Paper No.187A

Viewdata and the World Wide Web; Information or Communication?

Oleg Liber

School of Education, University of Wales Bangor, Deinol Rd, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW

Keywords: Collaborative computing, connectivity, Internet


This paper compares and contrasts the two "waves" of enthusiasm for communication technology in education. The first was in the early 1980s, and centred around videotex, or viewdata. For a time the impact of this technology seemed to be significant, and a number of educational services and systems centred around this technology were developed. However, this early promise evaporated, and its anticipated impact never materialised.

The second wave is happening now, and is centred primarily on the World Wide Web. Once again, communication technology seems to promise much for education. Although the technology is more powerful in this second case, there is much that is similar to the earlier experience, along with some significant differences, not all of which are necessarily beneficial for education. These are described and discussed, and some lessons are drawn from the earlier experience that may guide the development of the second.


In the early 1980s, British Telecom launched Prestel, providing a dial-up information viewdata service, accessible for a local call charge from anywhere in the UK, using a simple terminal and acoustic modem. The possibilities offered by information being available over the telephone network were attractive to many in education, particularly those developing open learning systems (Liber 1987). This led to considerable activity in this field, with software products and resources being developed for this technology, and viewdata grew rapidly in popularity. However, this was not sustained, and by the late eighties, interest had declined. A few years later, a similar (but larger scale) phenomenon emerged with the advent of the WWW, still gaining in popularity. Is there something about the WWW that makes it likely to succeed in education where viewdata failed, or is their something inherent in information system of this sort that makes their impact inevitably restricted; and if this is the case, are there any online technologies that would be more likely to succeed? This paper makes some tentative suggestions about the online technologies that education might be better focusing on.


Videotex is the generic name for a number of electronic publishing systems in the early 1980s; NAPLPs in the USA, Teletel in France, Bildschurmtext in Germany, Telidon in Canada, Captain in Japan, and the Prestel standard in the UK. Prestel was British Telecom's videotex service, selling space on their central computers for would be information providers to publish various information, accessible via BT's public phone network. Subscribers could access this information using a videotex "adapter", or using videotex terminal software on a micro attached to the phone network via a modem. The modem speed was set at a split rate - 1200/75, on the assumption that more bandwidth was needed to receive than send information.

Prestel provided a large database of linked pages of information, containing text and simple mosaic graphics in up to 7 colours, similar to teletext pages, with each page being one kilobyte in size. It also provided for file transfer using a protocol known as telesoftware, and a simple form of electronic mail for its subscribers.

Education was quick to see the possibilities in this sort of electronic publishing with projects like Hatfield College's Prestel in Schools project. Prestel Education and Micronet 800 provided educational materials and resources, and many schools became subscribers.

The optimism that many felt about Prestel and videotex (or viewdata as it was commonly known in the UK) was demonstrated by Acorn building into its BBC micro a special graphics mode designed to display viewdata pages. This made it not only easier to write terminal software to access Prestel, but also to write editing software, allowing the creation and linking of viewdata pages. A number of systems were written of which perhaps the best known was Communitel's Viewdata system. This provided a viewdata terminal and editing software; but more significantly, it also provided host software that allowed the establishing of a Prestel like system, accessible over a BBC network or by dial-up over public telephone lines. This was targeted at educational institutions, with the idea that they could set up their own host containing their own educational information and resources for their students and for inter school exchange. A variety of systems sprang up, in schools (e.g Monmouth School), colleges (Dudley F.E.) and LEAs (Nottingham), but also in doctor's surgeries (e.g. Healthdata) and elsewhere. This explosion of interest led to rapid developments. The Open University explored videotex systems with high resolution graphics (Cyclops); Times Newspapers sponsored the Times Network For Schools (TTNS); and the functionality of private systems was extended.

A project that use viewdata for learning was the ITEC Training Materials Network (Liber 1993). 175 ITECs (Information Technology Centres) had been established by the government to provide primarily youth training in IT and electronics to school leavers. They were based on the Notting Dale Technology Centre, a pioneering and radical initiative to give practical and scientific skills and resources to the economically disadvantaged local community, who advised the government in the establishment of the new centres (Liber 1986). At their inception, there was no appropriate IT curriculum, learning materials or certification in existence. The Training Materials Network's aim was to use electronic communication to establish a collaborative, self help network across the ITECs. Funded by the DTI and European Social Fund, it adopted a distributed approach, providing a number of ITECs with viewdata host systems on to which they could install locally developed educational resources. Additional software was written that allowed the creation, compression and transmission of materials containing high resolution images. Most significantly, a means by which pages on one system could be linked to pages on another remote system was created, foreshadowing the later emergence of URLs and hypertext links. Software that allowed the consolidation and distribution of local indexes into a global index was written, thus creating a truly distributed but tractable network of resources. In this way, materials could be created and stored locally, but accessed globally. Caching technology was designed but never implemented due to lack of funds.

Several other interesting viewdata systems also emerged. Two are worth mentioning here.

NERIS was a centralised system funded by the DTI to deliver educational resources to schools. Their model was that teachers would develop and upload materials for exchange to their host. Apart from improved searching technology, it was essentially the same as Prestel, and never really succeeded in providing a dynamic interchange of resources.

The Gnome at Home was another popular viewdata based bulletin board. However, its total focus was on providing conferencing rather than publishing facilities.

It can be seen that there were many similarities between the viewdata experience and that of the World Wide Web, which has exploded in the last 4 years; but there were also major differences.

The original conception of viewdata was for the large scale provision of information on centralised systems, whereas the WWW was conceived by its creator, Tim Berners-Lee as a distributed system based on desktop servers, allowing users to both access and publish documents (Guardian 1996). Although Communitel was a viewdata system, it supported this latter conception; by allowing both the creation and publishing of information on a simple desktop microcomputer, it had much in common with Berners-Lee's vision.

The WWW is hypertext based, allowing hot spots to be clicked to move from a document at one location to another anywhere else on the WWW. Viewdata systems similarly allowed pages to be linked, but by pressing number keys. Links between remote hosts were implemented by the Training Materials Network project, as mentioned earlier.

Both WWW servers and viewdata hosts allow file downloading. WWW servers support fill in forms, Viewdata host had response frames. Viewdata systems provided simple email and discussion facilities, WWW browsers include email and newsgroup facilities.

In these respects, the two systems are extremely similar. However, they are different in two highly significant and related ways.

Firstly, the WWW enjoys a much higher bandwidth. Being based on the Internet and TCP/IP, data speeds depend on the networking connection; even dial up connections can currently be 33.6 kilobaud, nearly 30 times viewdata's 1200/75 speed. This means that the transfer of multimedia materials is feasible, which was not the case with viewdata.

However, this dependence on TCP/IP has its drawbacks. Anyone with a modem and a phone line could set up a viewdata host; to set up a WWW server, a permanent connection to the Internet is needed, either by being on a networks like JANET, or via an expensive leased line. This is beyond the reach of many small organisations (like primary schools) and individuals. They have to buy space on a commercial WWW server; there do not appear to be any proposals to provide TCP/IP services over normal telephone lines, without keeping the line open continuously.

So, although the WWW consists of a distributed network of information servers, it is only those who can afford the high costs involved who can participate.

Secondly, there is Java. Java provides the means by which browsers can download more than just media files, but can also access and run software. This means that Web pages can become more interactive, more like software than documents; and it means that the WWW might become more like an operating system than an information service. It is the incredible growth of the WWW that has made it commercially viable to attempt to implement such a system, and if it is successful will result in the WWW becoming quite a different animal to its present incarnation. However, it is yet to be seen whether this vision will be realised; Java may simply become a way in which some parts of a document can be made more dynamic, and a way of writing software that is multiplatform. It is worth noting that in the mid 1980s, the European Commission's DELTA programme had a similar idea to solve problems of multiple platforms in education, called the Portable Educational Technology Environment (PETE). It became irrelevant as Microsoft increasingly began to dominate the desktop market.

Java may yet prove to be highly significant; but if it is, it will be a tool for the technically oriented, not for the majority and so it will reinforce the distinction between provider and user of information.

The table below summarise the differences and similarities between Viewdata and the WWW.

                         WWW                      Viewdata                 

Minimum hardware for     Basic Microcomputer      Basic Microcomputer      

Availability of          All platforms            All platforms            

Network                  TCP/IP                   Public telephone system  

Links between            Built in                 With some effort         

Requirements for         Micro, software, modem,  Micro, software, modem,  
setting up own site      space on TCP/IP          telephone line           
                         connected server (or                              
                         leased line)                                      

Media capabilities       Fully multimedia         Text and mosaic          

File downloading         Yes                      Yes                      

Bandwidth over phone     33,600 duplex            1200/75 split rate       

Email capability         yes                      yes                      

Fill in forms            yes                      yes                      

Extensibility            Through CGIs & Java      With custom software     

It can be seen that these two technologies differ primarily in terms of speed and quality of media, and that structurally they have much in common.

Information and Communication

Perhaps the most significant lesson that can be drawn from the viewdata experience concerns interactivity (or lack of it). By interactivity I mean the range of communicative acts the use can make when interacting through a computer. Both viewdata and the WWW provide an information service; users can access and consume a wide range of information. However, the scope for user participation is limited. On viewdata systems one could press number keys, fill in forms, and on a very few services, participate in discussions. On most WWW servers all one can do is click, on some fill in forms, and on very few participate in discussions. Even with the advent of Java, it is uncertain that user participation will increase significantly.

By 1987, interest in Prestel and viewdata systems had begun to wane. The withdrawal of government funding led to the demise of some systems, cuts in education funding led many authorities to limit schools' telephone budgets, and schools turned their focus on to other aspects of IT. Some services migrated to other technologies, and international services like Compuserve took most of the market share, with conferencing services like CIX (Compulink Information Exchange) and GreenNet also growing in popularity. A number of private bulletin boards continued, but these also focused on providing facilities for discussion and file transfer. It would seems that after the initial excitement in systems that provided a wide range of information, people preferred to used systems that allowed discussion; communication is preferable to information. Interest in groupware and conferencing systems has been steadily growing throughout this period. There are now available a number of software systems that extend WWW server functionality to provide conferencing, with systems like Caucus and Notes becoming accessible via the. However, it is questionable whether WWW browsers are the best tool for conferencing systems, depending as they do on HTML. Systems like FirstClass provide clients with a quick and friendly access to their conferencing and email servers, via the Internet, over LANs or by dial up, and also offer access to newsgroups and databases (Alexander 1992). Information services fit better inside a communication service rather than the other way around. It has recently been reported that America On-line has realised that the aspect of their service that is most popular are its richly featured discussion areas, and not its content ; this may be the sign that it is finally being recognised that people want active communication with each other, and not passive access to information.

As far as education is concerned, this mirrors the constructivist position, that people construct their own learning through social interaction, and not by the transmission of information from teacher to learner (e.g. Jonassen 1986). Conferencing systems provide the possibility of conversation between people who would otherwise never have had access to each other. Projects like REM, an EC Framework IV Telematics Applications Programme project (Owen and Liber 1996) are extending conversational facilities to allow students to work on joint projects and develop their own materials by also giving easy access to a multimedia database within the conversational framework. It is systems like these that are likely to have a longer lasting and wider impact in education than information delivery systems, however attractive they may be. The WWW may end up being just a modern version of teletext.


Viewdata systems are still in use, but the predictions that were made for their educational use never came to be, despite it having many of the capabilities of the WWW, on to which these predictions have been transferred. However, conferencing systems have continued to grow steadily in popularity. It is suggested that the same is likely to happen with the WWW, and that education would be better served by focusing development effort on systems that support and promote interaction between participants in the learning process, with information systems playing a subservient role.


Alexander, G. (1994) "Renewable Energy Technology". Report No.52, final report to the Dept of Employment; Open University, Milton Keynes.

Guardian Online (28.11.96) "Umpire in a Battle for Empire"

Jonassen, D., Mayes, T, and McAleese, R, (1993). A Manifesto for a Constructivist Approach to the uses of Technology in Higher Education in Duffy, T.M., Lowyck, J. and Jonassen, D. (eds) "Designing Environments for Constructivist Learning". Springer Verlag, Berlin.

Liber, O. (1985) "ITECs - A Response to Structural Change" ; ANTEM Conference on Education and New Technology, Bologna. Bologna, Dioikema

Liber, O. (1987) "Viewdata - 20th Century Caxton?" in Bulletin of Environmental Education No. 197/8. London, Streetwork

Liber, O. (1993) The Training Materials Network in Beynon, J. and Mackay, H. (eds.) "Computers into Classrooms: More Questions than Answers" ; London, Falmer

Owen, M. and Liber, O. (1996) "Project REM: The development of a User Needs Analysis - process and content", CAL 97 conference, Exeter