Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 1 / FALL 1979 / PAGE 42

Teachers, Computers And The Classroom

By C.J. Carr and Everett Q. Carr

The self-contained general purpose microcomputers are standing at the classroom door. Whether the computer will become a part of every classroom's equipment may be determined within the next couple of years. The principle judges will be the army of classroom teachers, and they are tough judges.

So far the personal microcomputers have been in the hands of enthusiasts willing to invest many hundreds of hours of their lives testing the computer reliability, improvising curriculum, writing programs for students and teachers, searching literature for program materials, comparing texts, testing tapes and cassettes; engaged in all the tasks that distinguish a leader in any field. To these people, the David Ahls, the Larry Tesslers, Lud Brauns and Peninsula School Projects, the rest of the schools already owe much.

Our work with computers began in 1977 with the construction of an IMSAI 8080 from a kit that included 16K of memory and a North Star minifloppy diskette. This computer, destined for computer control in a planetarium, was an excellent learning tool for learning machine language and BAISC programming, in addition to the base provided in computer jargon. The IMSAI however, is not the kind of machine you would want to live with in the classroom. Its weight, size and dangling ribbon cables make it unwieldy and vulnerable.

The announcement of the PET was an occasion of great interest. Commodore promised a self-contained, instant-on, built-in video, cassette permanent storage memory, 8 Kilobyte RAM Memory and an 8K Microsoft BASIC in ROM in Production quantities at a startlingly low price.

By the spring of 1978, with delivery time down to 3 months, and after we had spent nearly 10 hours on a PET at a cooperative Computer Shop 50 miles away, we ordered our own personal PET and recommended the machine for a trial program in our schools. Our PET arrived in July 1978 and it seemed that we sat down to learn about programming it on July 4th, and didn't get up till August. By September, we were able to fill the 8K RAM of the PET with interactive programs in weather forecasting, a simulation of the first flight to Mars for our Gifted/Talented Child programs and an electronic flip-chart for presentations about computers for schools.

Our planetarium's Gifted/Talented Child program for 4th, 5th and 6th graders was our first opportunity to teach programming from our own material called "BASIC in 8 Wonderful Hours." By this time we had literally spent a year of our lives mastering computer fundamentals and were ready for the kids and teachers. In addition, a proposal written in December 1977 was approved for a small grant that allowed purchasing two school PETs to lend to schools during the 1978-79 school year. An informal survey had shown that over 60% of the area's high school math teachers had already taken a course in computer programming as an elective. Most had some knowledge of FORTRAN. It was with this group we started early in 1978 with a mini-microcomputer show from an area computer shop.

Each teacher who was to receive a computer for classroom use was required to spend two full school days with the PET computer, receiving individual one-on-one tutoring. They were supplied with an 8 hour BASIC programming course, CAI tapes in BASIC programming and 20 blank C10 cassettes. Nine of thirteen area schools joined this lending program and supplemented the grant to cover software costs. Each school had the PET for a month's trial. In all, this lending program was an amazing success. We tutored 18 teachers who in turn supplied a measure of computer literacy to about 600 high school seniors during 20 school days at each school. Our 20 Gifted/Talented children at 4th, 5th and 6th grades had a short course of about 12 hours sharing 4 computers and using CAI tapes. They flew to Mars, explored its surface and returned to Earth with Martian soil samples in a planetarium/computer simulation.

The enthusiastic response of teachers, students and administrators, and the timely offer of Commodore in offering 3 PETs for the price of 2, permits our area to start the 1979-80 school year with 53 PET computers and 10 of 13 schools participating.

Another small grant, written in December 1978 and approved for July 1979, allowed us to offer an intensive 40 hour two-week course for Gifted/Talented 7th, 8th and 9th graders. In this intensive course, 20 students each had access to one of 20 computers for the entire period. There were always 4 tutors on the computer floor for the most intensive type of individual tutoring. This "Computer Survival Course for Kids" was considered completely successful. Not a single child missed a single minute of the 40 hours. 17 of 20 kids took a computer home for a week.

There are several key problems to solve in achieving our local goal that every school section and building will have a classroom full of computers by 1985.

The problems are:

  1. Teacher preparation/acceptance
  2. Curricula development/matching software
  3. The rate of technological development
  4. Funding

While I can justify a limited number of hours of computer games, only a fully prepared teacher with the correct software is equipped to prevent abuse of the computer's potential. And only if teachers are prepared and confident will they accept a computer in the classroom as anything other than an interesting short-term diversion.

The key element is an acceptable computer curriculum. There are first commercial attempts at this with math programs for Kindergarten to 8th grade on 6 type C10 cassettes. While I am sure many of these sets will be purchased, there is a chance that the backlash of the reaction to poor material could have long-term adverse effects. High quality CAI material and drill materials are required. Suppliers should be aware that a high quality program which costs $300 is far more acceptable than $30 programs that are inadequate in performance.

The rate of technological progress is an unknown factor. Consider, for example, the effects on schools comparing a choice of features like:

  1. Color high resolution, color graphics and built-in disc memories
  2. High resolution graphs, illustrations and animation
  3. Talking computers, equipped with variations of a 5 cm diameter video disc containing a basic and special English vocabulary, which can be called with a computer routine which responds in less than 10 milliseconds
  4. The declining cost of land communications by fiber optics or satellite/home video antenna receivers that allow home communication with a central US data bank through your own computer
  5. The improved all-digital disc which will be cheaper and more reliable than any other storage media and yet allow easy access for a personal computer.

Funding computer equipment costs present fewer problems than one may imagine. There always seems to be a fund to cover hardware. The cost of updating teachers is another matter. Few universities or colleges are in a position to obtain microcomputers quickly, nor do they have instructors with the background to do the teacher teaching. There are interesting times ahead.