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Early Days of AOL Homeschooling Forums

By Ann Zeise

December 2002 marks my 13th year online. I had seen a November 1989 magazine offering a charter membership to some sort of thing called America On Line, and since I had recently inherited a free 1200 baud modem from someone, and had hitched it up to my MacPlus, I was looking for some place to go with it. Soon I had the first of what would prove to be many, many AOL disks arrive in the mail.

In the early days of AOL they sent out a little monthly magazine much like a TV Guide, telling when the chats would be and other interesting features they had. I would consult the guide and sign on when there were specific chats. Back then AOL had two tiers of costs: Over night was $6 an hour and mid-day was $10. Bills could get pretty high real fast, so I never went online mid-day! It was not unusual to have a $200 bill each month.

At first, AOL was primarily a Mac-only service, with one other system that has long since vanished. I spent a lot of time in the Mac forums, and especially enjoyed the Mac Education chats where we talked about using computers in education. When the forum leader was coming out for MacWorld, I invited her to stay at my home and we’d go up to San Francisco together. Make a party of it. Invite other AOLers who happened to also attend the conference. That’s when I found out that the forum leaders and guides didn’t have to pay for AOL and could be online as long as they wanted. I had thought they were all in Virginia and paid employees! Where do I sign up?

I went on to various unpaid, but free access jobs in forums such as in LaPub, the very first AOL chat room, as a virtual bartender (If any of us really drank, we wouldn’t be in a virtual “Cheers.”), and as a game host, and then when Knight Ridder opened up The Mercury Center, I managed to talk the San Jose Mercury News Editor into letting me manage the chats. I trained the hosts and organized 20 hours of chat each week for three years. AOL and the Mercury Center had a “parting of ways,” and so I went on to work in the Mac Communications forum where I fell in with a group of people starting up a First Class bbs service. This is where A to Z Home’s Cool made its first appearance back in 1994.

In 1993 we had started homeschooling and somehow I got pointed to the Homefront Hall homeschooling forum on AOL. Now, these days people just hang around a chat room all day if they want to. Back then they still had this TV Show mentality. I remember someone named Lorihon chasing me out of there right in the middle of a most interesting homeschool discussion because the chat room could not be occupied unless there was a host present, and she wasn’t going to hang around. Her shift was over! No one really knew how to host chats and message boards back then, training was off the cuff, and there were lots of hard feelings when posts were removed for what seemed to be spurious reasons. It was some of these frustrations with AOL that spurred me to attempt to start my own homeschool forum.

About the same time I was working for the Mercury Center, the Hegeners started their homeschool forum on AOL. Much more relaxed, they attracted many of the online homeschool parents who were into making a movement happen, though they may not have been thinking that’s what they were doing at the time. The old AHEMers, (say with a throat-clearing cough, to be said correctly), have a Yahoo Group going now. If you think you belong in this forum, join ahem-oldtimers. Many in this forum went on to found the National Home Education Network just by discussing online the need for such an organization.

Enter browsers and easy Internet access. I still remember being in the Mac Communication Forum when some AOL staff told us to download and play with this program called Mozilla which would make looking at the internet far more easy than using Gofer, Telnet or FTP. It was from this little company that would eventually become Netscape. You still see that early logo, the little dragon, around in the Mozilla Museum.

Around this time Helen Hegener asked me if she thought they should get their own domain and move their forum to the Internet. That was one time I could not forsee the future and told her that I thought the Internet would be too hard for most homeschoolers to use and that she should stick with AOL. Man! Am I glad they ignored me! The Hegeners moved to their own website, Home Education Magazine; I moved to start A to Z Home’s Cool on a BBS, on AOL Hometown, and then on the Mining Company. Soon we had lots of company. The rest, as they say, is history!

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