Learning With Computers
J. B. Shelton and Glenn M. Kleiman
We met our first personal computer, an 8K PET, back in 1978. Soon thereafter we purchased one of the "new" PETs—a-state-of-the-art machine with 16K RAM memory, a full-size keyboard and a cassette recorder for external memory.
In those long gone days of almost six years ago, we eagerly sought information about our new machine, but little was available. It came with very little documentation, and what was provided was barely understandable. Today almost every bookstore has a large selection of computer books and even some drugstores carry computer magazines, but no books or magazines were readily available back then.
One source of valuable information was Cursor magazine, published by Ron Jeffries. Not a traditional magazine, Cursor arrived, somewhat irregularly, on a cassette tape. Each issue contained six programs that we could load and run right away. The programs were a mix of graphics and sound demonstrations, games, puzzles, programming utilities, educational programs, and simple applications programs (for example, for calculating mortgage rates). All the programs were at least reasonable; some were true gems.
A First Look
The programs in Cursor magazine gave us our first sense of the potential uses of personal computers. In addition, we could list and analyze the programs to learn new programming techniques. Cursor also has claim to being the all-time best buy in the personal computer industry. The price of a six-issue subscription was originally $20.
Cursor magazine continued publishing through May 1982. Copies of all 30 back issues are still available, and some of the programs have been made available for the Commodore 64. Another early cassette magazine for TRS-80 computers, CLOAD, continues to publish and is now available on disk also.
The idea of "magazines" of ready-to-run programs has grown. Two new magazines on disk have recently appeared, both focusing on education about and with computers. In this column, we review and compare Microzine and Window. Our reviews are based on the first three issues of Microzine and the second and third issues of Window. Both magazines are now available for Apple computers, and versions for other computers are being developed.
Dr. Glenn M. Kleiman is an educational psychologist and software developer. He is the author of Brave New Schools: How Computers Can Change Education (Restonl Prentice Hall) and the designer of Square Pairs, an educational game program (Scholastic, Inc.).
Microzine, Captivating For Children
Microzine, published five times a year by Scholastic, Inc., is designed for children ages 10 and up. Each issue contains four programs and a 48-page printed manual that supplements the onscreen instructions and provides additional ideas for using some of the programs.
One of the four programs in each issue is a Twistaplot story. These are stories in which the plot details and outcome are controlled by decisions the reader makes. For example, one issue contains a crime-solving adventure called "Mystery at Pinecrest Manor." This is an old-fashioned whodunit which makes the reader an active participant in the story. As the reader and participant, you study files containing background information about each of the suspects, search for clues, and spy on suspects. You play the part of a character in the story, deciding where to go and what to do at each choice point. You can reread the story many times, changing your responses and thereby encountering different events and outcomes each time.
The flexibility of the stories, excellent graphics, and the active role played by the reader make Twistaplots captivating for children. Interactive stories are an exciting new genre of fiction, and Twistaplots demonstrate some of the advantages of using computers to present these stories.
Each Microzine also contains one or two computer tool programs. These provide a means for children to explore and learn about different uses of computers.
A Poster program provides a simple computer language for creating colorful, low-resolution pictures. This program is a good introduction to both computer graphics and some rudimentary programming concepts.
An Electronic Card Filer program demonstrates how computers can be used to store, sort, and retrieve information. This program is well designed for introducing data base and information retrieval concepts, but it is limited to small amounts of information. Each card, or record, can contain only five fields of information, with up to 25 letters or numbers per field.
Another tool program, Melody Maker, is for creating music on the computer. With Melody Maker you can enter notes over a two-octave range and have the computer play your song. You can also have the computer create a visual display to go with your music. One type of display shows a musical staff and the notes; other types of displays create colorful patterns. You can save your songs on disk to play again later.
No Editing Feature
The Melody Maker program can be very useful in helping children learn about reading music. Its main drawback is that it is difficult to change a song once you have entered it. You can go back and change any note to another note, but you cannot insert or delete new notes. Therefore, if you want to insert or delete a note at the beginning, you have to reenter the entire song.
There is also a program called Amazing Robot that is intended to introduce programming concepts. As you might expect, the commands the robot follows are like those of turtle graphics. You can instruct the robot to move forward or back a number of steps, or turn left or right a number of degrees. However, this robot does not draw with a pen, as turtles do. Instead, you command it to maneuver through different mazes and patterns displayed on the screen. This aspect of Amazing Robot is similar to Karel the Robot, which was reviewed in this column in January 1983.
Amazing Robot does introduce some programming concepts. But we found it to be awkward to enter and edit procedures. For example, if you make a typing mistake while entering a procedure or accidentally direct the robot to touch a wall, you are thrown out of the edit mode and have to use a reedit command. Amazing Robot does not encourage learning and exploration nearly as well as more complete programs such as Scholastic's Turtle Tracks, Spinnaker's Delta Drawing, or any of the available versions of Logo.
The remaining programs include one in which you select questions to see the answers actor Robert Macnaughton gave; a tutorial and simulation game about hot air balloons; a word game; and a chase game. None of these will teach children much or draw their attention away from PacMan, Frogger, or whatever videogame is their current favorite.
Window Is A Screen Magazine
Window, intended for adults as well as children, takes seriously its status as a magazine using the new medium of computers. No print materials are provided, except for a note about booting the disk and accessing the help screens. Everything else you need to know is shown on the computer screen.
Window provides a great deal of flexibility. It lets you take a guided tour of each issue. This is similar to skimming through a printed magazine. You control the speed of progress through the screens and you can stop, back up, or continue at any time. You can choose to explore any program further. While working with a program you can always stop and return to skimming or to the table of contents.
Each issue of Window has a central theme which is the focus of a feature program, one or more other programs related to the theme, several software reviews, columns, and some smaller programs called "window dressing." The themes of the two issues we have reviewed are data base programs and music programs.
Sample Data Bases
The feature program of the data base issue is called Notebook. It allows up to 20 fields in each record, and it lets you obtain hard copies if you have a printer.
Window also provides a variety of sample data bases for you to explore and extend. Several are examples of data bases students and teachers have created. There is also a data base called clues. This is used in conjunction with another program called Adventurefile, which is a computer mystery. To solve the mystery, you have to use the Notebook program and the clue data base. The sample data bases provide a good starting point for novices learning about data base programs and the varied functions they can serve.
The same issue contains reviews of two software packages, Geography Search and Dueling Digits. Magazines on disk are an ideal vehicle for software reviews. Not only are the programs described and evaluated, but you also get to see actual screen displays and use interactive demonstrations of parts of the programs. These reviews gave us a much better sense of the programs than any written review ever could.
Some Fun Features
The disk also contains two games, one a variation of Monopoly and the other a variation of Simon. The games are appropriately referred to as "window dressing," as they do not add a great deal to the magazine. Finally, there is a VisiCalc column. This provides a template for multiplication tables, but you have to have VisiCalc to use it.
The feature program on the music issue of Window is called Mini-Songwriter. This program overlaps in function with Microzine's Melody Maker, but is different in style. You enter notes by moving a marker on a piano-like keyboard displayed on the screen and specifying the length of each note. You can play your songs, varying the speed as you go. You can easily edit and save songs. Window also provides sample songs and another program that uses the Mini-Songwriter. This is a Mystery Melody program that presents "name that tune" riddles.
There are comprehensive reviews of MECC's Music Theory program, Spinnaker's Snooper Troops, and Earthware's Volcanoes program. In the reviews, you get to try a set of "which note is wrong" problems like those presented by the MECC program; search for clues as you would in the actual Snooper Troops program; and see the type of data you would collect in the Volcanoes simulation program.
The rest of the disk contains an editorial about work with computer music and Logo at MIT; a sample of music created with the Songwriter program (the full version of the Mini-Songwriter, available from Scarborough Software); and a graphic demonstration of sorting algorithms. These are all interesting additions to the main features. There are also columns that provide VisiCalc templates and Logo procedures. These columns can be used only by people who have VisiCalc or MIT Logo.
Comparison of Microzine And Window
Both Microzine and Window are exploring new terrain. So far, Window has been more innovative in its attempt to use the new medium of the computer without support of any printed materials. We had no difficulty using any of their programs with the information available on disk. We enjoyed skimming through the programs and viewing Window's experiments with different formats of displaying information on the computer screen. Window is inventively interactive—you interact with the computer in flexible ways with several programs.
Microzine is more conservative in its approach and depends upon printed materials to provide the instructions necessary for many programs. However, the print materials also provide useful suggestions for extending the computer activities.
In their first few issues, Microzine and Window have each provided simple data base and music programs, so these programs provide a good basis for direct comparisons. The programs in both magazines are suitable for introducing novices to using computers for data bases and for creating music. However, none of the programs can replace full data base or music creating programs.
Overall, the programs in the two magazines are comparable. Window has an edge in the flexibility of its data base program and the ease of editing in the music program. Microzine's music program has more visual display options than Window's.
While we do not find major advantages in either magazine's programs, there are important differences in the overall presentations of how computers can be used for data bases and music. Window provides sample data bases, songs, and games that use the data base and music programs; Microzine does not. These extras provide good demonstrations, help people get started, and show how each program can be used in many ways. So we tend to favor Window's presentations of data base and music programs.
As for the other programs, Microzine's Twist-aplots provide good examples of interactive fiction and contain excellent graphics. There is nothing in Window that is directly comparable. On the other hand, Window contains useful reviews of programs and ongoing columns for VisiCalc and Logo users.
The producers of both magazines can be expected to continue to experiment, explore, and improve. In fact, improvements are already evident within the first few issues. Our reviews and comparison should be read as a report on the status of these magazines as of the first few issues. Exciting prospects lie ahead for both, and we expect to see many more ready-to-run magazines in the near future.
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After this column was written, COMPUTE! Publications announced the availability of COMPUTES GAZETTE DISK, premiering with the May 1984 issue of COMPUTED GAZETTE. For more information, call TOLL FREE 800-334-0868 (in North Carolina 919-275-9809).