The Beginnings of CALL and the CALL‐IS,
Part One: Roger Kenner
Celebrating here our 25th Anniversary, it seems useful to look back at how things were
in the beginning.
I’ll try to highlight some of the milestones and major ‘paradigm' shifts which have
brought us from the early 80s into the early 21st century. My thesis is that today’s Web
tools, such as Learning Management Systems like Moodle, provide us with everything
we were lacking back then. We are ready now to move on into realms undreamed of
back when we founded this IS.
When I started working with CAI in 1979
(The term CALL did not exist yet), it looked
like this: A terminal connected to a main-
frame computer. The old 300 baud
modem, with acoustic coupler, has been
replaced in this picture by a bright, blue
Gandalf box, giving us a 1200 baud
communication speed. The letters flashed
rather than moseyed across the screen, but
the text still scrolled up from the bottom, to
disappear off the top..
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 1
Or it might have looked like this: All our software of the day also ran on teletypes.
This was how that software looked
Primitive? Maybe, but already we were
running sophisticated authoring systems
like Dasher, well-known for its pattern
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 2
We kept copious records, so that we could do analysis of the wrong answers, a feature
pretty well lost during the micro era, to be born again with networks and the Web.
We had developed a protocol whereby
teachers could collaborate with us to
produce materials, without having to
Today, teachers have all the tools they
need to create their own activities
Our protocol was the basis of David
Sander's proposal and talk at TESOL 82,
which led to our being invited to host a
colloquium on CALL at Tesol 83.
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 3
At the beginning of 1980s, microcomputers took the field by storm, freeing it from
universities and making it available to everyone. The old main-frame stuff was no
longer sexy, yet thousands of our students continued to use our system for many
Our first Intecolor computer had 32k of RAM and its 5 1/4 inch floppy disks held 70K
Software was driving hardware, as it should. We bought it to run the excellent CLEF
series of French software. Microcomputer software looked much better. Colour was
our new tool. Software had become a cottage industry. Anyone could do it, for better
or for worse.
Happily, a lot of the old software was
ported over to micros. Unknown to
newbies, many well-known, flashy
packages of the day had once run on
main-frame systems. Alas, many other
valid software packages were lost forever.
TESOL 83 and the founding of our IS
marked the beginning of a new era in
CALL (including the term itself). The early
‘revival meeting’ style of presentation,
extolling the gospel of ‘immediate
feedback’ and ‘individualized instruction’
gave way practitioners talking critically to
one other and comparing notes.
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 4
By the time we were recognized as an IS at Houston in ‘84, the next generation of
microcomputers was appearing. The IBM PC, the Apple IIc and the Macintosh were
replacing all the older machines. Soon we had hard drives (20-40mb) and were
approaching 1mb of RAM (though the 640K barrier would remain a PC landmark until
New approaches to learning were
represented by Mini-authoring systems.
Mac users got Hypercard, a tool the
likes of which PC users would not see
until the advent of Powerpoint.
Alas, I hear the Mac spelled the death
of a lot of good Apple II software.
Office-quality productivity tools like
Wordperfect, Wordstar and Lotus 1-2-3
had an impact on CALL, as people
explored the computer as tool rather
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 5
PCs were pretty well stuck at the same technology level for at least 5 years. We
dabbled with sound, but the most promising technology of the day was interactive
As the 80s drew to a close, people began to connect to each other using email, news
groups and FTP. Local area networks began linking machines. Internet became a
buzzword. Anyone remember Gopher?
The advent of CD-ROMS in the early 90s was a major shift. Storage suddenly had no
practical limit. My first CD-ROM, Street Atlas USA, a street map of all America on one
little cd, was like magic to me. Rosetta Stone is my best example of how the new
capabilities in sound and images set the standard in language learning software.
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 6
Just a little bit later Windows bowled over the PC world. We discovered the interface
that Mac and Amiga users had known for years. Gone was the old 640K limit. Hard
drives edged slowly up towards 1gb, a milestone they would then forever leave behind.
Once again, the advent of Windows and CD-ROMs spelled the end many fine software
packages, my own Adventure Game Generator being one of them.
The Web's presence began to be felt in the mid 90s. Software ceased to be an issue.
Teachers could build a whole lesson around Yahoo’s ‘Travel’ link, to give one example.
The first time I saw an LMS, WebCT, it was like magic. All the tools I had ever wanted
As the Web grew into its own, so did high speed connections. Computers shipped with
nearly as much RAM as they used to have hard drive space. CD-ROMs lost ground
against the Internet. I used to love the old Cinemania series from Microsoft, until it
ceased publication and I discovered the nearly infinite Internet Movie Database
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 7
So here we are today, contemplating Web-2: Whole new concepts, invented by those
raised on the technologies we’ve looked at. Who could have conceived of Wikipedia,
Facebook and Second Life?
As late as the early 90s, computer experts where I worked openly scoffed at the very
idea of digital photography and digital television, “Computers will never have such
throughput and storage capacity!”
While Napster was popular around 2000, only visionaries saw that people would soon
be downloading whole movies.
So, what remains inconceivable today?
Roger Kenner, TESOL 2009: Page 8