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Online Learning 2001 in LA: From Men on Stilts to Bill Clinton
Thursday, July 28, 2016

Note #1: The following story was cut from my 2009 book (as were dozens of other stories), "The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education." Last month I wrote an article for a journal from New Zealand based on my talk there in April. It was cut once again. So I thought I would finally publish it in my blog given that former President Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia last night. I have seen Bill Clinton speak live twice...once in 2008 here in Bloomington, Indiana when he was stumping for his wife Hillary Clinton and once in 2001 as a keynote speaker at an online learning conference in Los Angeles (see below for that story). Smile.

Note #2: This is the first of a two -part story that originates from a recent talk in Hamilton, New Zealand. I will post Part 2 later today (or so I hope). Hang on...

From Men on Stilts to Bill Clinton
When I was a new faculty member at West Virginia University in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of my graduate students, Padma Medury, and I conducted a national survey of collaboration and groupware tools. We found five different levels of tools from simple email exchanges to what we labeled as cooperative hypermedia (Bonk, Medury, & Reynolds, 1994). Little did Padma and I realize at the time the extent to which Web-based collaborative tools would help shape and elevate various newly emerging fields, including online learning, computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL), and computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW).

In pilot testing one of the more powerful collaborative tools at the time, Aspects, we were excited to see that people in different cities could work on the same document at the same time. And Aspects did not just foster for text collaboration; it also allowed for the online sharing of pictures and other visual illustrations in multimedia documents. It was one of dozens of such tools.

When I arrived at Indiana University in the late summer of 1992, there was a cadre of doctoral students interested in research on such collaborative tools. We compared asynchronous and synchronous discussions (e.g., Bonk, Hansen, Grabner, Lazar, & Mirabelli, 1998). We coordinated case collaborations among students in Finland, Peru, the UK, Korea, and various universities in the U.S. (Kim & Bonk, 2002). We observed explorers in the Arctic interacting with kids in schools around the world (Bonk & Sugar, 1998). If there was a collaborative project or idea someone came up with, we researched it. Much of these efforts found their way into a book called Electronic Collaborators: Learner-Centered Technology for Literacy, Apprenticeship, and Discourse (Bonk & King, 1998).

Shortly after the Electronic Collaborators book was published, online learning survey data began pouring in from two of my follow-up national research projects. In September of 2000, I presented some of the results at the Online Learning 2000 Conference held in Denver (Bonk 2002a, 2002b). I soon found myself in a convention that was anything but ordinary. I should mention that it was a full year before 9/11 and in the heyday of the dot-com bubble. Still there were warning signs of a pending crash which no one wanted to talk about, let alone believe.

What were the signs? Well for one, many vendors were talking about potential products, not actual ones. They were quick to pass out the t-shirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags, but had minimal product information to share. I remember walking through the massive exhibit hall at the start of the conference with Bob Cole, Vice President of Corporate Sales from JonesKnowledge (which was connected to Jones International University; among the first fully online universities in the world). Bob looked at me and then spoke honestly about the vendors, “Curt, it is just a lot of trinkets, toys, and trash that they are handing out. My wife tells me to quit bringing the stuff home.”

And so it was. I watched vendors in booth after booth trying to bring people in to see what they had. There were magicians doing card tricks, flame eaters, jugglers, men on stilts, and, of course, a cadre of pretty women in the booths. Not content with the potential business such trickery would draw, there were laptop giveaways every hour or so at one or more of the booths. I vividly remember a guy on stilts coming into the men’s bathroom. I wondered how in the world he would complete his mission.

As an education professor and former accountant, I was not used to all this hype or the amount of money being tossed around so freely. What I soon realized is that the phrase of the day was “burn rate,” and they were all attempting to “outburn” the competition. It was burn, baby burn! That was the time when companies were flush with money or venture capital from someone else. Employers also created their own jobs and job titles. Many of these companies were showcasing quite exciting ideas, but unfortunately were short on viable products. Something had to cover up that fact. It was a giant shell game. In addition to magicians and attractive booth attendants, there was expensive signage and colorful handouts, none of which fostered the learning of the people of this planet.

The names of the companies at the time added to the charade. If you did not have one of the following words in your company name: “intelligent,” “mind,” “brain,” “collaborative,” “knowledge,” “learning,” or “smart,” and, better still, placed the letter “e” somewhere near the front or back of one of the above words (e.g., “Smart-E,” “e-Brain,” “e-Telligent,” “e-Know,” and so on), you were not cool and would likely not survive. But if you could combine two or more of these words or symbols together as in “SmartKnowledge” or “LearningSmart” or “E-MindCollaboration” or “e-LearningBrain,” your product was deemed superior to everyone else despite not yet having a product to sell.

I wanted to shout “E-nough”! And so I did. After the Online Learning 2000 conference in Denver, I created a PowerPoint presentation to be embedded in my upcoming keynotes, including the E-learning Summit in Hamilton in April 2002. I titled it, “There’s no learning in e-learning,” while mocking the situation with the lyrics and a sound clip from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody song playing in the background as each slide automatically played; “Easy come easy go, will you let me go? Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!) Bismillah! We will not let you go. (Let me go!) Will not let you go. (Let me go!) Will not let you go let me go.” The examples in PowerPoint went on from there, but, suffice to say, what I was attempting to convey is that one could not get out of the booths once you entered. You were stuck there for at least 15 or 30 minutes and they had nothing to you could actually buy. And I had proof with dozens of pictures I had taken from wondering through e-learning conference exhibits at the time (see below for pics from Online Learning two years later in 2002 in Los Angeles).

It was clear from a few hours walking the hallways of such conferences that there was no learning in e-learning. In fact, it was highly doubtful that many of the people placed in the booths even understood what the words “learning” or “collaboration” meant. And they definitely had no clue as to the true learning impact of the tools that they had for sale, or, at least, hoped to sell one day. There was no discussion of the range or types of collaborative interaction that was now possible as in the five-level online technology collaboration scheme that my colleagues and I had developed about a decade earlier. Still, the conference was bulging with attendees, and only the people walking around on stilts could really get an accurate head count.

About a year later, that same conference was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. As a sign of the venture funds backing up companies in this space, Bill Clinton (who, at the time, he was charging about $120,000 per speech) was the keynote. Unfortunately, because the 9/11 disaster had occurred some three weeks prior, the conference had nearly as many vendors as attendees. This was the first event in the LA Convention Center after the tragedy in New York. Clinton spoke at 6:00 p.m. on October 1, 2001. I arrived late and was carrying two tote bags, two laptop computers, an LCD projector, and other props from a talk that I had given earlier that afternoon. I expected to be in an overflow room, but I got right into the main room for Clinton’s talk without anyone inspecting my belongings. It was just three short weeks after 9/11, the former president of the United States was speaking, and no one opened my bags to check what I had.

Almost everyone attending Online Learning 2001 was in the room, yet many seats remained open. Unfortunately, for the conference organizers, the annual Online Learning conference had drastically shrunk in size from the year before in Denver. It was downsizing in a major way. Suffice to say, I no longer heard people bragging about their burn rates. The causes for this shrinkage included the 9/11 crisis, worries about travel, slashed travel budgets, and the implosion of most dot-com companies; especially those lacking viable products. Along with all this turmoil, it seemed to be the end of an era where magicians and men on stilts could distract people from a lack of quality e-learning products. I sure miss those men on stilts and ladies in the booths attempting to define the words “learning” and “collaboration” for me, let alone “E-MindCollaboration” or “e-LearningBrain.”

Despite such flaws, the e-learning boom did accomplish much. It raised the consciousness of the planet about collaborative technology and the flexibility of learning online. Now millions of people were aware of the importance of online collaboration and knowledge-sharing. It was a new era for education, training, and society at large. Collaborative tools changed the way in which we worked, learned, and socialized. Such was the state of e-learning back when I visited New Zealand the first time back in 2002 (see next blog post...later today). I was caught off guard, however, when asked about it on national television and radio. While jugglers, flame-eaters, and magicians are no longer needed to draw attention to this field, it would likely have made for interesting press releases and news stories had I remembered to tell the above anecdote.


Bonk, C. J. (July 2009). The world is open: How Web technology is revolutionizing education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. (see book homepage for freebies:

Bonk, C. J., Hansen, E. J., Grabner, M. M., Lazar, S., & Mirabelli, C. (1998). Time to "Connect": Synchronous and asynchronous case-based dialogue among preservice teachers. In C. J. Bonk, & K. S. King (Eds.), Electronic collaborators: Learner-centered technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse (pp. 289-314). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bonk, C. J., & Khoo, E. (2014). Adding some TEC-VARIETY: 100+ activities for motivating and retaining learners online. and Amazon CreateSpace. Retrieved (FREE) from

Bonk, C. J., & King, K. S. (Eds.). (1998). Electronic collaborators: Learner-centered technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bonk, C. J., & Sugar, W. A. (1998). Student role play in the World Forum: Analyses of an Arctic learning apprenticeship. Interactive Learning Environments, 6(1-2), 1-29.

Kim, K. J., & Bonk, C. J. (2002). Cross-cultural comparisons of online collaboration among pre-service teachers in Finland, Korea, and the United States. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 8(1). Retrieved from

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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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