The Big Sky Telegraph Project and Frank Odasz

One other project issued out of my Old Colorado City Electronic Cottage one line computer Bulletin Board.

One day in 1983 a caller left an unusual message. He posted it in the 'Little Red Schoolhouse' section of the BBS. But instead of only talking tech, or education, he set out to describe the abundant wildlife around him - birds, deer, foxes - near Laramie, Wyoming. It obviously came from a man who knew his natural environment. I guessed the man behind the message would be very interesting.

He was Frank Odasz, a Cody, Wyoming native getting his Masters in Educational Technology at the University of Wyoming. He and his wife were headed for teaching positions in the North West somewhere.

I exchanged a few messages  with him and then he called me voice. He picked my brains about how 'telecommunications' such as the BBS I was running could be useful for teaching in small rural and remote towns.  

But let him tell, in his own words the genesis of our joint program. Its an  extract  from a 2004 article for Educational Technology by Frank Odasz "Online - a Rural Perspective"

A Sense of Community

Born in 1952 in Cody, Wyoming, the close knit community ties of the 50’s made a deep impression regarding my sense of belonging. Suddenly having to move away at age seven, my growing up was a long wait seeking to return to this lost sense of community. For the decade of the sixties I lived in what was to become Silicon Valley, the bay area south of San Francisco, California.

Upon graduating in 1974 from University of California, Davis, with a BA in Psychology I had the choice of becoming a computer programmer or moving back to Wyoming to work as a roughneck on oil rigs. The starting wages were the same for both jobs. My perception of computers after learning about punch cards and the Fortran programming language was that there is nothing more lifeless than sitting at a computer all day long. My choice was easy, I headed home to the Rocky Mountains, soon to be spending the nights working outdoors at 40 below zero - and I was wildly happy to be there.

A Vision for the Ultimate Freedom

When I read Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock it shared the vision that someday, personal computers would be small enough and cheap enough we each could afford one, and that someday, telecommunications would allow us to live and work anywhere we pleased. I immediately made the decision to watch for the emergence of these opportunities for extreme freedom! It could be a potential solution for my long-term repatriation to Cody, Wyoming. All I had to do was wait for these promises to become reality. Over much of the next decade (1974-1982) I worked as an oilfield roughneck, carpenter/painter, and enjoyed three years as a dude ranch manager - waiting.

Finally in 1982, IBM announced their first personal computer and the Apple IIe enhanced version had just come out. Modems had just been dramatically upgraded from 300 to 1200 baud. Online communications using microcomputers was opening doors to unknown possibilities. It was time to pursue Toffler’s vision, urged on by the 1981 recession and being once again unemployed. In 1982, I enrolled at the University of Wyoming as one of the first four students for a new masters program in Instructional Technology.

Two years later, in 1984, with my new Master Degree in hand, I was caretaking a ranch near Walden, Colorado, teaching “Microcomputers in Agriculture” for Colorado Mountain College while looking for fulltime work to leverage my new Degree.  At that time microcomputers were still so new that most people were frightened of them and there was little demand for expertise in instructional technology.

I was online via $18/hr toll lines at 2400 baud with a bulletin board system called “The Little Red Electronic Schoolhouse” run by a retired army colonel, David R. Hughes.  Tentatively, I called Dave from my isolated ranch house hoping to learn more. Two hours later, I pried the phone from my ear having received my first passionate tutorial from the Cursor Cowboy. Here was a man with a vision! This would become a weekly ritual for the next ten years.

The Bull Colonel Online Mentoring Model

In addition to providing my first online learning experience, Dave provided me with an unfailing mentoring model. His bull colonel tenacity was not about to let me fail and I learned to implicitly trust in his ongoing support. Today, when I mentor educators in my online graduate courses my role is based on the mastery learning guaranteed level of support I learned from Dave Hughes. Failure is not an option!

One Up Dialogs

In person, we’d often both be talking at once, each interrupting the other frequently without either of us taking offense and I imagined we looked like two buffalos clawing the ground and huffing. Our ideas would build upon one another in rapid-fire fashion, each idea suggesting the next logical possibility. It was exciting to be inventing, discovering, and exploring all at once – the potential future of the world.

We began imagining what the high end educational applications of microcomputer telecommunications might be. We’d each try to top the other’s imaginings by going one better as an exercise to develop a vision for the best possible working model to try out in an actual project. Eventually we evolved the idea of creating the Big Sky Telegraph to connect the 100 one-room schools across Montana. But it was to be four years before we’d finally win the funding. 

Becoming an Assistant Professor

A one-inch ad from Western Montana College, a hundred-year-old teachers’ college in Dillon, Montana was run once in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Frustrated from years of underemployment, I bought a pinstripe suit, shaved my beard and drove 1000 miles to put in a face-to-face appearance and was soon hired as their first Microcomputer Applications instructor. Upon arrival they ushered me down a narrow stairway to an unfinished basement room with cement walls and ceiling. Twenty-five boxed Apple IIes received through a grant sat unopened. The future of the world was before me.

 ---end of extract--

Frank and I exchanged calls a number of times until after he got settled in at Western by 1985. He took a trip to see me in Old Colorado City where, by then I had my Old Colorado City Communications company up and running with our Unix system connected by either dial up or by UUCP. My partner Louis Jaffe decided to open a small French Deli, which, one day, Frank and I patronized, and over wine and French cuisine we hammered out an agreement about what I could do to connect up 100 Montana Rural School and at what cost.  We came up with the name Big Sky Telegraph for the project.

Frank applied for and won the first of two grants. Here is how he described them:

"Big Sky Telegraph (BST)

This name was intended in invoke an image of an expansive imagination, unlimited possibilities, and of an old-timey non-threatening communications technology metaphor.

In 1987, I won a small grant for $37,000 from the M.J. Murdoch Foundation, to engage Dave Hughes’ expertise in creating one of the first Internet hosts running on a microcomputer to offer online courses. The new 386 computer was just fast enough to run SCO Unix and the Big Sky Telegraph went online, January 1st, 1988. Without compensation for my time, throughout the next year the BST offered free 2400 baud modems to a pilot group of two dozen one-room school teachers along with an online course with ten one-hour mastery learning lessons titled “Microcomputer Telecommunications Basics.” As most educators and rural citizens had no idea of the “online” possibilities, our challenge was to bring to them their first experiences of online learning, one at a time."

In 1989, US West granted $280,000 for an expansion of Big Sky Telegraph to 100 one-room schools. With the additional technical expertise of David Hughes JR, (Dave’s son), we began creating the first of 29 local dial-up community bulletin boards using an elegant cost-effective Fidonet system which collected emails bound for distant systems and the Internet for automated exchange during the low-cost nightly phone rates. As a representative application Junior High School students in Montana and Wyoming rural schools used these systems to learn Chaos Theory Mathematics online - direct from Dr. George Johnston of the MIT Plasma Fusion Lab.

End of Frank's description

Now what I had accomplished to do this project was, first of all, to get a desktop SCO Xenix system - a varient of Unix to be the server in Frank's offices at Western, in Dillon, Montana. Then by using a second MSDOS computer across the room running both Tom Jenning's Fido BBS software connected to one outside phone line with a 2400 baud modem, I could link the Unix system and Fido BBSs in 29 of the 116 one-room school houses in Montana.

The key was that the Fido BBS could be called nightly at 2AM by each of the 29 Fido BBSs in the remote schools in turn. In less than 2 minutes each call, all the messages generated on the school Fido's would pour into the memory of that one Fido BBS. And IF the Fido had on its disk messages addressed to any one of the Fido's at the schools, they would be 'sent' at the same time. In less than an hour in the middle of the night, all the traffic was received at Big Sky or sent from it.

Then the Fido BBS at Big Sky would shut down automatically at 3AM and come up as a Ufgate Server, connected by serial cable across the room to a port on the SCO Unix system. So all the traffic from the Fido's in Montana went into the Unix system using UUCP protocol that was natural to the Unix machine, but matched under UFGATE on the Fido system.

THEN all the traffic from the Montana school BBS's destined to any Fido BBS in the world (I recall the kids communicated with Germans, Norweigens, and Japanese who had access to a locl Fido - each with its unique Fido Address identity, while message from a schoolboy or girl had their name as the ultimate receipient or author.) went from that SCO Unix system by telephone modem, to my Old Colorado City Communications Unix server using UUCP protocols. And my system would pass all the traffic received from Montana by UUCP hop hop through A Hewlett Packard local office's Unix system, to a Fido system in Silicon Valley, which 'knew' how to forward and route replies to other global Fido's.

So the primary heart of Big Sky Telegraph was low cost Fido BBSs linked to UUCP Unix boxes. Over which the EDUCATIONAL content - teaching and learning - flowed.  

That was the greatest revolution in Rural Communications since the crank party line telephones of the 1930s.


From Student to Teacher Training

It became evident to me that, whatever young students could learn FROM as well as ABOUT advanced forms of computer networked education, it was the Teachers who needed educating themselves more than anyone. Whole new modes of teaching would have to be learned, as much by trial and error 'doing' as by  being taught formally. Teacher's colleges, including Western Montana College were woefully behind the technical and pedagogical curve. Their Principals were usually worse off and had little basis for making sound management decisions about the types of technologies were needed. And school boards usually were clueless - except that whenever one school board member bought an Apple, or Radio Shack, or the newest IBM personal computer for business or saw them at a university - they would discover the power of personal computers connected by modems to national services and start prodding their School Administrators to answer the question why their District didn't have such computers, and were teaching them.

But just how far out on the educational frontier that even very low cost, personal computer and networking could push happened when I was contacted in 1991 by an MIT Physicist - Dr George Johnston. He had read about my telecom pioneering and, in concert with many MIT professors, was very concerned about the state of American education - particularly in math the sciences. He wanted to know whether I could - with my telecommunications skills - help him teach both bright students and even some of their teachers - distant from the Boston area. That some of the MIT faculty visited only schools in the local area on occassion, but never students far away.

He suggest teaching an online Course in the Theory and Math of Chaos!



Chaos Online

THAT was as about frontier science as one could want.

Since at that time I was already supporting the Fido Network Big Sky Telegraph Project in Montana I knew we could incorporate a few Montana, maybe even Wyoming schools into a course with some Colorado Springs Schools and teachers.

George, of course would have the task of teaching the actual course in Chaos, while I would have to teach him, AND the teachers, as well as the students in networking skills. I even had developed a formal course which Colorado Technical College had asked me to do called 'Electronic English' which I used to get everyone online in the 'connected classroom' to understand the online culture.

Dr Johnston and I started when I supported his teaching about 8 students over the Internet to a local westside Junior High School class whose Math teacher had gotten his Master's degree AFTER the science of Chaos was even known. So he took the course right along with his students! By the time they all were looking at the beautiful Fractals generated by their own computers after the Chaos math code came in over the modem line, they were hooked, not only with the science, but with this mode of learning online.

My forecast that online delivered and supported education was going to cause a Revolution in K-12 education across the country was beginning to be realized.

I then set up a multi-centered Fido+Internet network that linked a whole class of advance placement students at Air Force Academy high school, two students in advanced studies at Cody High School, Cody, Wyoming and one bright student at a one room school in  Guildford, far northern Montana which was connected by their Fido Bulletin Board system.

Dr Johnson quickly learned that half of his problem teaching the class, was the radically different methods needed to keep 'classroom discipline' online instead of in face to face classroom settings. And that students - to take an online course had to be far more proactive than they could get away with being passive in a classroom setting. Bright high school boy students would flirt with the girls far away from their school over side messages. But the course proceeded and a bona fide course in Chaos was taught and something was learned everywhere.

The most noteworthy thing that happened was that a girl in her high school in Cody, Wyoming - which was not even able to offer her AP Calculus locally - wanted to go to a really advanced college. Dr Johnston suggested she try MIT. He worked with her in the Chaos course, saw how very bright she was, and to his delight - and hers - she applied and matriculated at MIT the next year. And he had never seen or talked to her face to face while all that happened.

Later Dr Johnston authored an article in a national Educational Journal. And Dr Johnston, Plasma Physicist at MIT  presented a paper to the Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering and Technology in which he lavishly credited me with developing the technologies that made advanced science education to any place or school in the nation. And made specific recommendations about how the Federal Government should support the development all across the country in 'distance learning.'

                                                Plain Math Class - For Teachers

For the next academic year, we tried something else. Colorado Springs Teachers, having heard about the Chaos course, were very interested in taking a math class from the MIT Physicist but only if they could get credits toward a degree. And Johnson knew that even more fundamental math skills were needed by teachers he had met.

We managed to get that done - the State of Colorado certified Dr. Johnston's obvious credentials, School District 11 identified the Doherty High School as one where a number of math teachers wanted to take a course that simply advanced their knowledge of math - not as far as scientific Chaos, but beyond what they were used to. That worked, - he taught them from Cambridge entirely online.  He flew out to Colorado Springs for the first and last class, meeting them face to face one time and awarded them their grades and credits for college post graduate degrees.

By this time Frank Odasz was doing, and championing Online Education in many ways no longer needing me. He had the vision, was mastering the technology, and the new methods of instruction, and so pursued opportunities to educate educators. In fact when he left Western Montana College he started up Lone Eagle Consulting - which he has pursued from Latin America to Northern Alaska over the past 25 years.

In his own words he described what he called the National and Global Impacts of Big Sky Telegraph

"Over time it became clearer that the biggest impacts of the BST project were not on those who participated directly, but were on those in other states and countries who read the colorful stories written by Dave Hughes on the pioneering teachers in remote one-room schools sharing curriculum online and beginning to communicate with educators globally. Many people became inspired that “if they can do it in rural Montana, why can’t we do this in our state?” Larger than life stories created major motivation for grassroots champions in other states to imagine what’s possible and to generate dozens of projects that ultimately went beyond the scope and scale of the Big Sky Telegraph.

As there were few rural online learning projects during the late 1980s and early 1990’s, I enjoyed being a frequent presenter at national educational technology community networking conferences. Online learning and collaboration naturally supported building both virtual and geographical communities. Some weeks I’d fly coast to coast twice. From 1988 to 1998 I averaged roughly 50,000 miles a year."


Native American Share Art

While I was repeatedly visiting Montana, driving to and from Colorado, I knew I was also entering Indian territories. Sioux, Crow, Assiniboine, who, both on their reservations and in other places had the typical native American tribal problems of very low incomes and poor education for their children.

But many of them had tribal art - in many forms. I conceived of the idea of 'Share Art' delivered over telecom.

There already was the growth of what was called 'shareware' - computer programs that were good and useful, but not fully commercialized. The idea was that you could download or get a copy of a useful program, and 'share it' with its author by sending him what he thinks its worth.

Why not encourage Native Americans with artistic talent or aspirations to create pieces in the Naplps software format, and distribute it rapidly online - not waiting for galleries to accept them -  asking for some form of payment?

So in Billings, Montana, close to the Crow Reservation we invited about 10 artists to come to a Naplps-Computer-Network Share Art session. In a one day session, with numerous computers for them to work on - and even, across the room - exchange their work, several Indians got the idea.

It got off the ground to the point the Sioux Tribe of South Dakota invited me to come there and teach them too. Which I did. But not before my car was damaged by a ferocious hailstorm as I was driving across Wyoming to see them. One of their Chiefs told me that the Great Spirit had punished me  for teaching the Crow - their traditional enemies - before I taught them -  the Sioux.

A number of artists got to work in the new 'medium' distributed their work over modems from their reservations, and received payments.

Below is an Article Cynthia Denton, Educator from Hobson, Montana, whom I trained in the Telecom and even NAPLPS arts. She even set up her own BBS  and wrote it for the Silicon Valley Software Review. It even describes how I was able to take an old Assiniboine Tribal tale and render it in both English and Assiniboine, dynamically. As a way for very young Assiniboine school children could learn, simultaneously their own language and English.

It is a PDF file. Just click on it. (The very last paragraph got truncated slightly)

 Native-American Share-Ar

Share-art by Indians lasted until Naplps was superseded by the World Wide Web and its graphics. By then many Native American artists knew enough to be able to adapt to later technologies.

Once again I, with willing partners like Frank Odasz, had  pioneered methods that later became mainstream and commercialized.

Telecom Trappers Rendezvous

Frank Odasz explained in one posting:

"The era of the first white trappers lasted only twenty years before the settlers followed them and ended their era. Dave and I decided to hold a special conference in Cody, Wyoming to recognize the passing nature of the era of the early online pioneers.

Our goal for the rendezvous was to acknowledge and celebrate our awareness of the brief nature of the era of the first explorations on this new frontier, knowing that the pristine online landscapes would soon change forever as the dust clouds of the advancing settlers were already on the horizon.

Twenty-five persons attended coming from both coasts and we sat in a Rocky Mountain meadow of wildflowers on a spring day with a microcomputer at the end of a couple hundred feet of extension cords to view some of the first Native American digital Share-art in history and to talk about themes such as “with power comes responsibility” and how online communication was unlocking profound potential for global education, community empowerment, cultural sovereignty, and more, much more.  

It was this visioning that was special to our group and we intuitively knew the future would be limited only by our imaginations."

It was during that Rendezvous and after everyone except Frank and I had left Cody, that I carried a laptop computer with me on my horse. Having grown up with horses and very comfortable with them, especially western style saddles and riding, I even started an innovation that got me lots of California publicity as the 'Cursor Cowboy'

I set out to buy the frame of a western saddle, and started putting keyboard keys to the right and left of the pommel horn, then insert an LCD sized screen in the saddle horn, and then put the body of the computer in one saddle bag, and an amateur digital radio with  batteries in the other saddle bag.

So I could connect up to the world from atop my horse!  

While I soon got sidetracked pursuing some digital wireless answer, I never finished the saddle.

But the idea of a lone cowboy riding the range - connected stimulated my muse, which I exercised out loud by talking to myself or singing, while I was driving those long dull stretches across Wyoming on the way to Dillon and back. Here is one result, which I also rendered in a dynamic animation in Naplps graphics.


    Cursor Cowboy's Song

Oh I got a little cabin in the Rockies

A pickup truck, my boots, and a PC Clone

The calves are new, the bills are due, and my woman's left me.

But I never am alone, when I hear that modem tone.

For you never are alone when you hear that modem tone,

Just keep loggo'n on,  just keep logg'on on.

The Demise of Big Sky Telegraph

Originally, the Big Sky Telegraph offered dial-up Internet access for only $10/month, but now local Internet services were becoming available. They were certainly more     affordable than long distance calls to BST, offering unlimited local access for a flat fee. This new option caused people to leave the collaborative Big Sky Telegraph to become solo-basement browsers. When the IRS announced that institutions of higher education could no longer charge for providing dial-up Internet access the economic sustainability the Big Sky Telegraph disappeared and US West ended their funding support.

But valuable lessons had been learned by educators and administrators. Frank Odaz pioneered for himself in the most remote native villages of Alaska thereafter.

One could say, Frank Odaz became a disciple of mine. He made a career of what we started with Big Sky, motivating schools, teachers, grant funding sources, including Federal. He has written a long and accurate account of his educational activities and initiatives, also discussing my involvement.  It is a pdf file you can click on the blued word odazhist below.


The best summary of ALL I have done from my first BBS, through the Source, and Big Sky Telegraph came from the 1993 book by Howard Rheingold called "The Virtual Community" Typical of the California, Silicon Valley up tightedness about a two-war West Point graduate, now a retired Colonel, some of the comments are left handed compliments. But read it and it pretty much sums up my vision and methods. It amused me that I was teaching the counter-culture anti-war hacker generation how to use the technologies they invented. But as I always maintained, engineers know 'how' but I know 'why.' 

Click on this PDF link Virtual Community

                                   But Need for Better Bandwidth

Meanwhile I fretted from the limitations of the availability and reach of data lines. Telephone Modems were fine as far as they went but even theoretically they could not do more than 56kbps - the bandwidth of the human voice.

I knew that telephone company data lines could handle what was called T-1 speeds - 1.544 megabits per second- but were very expensive for anyone not part of a company, large urban school system, or government itself. And just laying a T-1 data line by the Telephone Company was barely affordable by institutions, and hardly ever by individuals at home much less remote rural ranches or farms.

I started looking around for wireless solutions.

I found it with Hedy Lamar and Frequency Hopping. Which opened up a whole new chapter in my Telecom life.


Go onto the National Science Foundation Saga