Lessons Learned from a Decade of Grassroots Online Innovation
                                                    By Frank Odasz,  frank@lone-eagles.com

The following short essay bears an important and timely message, as the essence of lessons learned from over a decade of experience with the online medium and how it can benefit people who want to help people.

In 1983, long distance charges were around $18/hour and modem speeds were 1200 baud. Microcomputers were new, and IBM had recently come out with their first PC. I was intrigued with how this new online medium could allow people to gather and share knowledge and how they could leverage this new electronic online medium to better support one another.

It seemed to me that the potential was tremendous and that we were limited only by our imaginations. It seemed that the potential was rather obvious to anyone who took the time to think a bit about it. Knowledge could be shared with anyone, anytime, to and from anywhere. How powerful that could become if used thoughtfully!

I wrote a grant proposal for a project called the "Big Sky Telegraph" using a familiar technology as an analogy. The goal was to connect rural teachers in one and two room schoolhouses to share ideas and resources. The goal was to learn from them what worked best to create ongoing collaboration to the benefit of all.

To make a long story short, I had a hard time finding anyone who could also get excited about this vision, and after 4 years of effort, finally won a small grant in 1987 to begin the project.

By 1989, rural teachers involved in the project has gathered over 700 lessonplans across 19 states which became the first educational resources to be posted on the Internet by the U.S. Department of Education. Online courses on Chaos Theory were being taught from the MIT Plasma Fusion lab to JR HS students in Montana and Wyoming rural schools. During this same period, community networks were popping up across the country to bring local dial-up Internet to those who could not afford it. Discussions on the potential for community empowerment and electronic democracy crackled with energy and raised heady expectations for the near term.

In 1994, when the web became available many were expecting a renaissance of vision and activity regarding common sense applications of this profoundly powerful new technology surrounding the rapidly growing Internet. But, once anyone could access the Web as individuals, the trend was away from collaborative community applications and everyone became a solo browser independently exploring the wonders of online images and search engines.

As inexpensive local dial-up Internet became more widely available beyond the larger communities, and out to many of the smaller ones, people searched and surfed and created web pages as individuals, but little happened that reflected true collaboration and community empowerment.

By 2001, many considered the Internet to be a time-wasting toy best suited for children and techies. Many organizations who had been championing the cause of community networking had given up on the movement, and many model projects ran out of funding and ceased to exist. Despite a decade of innovation, the vision for how people can leverage the online medium for the public good has yet to be born in a way that the majority of citizens can relate to.

The Big Sky Telegraph championed the vision for a full decade, 1988-1998, and won and spent $1.4 million dollars in grant funding. The greatest impact of this project was not on the thousands who participated directly, but on the tens of thousands who read about this pioneering project and figured "If they can do this in Montana, we can sure as heck do it here in Missouri, Illinois, New Mexico, etc., etc."

The Big Sky Telegraph was one of the very first online services to offer online classes, and to intentionally build an online learning community, and is a part of the history and formal literature on online learning. There are many subtle lessons learned throughout this project, from the attempts to articulate the original vision, to the dynamics of teaching rural teachers online, to evolving the project as the technologies changed, and through participation in the national evolution of thought regarding both online learning and community networking.

The following essays represent a sincere effort to continue to share the original vision, and to create new demonstration projects which again demonstrate that we are indeed limited only by our imaginations.