Saturday, June 30, 2018

Online in the "Early Days"

I received my first computer when I was in about 8th or 9th grade: a Commodore 64 with a tape drive. A few months later, I had a 1541 floppy drive and a modem. And my world changed forever.

In those days, we didn't have a worldwide, publicly used communications network. Yes, the Internet was there, but very few people (in the scheme of the population and compared to today) knew what it was and how to take advantage of it.

Forgive me if my timeline gets a bit wonky here, it's been a few sleeps since I have thought about these early days and though Google helps put some of it together, much of it seems to be lost to annals of an unrecorded history.

I don't remember if I started using CompuServe first or if I was surfing BBSs first, but I believe it was the latter. BBSs were Bulletin Board Systems where one could use a modem to dial up (yes, using actual phone lines) another person's computer, enter a username and password, and post messages to other users. Hence, the "bulletin board" nomenclature. It was, in effect, an electronic post-it note system. When your time was up (sessions were time-limited to allow for other people to call in), you were kicked off and someone else would dial up, sign in, and reply or leave messages of their own. It was all VERY asynchronous.

Then, we had services like CompuServe, which boasted "rooms and rooms" of places for people to post messages based on topics and/or content interests. Of course, CompuServe became much more than that over time before finally getting swallowed up by America Online. CompuServe had a place where people could type to each other in realtime! Today, that seems all rather blasé, but in those days, it was a free-for-all technological marvel.

Now, you have to understand that this was all text-based in those days. We didn't have the "web." Heck, the WWW wouldn't even be a thing until 1993 or so. Sure, there were other ways to get around the Internet, but nothing that was the graphical/video overload we have today (Er, today being 2018. Should this be read by some future generation, this article will seem like words on an ancient scroll, I'm sure).

We also had the advent of things like "FidoNet" (A national BBS that replicated data from system to system, allowing anyone anywhere to dial a local number yet read messages from everywhere!) and ultimately services like the aforementioned America Online, PeopleLink, and a myriad of others. In each of these cases, though, the end user had to use phone lines to dial a number in order to gain access to the system.

The prevalence of BBSs was huge. We're talking hundreds of thousands of individuals using their own computers to host places for people to dial in. For several years, I ran one based loosely on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, called "Arthur's Den" (See how punny I was?). At first, I ran it at night because I was using the family's home phone number to do it. Can you imagine? Publishing your family's home phone number out there for the world to call in at 2am? But, that's what we did. Eventually, I was allowed to have my own phone with a new number. I was in 9th grade. BBSs were so popular, there were entire magazines dedicated to listing them each month! That would be like having a magazine today that attempted to list every website address each month. Insane.

As technology changed, we moved from text-based online services to graphical. We now had "icons" and email and chat rooms and games we could play through the online services and BBSs. You could have an avatar to represent you online (Okay, so it was a pixelated static image, but still).

I actually met my first long-term girlfriend through the BBS I ran. We dated for two years. She had signed in to my system and I happened to be sitting near the computer at the time. In those days, you could not multitask: your computer did one thing at a time. So, if it was running your BBS, you weren't doing anything else with it. She came on, and if memory serves, she had requested a chat  with the sysadmin (me). The software I used on my C64 allowed for the one logged in user and the system administrator to chat in realtime. She had a question about something on the system and we ended up chatting well beyond the allowable time period. As a sysadmin, I could extend user's time at will. Time went by and we eventually discovered that we lived about half a mile from each other. We met face-to-face one day and ended up dating for two years. Who knew Internet dating had such simple beginnings, right?

Over time, services came and went. Dial-up phone lines (for the majority of folks) were replaced by ADSL and eventually DSL, Cellular, Satellite, etc. But, those early days of entering a phone number, having the software and hardware work together to make a digital connection, and then seeing the world come onto your computer screen were unlike anything that had come before, and "blogging" wasn't even a word yet.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Work Life: I Volunteered at #iste18 (Ask Me/ISTE Central)

iste 2018 logo
As I was planning my trip to Chicago for ISTE 2018, I was encouraged to pick a couple of times to volunteer and help out with the conference. I chose a 2-hour stint as an "Ask Me" helper and a 2-hour stint on a different day to help in ISTE Central. Here's the good, the bad, and the ugly. Okay, maybe not ugly.

The Good:
  • ISTE volunteers receive a conference-themed t-shirt and a volunteer-only "shoe bag" tote. This really is one of the best reasons to volunteer aside from helping people. 
  • As an "Ask Me" station monitor, I worked with my colleague, Jeff. We sat posted outside of the Microsoft Corporate Presentation room on the first floor. We were not given much instruction (see "The Bad" below), so we fended for ourselves as best we could. What were we asked?
    • "What is the name of the street behind you?" 
      • A: S Indiana Ave; via Google Maps
    • "Where are the keynote authors signing books?" 
      • A: ISTE Central, near book sales; We guessed and hoped we were correct
    • "Where do I get the shuttle bus to my hotel?"
      • A: We directed them to the conference bus depot; we knew from experience
    • "Do you know where the third Playground area is? I was told there is a 'C' area."
      • A: We couldn't find reference to a third area, so we directed them to the INFO booth on the third floor
    • "Where is the Apple Corporate Room?"
      • A: We used the ISTE app to locate the room, then direct the person to it.
    • "Do you know where (such-and-such vendor) is located in the Expo Hall?"
      • A: We searched for the vendor in the ISTE app and directed the person to it.
    • "What are these tickets for?"
      • A: Various tickets were used for raffles, session entry, etc. We walked through each ticket the attendee had, explaining what to do with each one.
    • "Do you know more about the buffet upstairs?"
      • A: We had no idea. we directed the person to the INFO booth on the third floor.
    • "How many people does Room (such-and-such) sit?"
      • A: We had no idea, but were able to make a guess based on random things we had heard from other ISTE workers.
    • "How do you get to the Hyatt (or Marriott) from here?"
      • A: We tried to figure this out, but even asking PAID folks from ISTE, we could not provide accurate answers. We tried.
    • "Where is Michigan Avenue from here?"
      • A: We found the road via Google Maps, then directed the person toward it.
    • There were MANY other questions as well.
  • As an "ISTE CENTRAL" volunteer, I was assigned "Poster Distribution." Jeff was assigned to the bookstore. My job was to hand out posters of the ISTE student and educator standards to passersby. For the first hour, I hounded folks waiting in line to have books signed by Andy Weir ("The Martian"). It's easy to give away stuff to people waiting in an extra long, slow-moving line. The second hour was not as productive, though I basically shoved the posters in the faces of anyone coming into/out of the Expo Hall.

The Bad:
  • Conference volunteers are given little to no direction and/or instruction.
  • The "Ask Me" volunteers seem to have it worst of all. There is no orientation, no "here are the top 5 or 10 things you need to know, no number/text to use in case someone asks you questions you cannot answer.
  • If you are in a conference volunteer shirt, people assume you are an "Ask Me" person, even if you aren't. Luckily, I had been one, so I knew many of the answers being thrown my way while I was handing out posters. 
  • Volunteers are not given/asked for any kind of debriefing after their shift. A debriefing might have helped circumvent some of the above-named issues for future volunteers.

The Ugly:
  • I suppose the only "ugly" I can come up with is one attendee talked down to me for not knowing the answer to his question since I was a volunteer. I did let the guy know that I would happy to find out from an ISTE Staff member, but he tromped off. Ah well, you can't win them all.
The GOOD of volunteering far outweighs the bad and the ugly.  I wholeheartedly recommend volunteering at the next ISTE event! It is a great way to help folks, but also a fun way to meet more of the educators that attend this annual event. Stay Tuned for ISTE 2019!