Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 1 / FALL 1979 / PAGE 33

Microcomputers In Education

Pierre P. Barrette
Assistant Professor Information Science
Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Media
College of Education
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Illinois 62901

This article includes excerpts from: The Microcomputer and the School Library Media Specialist. Available, spring 1980 from: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., P.O. Box 263, Littleton, Colorado 80160

Copyright © 1979 Pierre P. Barrette All rights reserved.

Exclusive permission granted for
Reproduction and publication only to:
COMPUTE. The Journal for Progressive Computing™

American education is quietly undergoing an electronic revolution and microprocessor-based computers are the reason. In 1950 there were only seven macro (mainframe) computers in the United States. In 1976 there were over 90,000 macro and minicomputers. Of this number over 70,000 were minis. In 1979 over 400,000 macro, mini and microcomputers will have been sold Of this number over 250,000 are microcomputers! But what about 1987? A recently completed two year multimillion dollar study projects that in 1987 over 400 million intelligent electronic modules will be sold in the United States! This number reflects only the consumer market and not the industrial or business/communications sectors. No studies have yet been uncovered that project the number of microcomputers that will be sold to schools. But by 1987 it is safe to estimate that the K-12 school educational consumer market will reflect a conservative five percent of all consumer sales or approximately 2,000,000 units! If you add to this number the number of units sold to schools between 1979 and 1986 the figure goes over 4 million units or an average of 20 microcomputers of one type or another in every school in the United States.

What abouts costs? In 1968 a typical 16K computer cost about $68,000 excluding peripherals. In 1979 a 16K microcomputer system with keyboard, video display and cassette storage can be purchased off the shelf for about $850.00. It was further estimated that by 1987 the average selling price for intelligent electronic modules will be $50.00 using 1978 dollars, and this is only the beginning.

Are schools beginning to use microcomputers? A most definite yes. Actually schools don't use microcomputers, it's the teacher and students who do. Let's examine how educational microcomputer based application programs are developing and where the needs are. In general, application programs that have been and are being developed fall into two broad categories. One category is the direct instructional application designed for individual or small group use by students. The second category is the instructional management programs for use by teachers.

Direct microcomputer based instructional programs can be found in scattered but growing use across all grade levels and in almost all subject areas. These instructional programs can be further classified into five distinct categories. The first category is Drill and Practice. The second is Simulation/Modeling. The third is Games. The fourth is Tutorial. The fifth is a combination of the first four. Thousands of individual authors, both teachers and non-teachers are busily designing and developing direct instructional application programs. It should also be noted that a major textbook publisher has already developed and is marketing a microcomputer based instructional program series. This audio! The need for well designed and validated application programs that fit into the curricula of schools and match identified learning needs is enormous. Let's examine four categories of microcomputer-based instructional application programs a little more closely.

Drill and Practice. Programs of this nature are highly desirable to develop mastery skills associated with specific learning objectives. Essentially, items such as math, spelling, syntax, etc. are displayed for the student to practice a specific skill. The built-in random number generator function of a micro is a great help in mixing items. The student is expected to practice until mastery. Students, however, can quickly become tired or even frustrated with this type of program unless it is carefully designed.

Simulation/Modeling. Programs of this type are generally more complex to write. However, they are also highly desirable and are used by teachers to simulate or model real world events without having students physically encounter the actual forces that shaped the events. Decision making skills are developed. Extensive group discussion occurs. Often data is collected from real world environments and entered into the program. This type of program is often very economical and quite suited to be used with an individual or a group of students.

Games. These programs are fun. Students, as well as adults, spend hours with them. They serve a very important educational motivational purpose for many students. In addition, if the programs are well designed, they assist students in developing process thinking strategies.

Tutorials. These application programs are without doubt the most complicated to write. Their purpose is for students to acquire specific knowledge through well designed liner and branching frame sequences. Usually these programs are designed for individual student use.

It must be reemphasized that the need for well designed microcomputer based instructional application programs is enormous and will grow through the next decade. However, it must also be emphasized even more strongly that programs need to be personally validated and must fit into established and emerging curricula of schools if they are to be accepted. Being able to write in the English language does not automatically qualify a person to be a teacher or an instructional designer. And, so it goes at being able to write programs in BASIC, Pascal, Tutor or PILOT, etc.

Thousands of individual authors from ages five through eighty-plus are busily designing and developing exciting and innovative instructional software programs around PET, APPLE II, ATARI, TRS-80, PROCESSOR SOL, TI 99/4 and other personal microcomputer systems. I can only encourage this activity while concurrently suggesting that efforts be shared with others including teachers, administrators and school board members. Remember to watch your language. By that I mean don't frighten others by impressing them with computer terminology. Save the RAM, ROM's K's DOS's and memory maps, etc, until the appropriate time. Otherwise, more harm than good may arise. Just remember where you were knowledge-wise a scant five years ago!

A second category of microcomputer based application programs falls into the instructional management area. While general ledger and small business application programs have been developed to operate on various microcomputer systems, few of these fit the day to day instructional management needs of teachers. Teachers need file management programs operating on disc based systems. They need programs to maintain student progress records. They need programs to analyze grades and programs to file learning objectives as well as test items. They need diagnostic programs. They need programs to match those media materials readily available in schools to specified learning objectives. They also need microcomputer based word processing text editing programs. These and other time savers will be in great demand in the near future. Other methods for data entry aside from keyboarding will be needed. One microcomputer systems supplier has just offered a new peripheral that uses common mark sense cards to read and load data directly into a microcomputer system. You can expect to begin seeing data entry methods employing voice recognition within five years!

While instructional and management applications of microcomputers in education continue to grow with self-contained application programs, the fetal horizon of a new most significant microcomputer application is just now presenting itself. This horizon deals with using microcomputers as intelligent terminals to access information data bases in the U.S. and throughout the world. Couple a microcomputer with a modem communications device and you have the capability to access huge machine readable data bases. Five years ago there were no more than 100 machine readable data bases. Today more than 1,000 exist and the number is growing weekly. Parents of children in elementary school perhaps need to realize that during the lifespan of their children ninety percent of all knowledge the world has ever known will be discovered! Access to this information via microprocessor based intelligent systems coupled to the expanding number of bibliographic and non-bibliographic data bases world wide may spell the difference in the future educational success of their children. A direct concerted effort by parents in encouraging microcomputer and intelligent terminal expenditures in schools, especially school library media centers, may realistically dictate the future viability of his or he child. The future is now.

Teachers as well as students will be accessing huge machine readable files from their school library media centers and from home. Already, in one state, for a nominal hook-up fee and a $2.75 per hour connect charge, an end user is provided a toll free number to a massive machine readable data bank. And this is only the beginning.

Suggestions to authors of microcomputer based instructional materials:

First of all, document, document and when you are tired of documenting, document some more. By this I mean not only be sure that you have entered liberal REMs, or other equivalent statements, within your application program but MORE IMPORTANT the following. As you test out (validate) versions of your program with your child or children it is even MORE IMPORTANT for you to keep a very careful log of how you gave and paid attention to the child. For example, how much time did you actually spend asking questions like... What did you think or like about it??? In what ways did you positively reinforce the child for working at and perhaps achieving at a program that you may have designed? Were you persistent at encouragement? Test yourself with this question. How often and how much time have you spent talking about how your child is doing in a specific application program with your spouse, friends, or business associates? Do extra smiles, praise, or extra conversations develop at dinner? How about extra hugs! Only you can answer but if so it may give you this most important clue. Success in your application program may well not be a function of your adept programming skills, but the fact that you attended (paid attention) to what the child was doing. An enormous body of knowledge in the field of applied behavior analysis stands ready to back this most important point.

Pierre Barrette

A Call for Resources. My forthcoming book gives clear guidelines to school library media specialists and teachers on how to select and evaluate microcomputer based instructional materials. Authors hoping to market programs may want to closely examine these selection evaluation criteria guidelines.

A question often asked relates to the use of high level computer languages and the microcomputer. This certainly is a basic question. No pun intended! Many readers already know that BASIC is the most common high level language currently in use with microcomputers regardless of dialect. Most readers may also know that the BASIC language is not machine independent and consequently application programs are machine and often model specific. While a comparative discussion related to the educational implications of using BASIC, Pascal, TUTOR, PILOT, COBOL, APL, FORTRAN, LISP and other high level languages would certainly bring out the advocates and create a host of new friends, it would almost as certainly polarize others. The book attempts to do neither. It does provide sample programs comparing both BASIC and Pascal.

It should be noted that a crosscompiler is in its final stages of design and will be able to download TUTOR developed programs into machine level to run on one of the microcomputers already available. This and other developments will be discussed.

Sharing and exchanging ideas about resources is nothing new. People have networked their ideas formally and informally for years. Therefore, micronetworking in principle is not new but how to do it is quite another matter. Micronetworks are developing across the United States and overlap both public and private sectors including education. The book discusses how to establish a micronetwork if you're not already in one. It provides a bibliography of hundreds of micronetworks, many of whom exchange application programs at no charge.

Peripheral hardware is also a subject of interest. What's a daisy wheel, 5×7, 7×7, 7×9 and 1×9 dot matrix printer? What's a thermal impact or inkjet printer? These and other introductory questions about printers will be included in non-technical language. Also to be included is how data is stored on cassette, disc, bubble memories and videodiscs. The latest developments on interfacing microcomputers with videodisc playback machines will be discussed. In plain English the concepts of graphic resolution are presented together with differences between CRT and plasma display devices.

The preceding is only a thumbnail sketch of the contents of this new book. Other important professional educational issues are also raised such as the effect of state standards on purchasing microcomputers, data privacy, copyright and more. Throughout the book the enormously complex role of the school library media specialist is considered together with the impact of new communications and microprocessor technology. Extensive bibliographies are included. A separate bibliography of vendors and their services is included based upon a nationwide survey this past summer.

This author will be including a bibliography of instructional as well as management application reference sources in the book. If you have authored any programs and have actually used them with children or adults, write and let me know. Describe what it is you have done, who the programs have been used with and what microcomputer system you used. If you'd like your name included to share your programs or market them, let me know. Send a black and white glossy of your child or children using a microcomputer. I may be able to use the picture if you give me permission.

In the meantime, enjoy your microcomputer system. Learn as much as you can about it and share your enthusiasm with others. Comments relative to this article are most welcomed by the author. Write me.