution to set up the board as a student-oriented facility; and the presence of a significant number of students who attend the campus infrequently, though they reside in the local telephone district.

The Murdoch University context matches all three of these factors. External offering of computer science courses including dialup access to campus computers has promoted student purchases of microcomputers and modems. Development of a board by the External Studies Unit is consistent with a student oriented facility, freed from concerns about editorial intervention by the University and the problems of security which would occur if a public access system was running on other computers. Also, External Studies has provided the funding - about $1700 excluding the telephone extension from the University's PABX.

Some 65 percent of Murdoch's 1800 external students live in Perth, providing an estimated number of about 50 initial users for a bulletin board which will be ready early in 1987. An institutional board will provide these students with very low cost access to a common interest group which is much more specific than other bulletin boards available locally, or nationwide services such as Telecom's Viatel.

Students who live outside the Perth telephone district will have to rely upon regional colleges for an educational bulletin board. Early in 1986 Kalgoorlie College achieved the distinction of putting up the first educational institutions board in this state (and possibly the first at an Australian institution).

The availability of an institutional bulletin board, offering an attractive and economical service, may be expected to provide a significant additional incentive for student to acquire microcomputers and modems. This is especially the case for students in disciplines other than computer science, who at present have only word processing and children's requirements as the major justifications for installing a home computer.

Processes of technological change in education

The question of incentives for students to purchase microcomputers, in the form of economical access to an attractive service, has special relevance in a strategy for achieving a technological change. We have to create the student user base, the numbers of students who possess and wish to use microcomputer communications. This is a prerequisite for the development of more expensive objectives, including remote accessing of data bases (Library, Handbooks, etc.); mini and mainframe level services for off campus students; electronic publishing of coursework and "official" electronic mail such as assignment submissions.

For example, there is little prospect of persuading your institution to undertake an expensive investment in dialup access to the library's computerised catalogue, unless you can prove that significant numbers of users are ready and waiting. Unfortunately, there is equally little prospect of persuading students to invest their money in computer communications because "sometime" they will have remote access to the library catalogue, or an "on-line" ordering service for the bookshop, etc. Both parties adopt a wait and see attitude and nothing happens.

I think that it is vitally important for aspiring technological innovators to be using the tactics of the "feasible pathway" and "user base". Strategic objectives can be attained only after realistic selection of the intermediate tactical goals. (The military analogy may be somewhat melodramatic, but the post-Review context is tough). To quote CTEC (1986):

The best test of the longer term cost effectiveness of new technology in the teaching process is whether it can be implemented within current funding levels.
The bulletin board idea is not a direct contributor to "the teaching process" but it is an appropriate and inexpensive intermediate objective, preparing for more direct use of computer communications in "the teaching process". I expect a bulletin board to create some interactions, because it is likely to record some critical comments about teaching processes, the exchanging of answers to assignment questions, and other similar insights into student activities. Perhaps staff will accord greater weight to electronically published student commentary, compared with similar commentary known to occur in the students' verbal communications. And that would be a worthwhile outcome too.


CTEC (Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission) (1986). Review of Efficiency and Effectiveness in Higher Education. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, page 152.

Gengle, Dean (1984). The Netweaver's Sourcebook : A guide to micro networking and communications. D P Education.

Myers, Lary L. (1983). How to create your own computer bulletin board. Tab Books.

Withers, Steve (1986). On-line information. Australian Personal Computer, 7(8), September 1986, Communications Special supplement, pages 20-23.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1986). Computer bulletin boards for distance education students. Conference paper, Ed Tech '86, Perth, Western Australia, 2-5 December 1986.

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