Important Events in the History of Digital Higher Education: The WBSI Adventure in Online Education

by Heather Walker, Senior Administrative Assistant, DigiTex

What elements comprise the digital learning experience? For most of us, the answer would include a learning management system such as Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle; videos, podcasts, and other media; discussion rooms; and electronically submitted assignments, among other components. Now imagine attempting to conduct an online class without any of this “essential” technology! At a time when there were no learning management systems and the internet as we know it was still gestating, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute blazed the trail for digital education with its online School of Management and Strategic Studies.

President Richard Farson

The Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) was founded in 1958 in La Jolla, California, through a joint effort between Richard Farson, Wayman Crow, and Paul Lloyd. The institute was originally formed to foster a deeper understanding of human relationships through research into the human mind (Feenberg, 1993). A few years after its founding, the influential psychologist Carl Rogers, father of the person-centered method of counseling, joined the staff. During his tenure, the institute focused on the use of encounter groups to study human interactions (Farson, 2005). However, by 1981, WBSI was retooling its focus somewhat and exploring new outreach methods. 

Under the leadership of President Richard Farson, planning for the WBSI School of Management and Strategic Studies began in late 1981. The School’s target audience included upper level executives who needed a remote delivery method so that they could both attend classes and manage their businesses as usual. The program originally was designed as a two-year course, divided into four six-month sessions. During the first week of each session, the executives would all gather for face-to-face training sessions at the campus in La Jolla. At this time, they had the chance to meet their instructors and learn how to use the computers for their classes. Students in the program were privileged to learn from highly qualified instructors hailing from such respected institutions as Yale, Harvard, and the University of California (Feenberg, 1993).

An HP9835A, one of the computers that was still in use at the time that the WBSI began its School of Management and Strategic Studies (HP Computer Museum Staff)*

The program held its first week-long orientation in January of 1982, “with a stellar group of eight participants, including a Los Angeles City Councilman, a director of the Venezualan [sic] national oil company, the presidents of several small high tech companies, and vice-presidents from some larger mainline firms” (Feenberg, 1993). Following this introductory week, the participants returned home to the challenge of continuing their studies using computers. In a period when computers were notably larger, much slower, and lacking in much of the technology which we find indispensable today, this was no easy task. Instructions for operating the computers and logging on to the EIES network at the New Jersey Institute of Technology were lengthy and often challenging to execute. Lectures often were one-sided, and attempts by the professors to generate discussion with questions often fell flat due to technological challenges or participant reluctance to voice opinions in an online format (Feenberg, 1993). 

Nevertheless, in spite of the challenges, the program grew to include “over 150 participants from 26 countries” (Feenberg, 1993). Almost all participants in the program spoke very highly of their experiences, and Andrew Feenberg, who worked at the WBSI and was deeply involved with the School of Management and Strategic Studies, stated that the participants felt as if they were a part of a strong community, often maintaining their contacts with each other even after they completed the program (1993). Sadly, in spite of its many successes, WBSI struggled financially over the years and was eventually forced to close in 1991, although it did later enjoy a renaissance in the 2000s (Farson, 2005). 

The legacy of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute is an important one. With its high-quality instructors and content and its global networking opportunities, the online School of Management set a standard for all online programs that would follow. The program proved that it was possible to make a success of online instruction, not only locally, but also internationally. Additionally, it was forced to address some very important pedagogical issues as they arose (Feenberg, 1993). For instance, how does an instructor “lecture” effectively through a computer with limited connectivity and only manual input options? How can students become engaged in classes when no one can see each other and communication is often unidirectional? And finally, how can a community be created among students when everyone is scattered across the globe? Of course, all online instructors must address the important subjects of content presentation, student engagement, and online community-building even today, but imagine the difficulty of doing so for the first online program, without the aid of an LMS or a fully developed internet! (Full disclosure: Yes, I actually used an 80s IBM. How many of you remember the fun of MS-DOS?)

1150 Silverado St., La Jolla, CA

At the time of this writing, the location of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute is still listed at 1150 Silverado St. in La Jolla, CA. They are said to be operating out of a professional office building (left). It is unclear, however, whether the WBSI is still active, as their website ( is currently up for sale, and there is no available contact information. Regardless of its status, however, the WBSI will continue to be an important early influence in the history of digital education.

*“HP9835A” by ajmexico is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Farson, Richard. “The Legacy of Carl Rogers at WBSI.” Voice of San Diego, 21 Apr. 2005,

Feenberg, Andrew. “Building a Global Network: The WBSI Experience.” Global Networks: Computers and International Communication, edited by Linda M. Harasim, MIT Press, 1993,

HP Computer Museum Staff. “98×5 Computers Selection.” HP Computer Museum,

Zillow. 1150 Silverado St. La Jolla, CA. La-Jolla-CA-92037/2114947543_zpid/