Image from The New School Course Catalog, Fall 1994, New School Archives and Special Collections

Beginning in mid-March, as the novel coronavirus bore down on the country, The New School moved all of its courses online. A response to the social distancing required to contain the spread of COVID-19, The New School’s students and faculty scrambled to recreate learning environments that had seemed to be defined by physical presence in seminar classrooms and studios—and by New York City. But they weren’t starting from scratch. The New School has not only long offered distance learning but is one of its pioneers. In fact, The New School has been hosting distinctive learning environments online for over three decades.

The New School’s online learning program, DIAL (Distance Instruction for Adult Learners), was introduced in 1994, but its roots are in the school’s first online program in the early 1980s. At that time, a growing number of working adults around the country wanted to complete college degrees and professional certificates, yet coming to classes regularly wasn’t a viable option. Companies began to offer employees the opportunity to study from home or the office using technologies that replaced the postal service, which had been the primary delivery system for what had been known as “correspondence courses.” Live satellite transmission, videotaped courses, and computer-mediated listservs were popular early technologies for professional development and even degree completion programs.

In keeping with its commitment to educational innovation that would benefit adult learners, The New School’s Adult Division began to offer four fully online credit-bearing courses from its Media Studies graduate program in 1985. The credits could be transferred towards completion of the Master of Arts in Media Studies taught on campus, and the classes were administered through Connected Education, a nonprofit corporation founded by The New School Media Studies professor and online instructor Paul Levinson. Students communicated with each other and a faculty member through a system similar to a listserv, where threaded responses to a course topic could be posted at any hour of the day.

The New School maintained its relationship with Connected Education for nearly ten years, and then expanded its online learning program in 1992 through a grant from the Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The grant was awarded to pilot an interdisciplinary core curriculum for adult learners through the development of three fully online liberal arts courses taught by The New School’s faculty members: “The Making of Americans,” “Identity: The Modular Construction of Personality,” and “Philosophical Dilemmas of Technological Society.” A small group of students engaged in focused academic discussions with instructors, meeting in a class conducted through asynchronous computer conferencing. The class was “open” 24/7 and centered on discussion, reflective thinking, and collaborative activities. Supplemental materials—textbooks and other printed materials, audio cassettes, and videotape—arrived by snail mail with technical support delivered electronically and by telephone.

As the pilot program unfolded in 1992, The New School recognized the potential of DIAL as a way to maintain its status as an innovator in adult education. It was also a way to extend the school’s belief in the necessity of lifelong learning for a robust democracy. The distance students would be made to feel part of The New School community and given access to a full range of benefits that campus students received, including access to department chairs, financial aid, and student advisors. Symbolically most important, if DIAL students could get to New York, they were welcome to attend the graduation ceremony and receive their diplomas with campus students. The learning experience of the program would be different, founders acknowledged, but no less rich or rigorous. It would be equivalent in quality and quantity to on-site classes, with the same expectations between faculty and students. Graduates of online learning programs would have the same rights and privileges as graduates of any program at The New School.

DIAL housed a unique, asynchronous computer conferencing platform to provide expanded services for its online faculty and students. The technical engine driving everything was Caucus, an open-source e-learning software package based on a host server inside a campus building on 5th Avenue and 13th Street. Logging in from the office or home with a personal computer, a telephone, and a modem, students and instructors could be linked in what was known then as the DIAL “electronic classroom.” Instructors could post course topics for a vertical list-like discussion which students could read and respond to with comments written to the instructor and to each other. With the class open twenty-four hours a day, students could also make several contributions to a discussion topic on their own schedules.

In an electronically mediated environment, students had an extended opportunity to critically reflect and return with new insights. The instructor would respond by weaving the comments together, pulling out salient features, and guiding the discussion forward. Students could collaborate, form teams, present projects, and lead discussion directly in the classroom. Instructors had the ability to create private spaces within the class where student-led teams could meet asynchronously to post and review collaborative work. The private work area was then made available to the rest of the class for presentation, discussion, and debate.

A more appropriate description for the computer conferencing class experience is what we now call the “online learning community,” which emulated the seminar model of teaching and learning that made The New School distinctive. Twenty-two of these courses, drawn from the Adult Division’s curriculum, were launched through DIAL in 1994. In its first ten years, DIAL devoted attention to faculty development, as teaching and learning with digital technology expanded across the country. Instead of expecting faculty to transfer on-site courses seamlessly, DIAL trained faculty in a three-month seminar about new research on pedagogy and learning in the online environment. The software that ran the courses was customizable, which allowed the tech staff to create new tools for faculty and students to use as their needs changed. Simple upload features or instructions on posting images and learning HTML were later followed with drag-and-drop tools and options to embed apps to play video and audio files.

Over time, The New School received additional funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and AT&T to build out DIAL’s infrastructure. By the late 1990s, DIAL’s “cyberspace campus,” built on the graphical interface of the world wide web, included areas for online faculty development, student advising, registration, and admissions; an online library, art gallery, and bookstore; and public events areas and social gathering spaces. In 1997, the curator of the University Art Collection, Kathleen Goncharov, visited Europe’s contemporary art exhibition spaces, accompanied by a tech crew from The New School. At the Venice Biennale, documenta, and Sculpture Projects Münster, the crew recorded Goncharov touring the different pavilions of each exhibition and talking about the artwork on display. The New School student body and the New York art community were invited to view the webcast produced each day. The response was so enthusiastic that a second virtual tour was webcast the following year at the Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa.

DIAL brought the spirit of a freewheeling and innovative digital culture to The New School, and asked instructors and students to reimagine what a classroom was. While it wasn’t exactly a “move fast and break things” environment, participants in DIAL had to imagine teaching and learning more loosely tethered in time and space. What was key to DIAL was its commitment to interactivity that allowed students to communicate with each other across different time zones and locations. When done right, there was a shared sense of immediacy unlike previous one-to-one distance learning models of correspondence education.

Of course, it was not a digital environment that we would recognize today. During those years of experimentation, only disc-based software was available for applications, with upgrades introduced every three to six months. High on the wish list of the DIAL staff and some faculty was the dream of pulling down software and apps from “the sky” as needed—something we now call “cloud computing.” The staff was spread over two floors and used an early messaging app, AIM, to communicate. Everyone had a Palm Pilot and worked from home when not in the office. At weekly meetings, DIAL staffers speculated that in the future, the asynchronous discussion area would be only one aspect of the online class. Student-centered learning would also happen differently, with new types of collaborative applications and tools for project work. And perhaps there would be a way to actually meet and see each other virtually while working on projects synchronously—today’s Zoom.

By 2002, online learning had been adopted in some form at nearly every college and university across the country. But The New School was a leader. Through DIAL, the university offered three hundred courses online, which included several fully online degrees and certificates. The students were still mostly working adults, but there were also younger students on campus taking a mix of blended and fully online courses. Industrial-strength learning management systems that could scale the number of classes and integrate student information systems replaced smaller customizable software for teaching and learning. DIAL adopted the Blackboard LMS and, with it, a new name: The New School Online University. As The New School’s innovative experiment in online learning was adopted more broadly, however, its role as a leader in online education was largely forgotten.

For many students and faculty, the abrupt shift to online learning as campuses emptied during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a loss, a poor substitute for courses designed for intimate classroom settings—and it was. But The New School’s rich history of pioneering online instruction reminds us that distance learning isn’t just about the technology: it’s about the design, about who you can reach, and about imagining education as participatory and democratic. The spring semester of 2020 will be remembered as the worst kind of disruption, but knowing that The New School has made cyberspace its own before should give us confidence that it can do so again.

Tina Yagjian began her involvement with DIAL in 1995, when she offered a course “Photoshop for Artists” online. She went on to become Manager of Academic Services and then Director of DIAL until 2008.