Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 40 / SEPTEMBER 1983 / PAGE 150


Beyond Computer Literacy

Fred D'Ignazio Associate Editor

A recent national "computers in the schools" survey conducted by the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University found that most secondary schools are using computers to teach programming. (For a copy of the survey, write to Dr. Henry Becker, Center for the Social Organization of Schools, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218.) According to the survey, the second most popular use of computers was for drill and practice, primarily for math and language arts. In addition, the majority of the teachers who responded to the survey said that they looked at the computer as a "resource" rather than as a "tool."
    I think this concentration on programming, drill, and practice and the image of computers as a "resource" is temporary. I believe that it is time for teachers and parents to start thinking beyond computer programming, beyond drill and practice, and beyond computer literacy.

The Computer Steam Engine
Two factors have caused teachers and parents to concentrate on the computer as a resource and to stress computer literacy. First, most computer courseware turns the computer into an "electronic textbook." This kind of courseware is the most popular with teachers because it is the most familiar and the least threatening. The courseware (like a good textbook) introduces a new subject to a student, then drills the student on that subject.
    Second, personal computers are still very primitive machines (compared to what they soon will be). They are a young, immature technology. Compared to what they'll be, the personal computers of today are like chugging steam engines, crude wooden plows, or fussy, cranky Model T's.
    Despite manufacturers' claims, you cannot buy a personal computer and turn it on the way you would turn on a TV, then immediately begin to use it. Some computer literacy is still essential, or you quickly become lost in a nightmarish maze pursued by horrible creatures like bytes, RAMs, ROMs, K's, RS-232s, modems, interfaces, bauds, "Escapes," "Breaks," and "Resets."

The Age Of Computer Literacy
Another recent survey (conducted by the University of Maryland) echoes the Johns Hopkins survey. It found that most schools introduce computers into the curriculum to help students become literate in computer technology.
    But what does this literacy entail?
    Is "computer literacy" programming? Is it the fundamentals of computer operation? Is it a quick course on using a computer keyboard? Is it drill and practice or the daily use of the computer as an electronic textbook?
    Because of the pervasive spread of computers throughout our society, we have all become convinced that computers are important. From what we read and hear, when our kids grow up almost everyone will have to use computers in some aspect of their lives. This makes computers, as a subject, not only important, but also relevant.
    An important, relevant subject like computers should be part of a school's curriculum. The question is how "Computers" ought to be taught.
    Schools could teach about computers the way they teach about dozens of other important, relevant subjects (like math, social studies, geography, and language arts) - with books. However, since desktop computers are now relatively cheap, schools are buying computers so the students can get a look at the machines themselves. Special computer classes are being set up so that students can play with computers, tinker with them, and learn some basic programming. Thus, on a practical level, computer literacy turns out to be mere computer exposure.
    But exposure to what? Kids who are now enrolled in elementary and secondary schools are exposed to four aspects of computers. They learn that computers are programmable machines. They learn that computers are being used in all areas of society. They learn that computers make good electronic textbooks. And (something they already knew), they learn that computers are terrific game machines.

The Results
This exposure is worthwhile. It alone justifies a school's purchase of computers for its students. According to the surveys, real educational results have been realized at schools which concentrate on exposing kids to computers. First, students develop a familiarity with computer keyboards, computer operation, and computer concepts.
    Second, students in these schools develop a realistic, positive image about computers. Past generations saw computers as electronic brains - abstract, all-powerful, and mysterious. Now kids get to see computers as they really are. Kids get to touch computers, play with them, push their buttons, order them about, and cope with computers' incredible dumbness, their awful pickiness, their exasperating bugs, and their ridiculous quirks.
    Third, the surveys show that computers have played a big part in improving kids' (and teachers') attitudes toward school. Kids who use computers during their school day come early and stay late - just to have time on the computers. The whole school day goes better for everyone because it has a rosy glow caused by the computers. There are countless stories of learning disabled kids, handicapped kids, and near dropouts who got turned on to computers and became model students. Kids with problems warm up to computers and, on their own, use them to improve their academic performance. Bright kids turn to computers as intellectual companions and resources and learn in a more personal, accelerated fashion.
    Computers touch a kid's life. And the effect is cumulative. When enough young people are affected by computers, it changes the atmosphere of the entire school. The impact of computers on a school can be psychological. Computers can improve school spirit.
    Last, computers make the students less fiercely competitive. Instead, they begin helping each other. Striving for academic excellence is a good thing. But in certain contexts, it can put kids under a great deal of pressure to succeed - with almost no help or support from their friends.
    Here, too, the effect of computers on the "social organization of learning" has been significant. Computer classes have an atmosphere which is different from that found in many other classes. In computer class, teachers don't just teach, and students don't just give answers, write down notes, and take tests. In computer class, everybody learns, everybody shares, and everybody learns to be helpful. Teachers tell stories about how big, smart-aleck teenagers in their classes have put their arms around their shoulders, and with great patience and sincerity have explained how to boot a disk, load a program from tape, or master a new piece of software. Roles become reversed, fluid, and fuzzy. But often everyone benefits. And learning occurs at a rapid pace.

Computers Of The Future
Computers in schools have already had a substantial, positive effect.
    But I'm still worried.
    I think that schools are unintentionally locking their students into the present - the fleeting, short-lived Age of Computer Literacy. This is an age from which computers will emerge very soon. Computer literacy will become irrelevant and unimportant long before most students enter the job market.
    Also, in many schools, computers are being taught in separate "computer courses." This divorces them from the rest of the school, from the rest of the curriculum, and most importantly, from the other teachers:
    Computers in our economy and in our society don't exist as islands of technology. Instead, they have become part of the fabric of everything we do. They are intimately involved with the way we live, move about, play, and do business. Just telling the students that this is so and teaching them BASIC or Logo is not adequate. We need to give them working experience with computers as they are used in the real world.
    What's more, schools are using their newly acquired computers as an object of curiosity; as a hands-on device to learn the arcane arts of programming and computer operation; and as a teaching aid to learn math and language arts. But in the very near future, computers will be as common as TV sets, computer operation will be simple, and relatively few people will be employed as programmers. In the near future, the most popular, important, and powerful use of computers will be as a general-purpose tool.

The Computer-Literacy Deep Freeze
Computers are at a crude, nasty, awkward stage in their development. But they are evolving at an incredible pace. Hardware advances occur almost daily. And software, long the bumbling, dimwitted half brother of computer hardware, has at last entered into its own revolution. In 1976 there was almost no software, yet last year 200 companies sold more than a billion dollars of software. By 1990, experts predict that people will be buying $12 billion in software, about as much as they now spend on home appliances. We will soon see more software than ever before, and if we weed through all the junk, we will find much software that is good and quickly getting better.
    The twin revolutions in computer hardware and (especially) in computer software will insure that computers of today will be transient, short lived creatures. Trendy, high-income schools that buy up dozens of these computers and inaugurate intensive courses in the art and science of their programming and operation are handicapping their students. They are guaranteeing that these young people will be victims of technology.
    In ten years, how important will it be for a student to know how to program in BASIC, or know machine language, or know how many K bytes are available in RAM storage? Or how to format a floppy? Or how to position a tape cassette to a particular program?

BASIC Will Be A Dead Language
In five years computers will be completely different. In ten years they will be black boxes. They will still be programmable, but nobody except the experts will do the programming. The final customfitting of all commercial programs will be done by the user, but in English, not in BASIC, Logo, or Pascal. These will be archaic languages, like Greek or Latin, important historically, but of little relevance to students who are entering the job market of the early 1990s.
    High schools, vocational-technical schools, and colleges are turning out huge numbers of computer scientists and technicians. But, surprisingly, computer jobs are beginning to dry up, especially at the entry level. High-paying computer jobs are still there, but they are reserved for those who have several years of experience or who have combined skills in computers and in some other field such as business, medicine, law, chemistry, or engineering.
    Computer classes in schools today are busy turning out the computer "mechanics" and "repair persons" of the future. Persons trained in these areas will find that there are very few jobs awaiting them, and the competition will be incredible. With the huge supply of bodies and the slackening demand, salaries will plummet and so will prestige. By the time young people enter the market as computer specialists, most of the romantic aura about computers will have rubbed off. The glamour will have faded.
    It all boils down to how we see computers. Do we see them as finicky appliances that have to be twiddled, scrutinized, and understood? Do we see them as "exer-cycles" and mental jogging machines that stimulate our problem-solving abilities and encourage algorithmic (that is, step-bystep, logical, goal-oriented) thinking? Or are they mechanical chameleons and quick-change artists?
    In the near future I think most of us will see computers as Super Tools - like the handy-dandy Swiss pocketknives you can buy that have all those scissors, bottle openers, screwdrivers and twelve different blades stuffed inside. They will do everything. And we won't care how. We'll just pull out a new tool and run it!
    For example, we will pop in a cartridge and our computer will become an electronic typewriter, dictionary, or secretary. We'll pop in another cartridge, and the computer will become our personal accountant, tax advisor, or a gourmet chef.
    Computers of the near future will be like vaudeville performers who can change their costumes in a flash. One minute they will be patient math tutors for our children. The next moment, they will be our electronic windows to the outside world. We will use them to bring us the latest stock prices, make a plane reservation, or mass mail our Christmas cards.
    Or a moment later the computer will become an interactive (videodisc and graphics) TV. We will get to track down a roller-coaster bomber, solve the mystery of a collapsing bridge, or go on a big game hunt in darkest Africa.
    We will not care how the computer changes its clothes. We will not be interested in a tour behind the stage, or what the performer's clothes look like from the inside out. Instead, we will want (maybe demand) to learn, to be informed, to be entertained, and to get on with our work. The computer will slip into its rightful position. It will become a marvelous tool that is almost ignored. It will be an almost invisible means to accomplish the essential things in life: survival, work, education, and fun.

Computers As Islands
The approach in many schools is to teach about computers in a special "computer science" or "computer lab" or "computer literacy" course. This reminds me of the touch typing course and the metalworking and other "shop" courses I took when I was in high school.
    In all these "technical skill" courses, kids are introduced to machines and instructed in how to develop a certain level of proficiency and familiarity with these machines. But they aren't told why.
    At some level, students who take these courses must be asking themselves: Why is a computer important? What good does it do me to know how to program a computer, or load a program, or learn about FOR-NEXT loops?
    The computer is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. It is a resource or a tool that can be used to do something else. Computer skills are meaningless to a child unless the child can use them to do something that he or she wants or needs to do. To make computers meaningful, they must be integrated, on a daily basis, into the rest of the curriculum and into a child's life. The child must need or want to do something important that can only be done on a computer.

Computers As Moon Rocks
In many schools, desktop computers are introduced as oddities and curiosities, like moon rocks.
    This is a marvelous approach. It encourages children to see computers as wondrous devices (which they are) and to approach computers with curiosity and fascination.
    Since computers are objects of wonder and curiosity, many schools have put them in a special room - a computer museum. Everyone can come in and gawk at them, reverently press their buttons, and say ooh and aah.
    But after having a computer about six months, a school usually moves beyond this approach. The awe and magic about computers quickly wears off - especially for the kids. Teachers begin teaching kids how to program - how to master computers, boss them around, and tame them.

The Latest Audiovisual Device
Today, many schools are leapfrogging right over these first two steps. When schools acquire a computer today, they don't automatically send it off to a tiny lab or unused classroom. Instead, they regard the computer as a new kind of audiovisual device -a godsend for the frazzled, overworked but forward-thinking teacher of the 1980s.
    This approach is being given a big boost by the educational courseware flooding into the market. Dozens of companies are producing hundreds of software packages. A year ago, there was an acute shortage of reputable software. Now, already, there is a glut. There are hundreds of programs out that introduce kids to the alphabet. Dozens more teach them how to add two numbers or spell simple words.
    I walked down the exhibitors' (read vendors') aisle at a recent educational computing conference, and I was overwhelmed by the number of glossy, smart-looking packages I saw. It was a kaleidoscopic, mind-numbing experience.
    Given this vast amount of courseware, it won't be long before computers move out of their "computer museums" and isolated labs and into the curricular mainstream. Thousands of math and language arts teachers already use computers as audiovisual aids. Soon history, science, music, and art teachers will use them too.

The Computer As A General-Purpose Tool
The computer will soon become a valuable resource for teachers, no matter what subject they teach. But the computer can be more than a special-purpose resource to help a teacher teach a particular subject. It is also a tool - a magnificent, general-purpose tool that a child can apply to any subject.
    If children learn only how to program, decipher bits from bytes, and learn geography on a computer, they are going to be poorly equipped to use computers - in the future, in a job, in the outside world.
    To be prepared for the future, youngsters must learn how to use computers as tools. That's the way most computers in our society are used. And that's the way they will be used in the future.

Discovering A Tool
The problem has been that most classroom computers are regarded more as toys than as tools. They don't have the speed, memory capacity, or software to make them serious devices. They are also isolated, one from the next, instead of tied into information and programming resources (by phone or direct-wired access to a central, highspeed computer).
    But all this is changing.
    One of the most popular and well-attended sessions at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), held this past June in Baltimore, was on using computers in studying literature and English composition. Teachers presented papers on how they taught word processing in the classroom, how they used a computer in writing class, and how they and their students used a computer to study and analyze literature.
    Kids in the first two classes used the computer as a tool - as a word processor. 'They found it was easier to write stories, develop ideas, and explore new subjects by using a computer.
    Kids in the third class learned programming skills for a purpose: they turned the computer into a tool to help them analyze a book, article, or short story. They used the computer to complete a class assignment.
    Right now, word processing is a very popular computer application in schools. But it is just the tip of the "computer tool" iceberg. Computers can become powerful word-handling tools for kids. But they can also become all sorts of other kid tools.
    With software already available or under development, computers can become kids' powerful database managers, priority sorters, homework organizers, and calendar schedulers. They can simulate chemistry labs, physics labs, and math labs. They can be used to map out a complicated dance routine for a musical, compose a song, or take the student on a journey inside a volcano, to the center of an atom, or to the outer reaches of the solar system.
    New software packages are also needed that are patterned after the "second generation" software now running on expensive IBM, Apple, and Xerox business computers. These kid workstations should be general-purpose tools that help a student process words, perform complicated calculations, create graphs, functions and diagrams, and organize, classify, and summarize huge amounts of data. They should enable students to link their computers and thereby communicate with each other. They should encourage teachers to assign more team projects for students in which students and their computers work together to solve problems, do homework, or complete class assignments.
    The more students get to use a computer as a tool to enable them to do something necessary or desirable, the more meaningful and useful computers will become. Also, this is precisely the type of training that young people will need to prepare them for their future careers. Very few students will find jobs as computer specialists. But a vast majority of today's students will need to use computers as tools in their jobs. They will use computers to help them solve problems, make decisions, analyze information, have fun, create and disseminate new knowledge, and communicate with their fellow human beings.