Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 5 / MAY 1984 / PAGE 184

Telecommunications talk; a seminar conducted on a computer telecommunications system is profoundly different from one offered in the conventional classroom settings. Brian J. Murphy.

Telecommunications Talk

It is the time of year when students begin to count the days until the end of the school year. Starting in May, colleges all over the country conduct their commencement exercises and also let loose the lower forms of life--the undergrads.

When I was in college, the end of the term couldn't arrive too quickly. Never enthusiastic about classroom learning, I avoided the lecture hall whenever possible (commensurate with receiving a decent grade). Needless to say, this system didn't always work. Cutting inevitably means you miss important material (albeit material sometimes hidden deep within the dusty verbiage of the lecturer's presentation) that will appear on the final. The stuff you cut always does.

You can probably guess what I am leading up to, college without classrooms, college without set class times, college via telecommunications.

College Over The Phone

One might imagine that by now there would already be dozens of schools which offer full college credit courses through the medium of computer telecommunications, the idea being so attactive and logical. Surprisingly as it turns out, college courses by telecommunications is an idea which is still in its infancy. As of this writing no college or university (that we are aware of--and we have looked) has announced offerings of courses for college credit toward an undergraduate or graduate degree through the computer/phone medium--but all that may change soon.

At the New Jersey Institute to Technology seven calendar years of software design and eighty man (and woman)-years of programming work has borne fruit and is now on line. NJIT's computer teleconferencing system called EIES (the Electronic Information Exchange System--you pronounce the acconym "eyes') is up and running. The school used it this year as the medium for 14 complete continuing education seminars.

EIES was developed by a NJIT professor of computer science, Murray Turoff, who began design of the system in 1976. EIES went on line in 1983 with a short series of continuing education seminar offerings which attracted the attention of educators and institutions both in the United States and overseas and the participation of students in geographic areas equally as diverse.

As you might imagine, a seminar conducted on a computer telecommunications system is profoundly different from one offered in the conventional classroom setting. One big advantage is that limitations of time and location have been virtually annihilated.

Dr. Turoff points out that the offering of courses via computer allows people whose business and/or professional commitments would otherwise prevent participation to join in a seminar group. He says that this benefit has attracted the participation of a significant number of executives in high management positions; this is a chance for them to benefit from professional enrichment courses which they otherwise might not be able to take.

Another difference between the formal classroom and the computer classroom at home is that participation among members of the group is more widespread than in a conventional class setting. Joyce Fedak, associate director of the NJIT Continuing Education Division, says that the EIES seminar conferencing system allows students to see each other's answers to questions and remarks in "discussions.'

In the traditional classroom, once a question has been answered, the topic is effectively squelched. In the EIES environment, when the instructor asks a question, it is answered by the group members in the privacy of their homes and offices over the course of some several days. No student can see the answers of the other members of the group until he has keyed in his own response to the question. After a response has been sent, the individual can read all the other answers received to date.

Fruitful Discussion

This system encourages participation and stimulates curiosity. Another advantage of this system is that it allows for anonymous answers. The shy student can feel more comfortable about participating in this setting, and the group member who wishes to try out a radical or unusual idea may do so without fear of embarrassment. Using this system, the ideas under discussion are more fully explored by the group as a whole.

Suppose, for example, that a seminar in management took up the topic of how to evaluate computer systems in light of business needs. Let us also suppose that a member of the group is an executive whose contribution to the discussion concerns a costly mistake he or his company has made in buying an inadequate or inappropriate system. Cloaked in the anonymity of the program, this executive can frankly and fully explore the reasons for this error with the other members of the group, and the resulting discussion will give all participants a much better idea of why the failure occurred and how to avoid it than any face-to-face forum ever could.

Speaking of dialogue, let it be noted here that the discussion is not limited to the context of the topics as defined by the instructor. EIES contains an E-Mail feature which allows the participants unrestricted communication with each other and with the instructor. The system notifies the user immediately at log-on of any E-Mail waiting for him and provides the options of looking at the messages at once, deferring reading, or just scanning the topics of the messages.

Time For School

Let's change course for a moment and explore the system feature which allows group members to schedule "class times' to suit their own needs.

The group member does not have to be sitting at his terminal or computer at a specific time to participate in the class (although EIES is capable of supporting an on-line conference of class members which could be scheduled for a specific time). As we noted earlier, the business or professional user whose schedule may fill every working day to the brim, or whose schedule may fluctuate unpredictably from week to week, will like this feature.

Whenever he finds time to access the system, the current lesson or discussion, pre-prepared by the instructor, will be waiting. The user may find that other members of the group have already responded to the topic under discussion-- and that the instructor has issued replies--all of which the user may peruse once he has added his contribution. If the user prefers hard copy, he has the otpion of downloading the seminar material and dumping it to his printer. Then the lesson can be snapped into his briefcase and taken wherever he may go.

Writing the papers is another matter.

It is easy enough to type out a term paper, but it can be a little difficult to get the essay to go over the phone lines unless you have used a word processor to compose it. If the student's computer system includes word processing, fine. He can simply upload the text into the EIES system. If not, or if he doesn't have a smart terminal, EIES comes equipped with word processing of its own, which allows him to write the composition and store it as he goes along.

There are no tests or quizzes as such as the seminar courses progress, and no grades. This, combined with the fact that the user can access the course whenever he likes--meaning he can put off the access as long as he wants-- places the motivational burden on the user. He must be disciplined enough to say, "I'm going to use this free time I have to work on the seminar materials.'

This is what a nature executive, who has invested $525 of his or his company's money in the seminar, says. What will be the attitude of the undergraduate in the same situation? Undoubtedly some will procrastinate and fall behind, but I think most will stay current in their work. It is likely, also, that the setup for college credit courses on the undergrad and graduate levels will be a little stricter with regard to when student feedback is due.

Of course, undergrad courses by computer are still in the future, but the day when we shall see such a system in actual operation is probably not far off. Dr. Turoff says that a proposal to fund research on the design and programming of a system similar to EIES for use in credit courses is being considered by a "major foundation' and that he has high hopes that there will be a grant issued soon.

Nuts and Bolts

Here are some basic facts about the system, in case you want to participate.

The courses are available through the Division of Continuing Education at NJIT, (201) 645-5235 (voice). Tuition for one three-month seminar is $525 with additional fees for EIES membership ($5225 per seminar), texts, and connect charges. You can connect by direct dial through Ma Bell or through the Telenet or Uninet systems.

Hardware requirements are minimal. Any micro that uses ASCII characters and which is equipped with a modem capable of 300 or 1200 baud operation will do. Any ASCII terminal capable of these speeds is also okay. If you don't have a micro or terminal, you can lease one (a CDI Miniterm) from the school for $50 a month.

Once you are on-line, the system offers support and aid to get you over the rough spots. Syspos are available most times between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. If you are really stuck, a "???' message followed by 135 characters describing what is wrong will bring help.

You can get course titles for the Fall '84 semester directly from NJIT.

System Security

The following is a letter nsans the sender's name) which I received in response to our first Telecommunications Talk column (January 1984):

"I enjoyed and agreed with your article on invasive hacking in the January Creative Computing.

"I would like to understand why organizations don't use the most simple type of security, that of the callback! While this does nothing about internal misuse . . . it effectively eliminates the typical hacker calling from his home telephone. Why?'

To answer this question and to follow up on the January story, I called Claudia Houston at Telenet. Telenet is very concerned about the security problems that its members have been experiencing. If the computer vandals discourage businesses and institutions from using telecommunications, Telenet loses money.

Ms. Houston first defined callback security: the host computer refuses to complete the connection when first you call, but calls back your number (which is presumably on a list of approved numbers) to make the connection.

Because of the long distance charges involved--callback security systems do not work with Telenet and the other nets--the callback method is appropriate only for host computers serving a population in close geographic proximity to the host computer. For hosting long distance callers, other security arrangements are needed.

Ms. Houston offered several of Telenet's suggested security measures. As you read them bear in mind that almost any size system--even a bulletin board system on a micro to which you want to restrict access--can make use of some or all of these suggestions:


Ms. Houston says that it is important to have a security plan. It should be in place and ready to go when you start up your system. Telenet members who lack such a plan or who have questions about security can call on the network for security evaluations. Other nets and private companies offer similar services to their institutional customers. Private individuals must rely on their common sense. I hope these suggestions help.

Pending Legislation

While private system users take steps to secure their computers, there is every indication that the Federal government is preparing to step in with long-needed legislation to make unauthorized computer access a crime.

A bill sponsored by Congressman Bill Nelson (D-Florida) called the Federal Computer Systems Protection Act (HR 1092) is currently under consideration by the House of Representatives. If passed into law, the bill would mandate fines of up to $50,000 and imprisonment for as long as five years for accessing a computer for purposes of theft (the penalty is a fine equivalent to two times the value of what was stolen or $50,000, whichever is greater) and for intentionally damaging a system or causing it to become partially or wholly unusable for any period of time.

As you can see, the Nelson bill covers almost every aspect of the computer vandalism that has plauged system owners all over the country. The law will apply specifically to Federally-owned computers (such as the one at Los Alamos the 414s hacked), computers owned by Federally-insured financial institutions such as banks, securities dealers and credit unions, and computers used in interstate commerce for profit or non-profit enterprises.

According to Jim Southerland, Rep. Nelson's administrative assistant, this umbrella would include any institutional or commercial computer accessed across state lines including the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Institute's system.

The law already has the sponsorship support of 108 members of the House of Representatives and passage looks likely sometime this year.