Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 8 / AUGUST 1983 / PAGE 78

Learning to program by computer. (Apple II) (evaluation) Brian J. Murphy.

Learning To Program By Computer

Sitting before you is a newcomer in your life, a microcomputer.

You have read about the "computer revolution,' learned about the educational advantages your children will enjoy with a home computer, and seen the great home budget applications, the games and so forth. Perhaps you have also considered taking a stab at programming.

For whatever reason, you made the big decision and now own a microcomputer. What you need now is the knowledge to use it.

Some people, when exposed to computers for the first time, tell themselves that it is too complex a subject, that they can never master an advanced technological tool like a computer. This is akin to telling yourself that you will never understand algebra--a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, an excellent way to precondition yourself to failure. The most important thing for you, the potential computer user, to understand is that if you are bright enough to drive a car and hold a job, you can operate and even program a personal computer.

Some people find that they "choke up' in the presence of a computer, as if they were in the presence of a mysterious, superior intelligence. This computer phobia strikes at home and in the office, making it difficult to acquire the knowledge you need to do your job or to learn more about your exciting and somewhat puzzling new possession.

Personal computers are designed to be easy to use at home and in the office. Yet it is important to find the best way to acquire the knowledge you need.

Instructional Materials

Focusing on the instructional materials available to Apple II owners (there seems to be more teaching material for Apple IIs than for any other system), we have learned that first-time computer users have more options than learning strictly from manufacturers' manuals or other print materials. There are options that mix print and electronic media, including videotapes, and audio cassette tapes, and computer media, including videotapes, audio cassette tapes, and computer media, including programs loaded from cassettes and disks.

First, let's look at the "by-the-book' method of learning. If you own an Apple II, you probably have an excellent set of Apple manuals which take the uninitiated from the first steps of physically setting up and powering up the Apple II system through the opening steps of programming. The best of the Apple manuals, the Applesoft Tutorial, accomplishes this with a common sense, hands-on, learning-by-doing approach leavened with occasional witty observations. If you are willing to follow the tutorial step by step, chances are you will learn how to program. The tutorial is friendly and supportive to the new computer user.

If you are uncomfortable with the Apple II documentation, many other very good manuals that will teach you how to approach your Apple for the first time and how to program it are available in bookstores.

If you need a simple introduction to the Apple II, The Elementary Apple (Datamost, $14.95, 1982) seems to fill the bill. The book approaches the subject in a manner that presupposes no previous computer knowledge. It takes you by the hand through the setup procedures, and shows you how to run prepackaged software and the first steps of programming. It is perfect for people with computer phobia.

Some manuals mix an introduction to the Apple with a more comprehensive tutorial on elementary programming. One of the better manuals is the Apple II User's Guide by Lon Poole, Martin McNiff and Steven Cook (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $15, 1981). Like the Apple documentation, it nurses you through set up and provides the basic pointers to help you use your system. It examines the techniques of programming in detail, giving you a good beginner's knowledge of Basic as found on the Apple II. The book also provides an introduction to machine language.

If these books don't suit you, don't worry; a myriad of competitors crowds the computer shelf of any good bookstore. Some titles that caught my eye are:


To determine which book will work best for you, spend some time thinking about how you go about learning. Leaf carefully through several manuals (not only the ones we have mentioned) before you pick one, Determine which seems easiest to read and to understand and best suited to your style of learning.

Teaching Packages

Let's sample approaches to understanding and programming the Apple II using various media, which supplement --and even replace--the manual. We will look at a selection of teaching packages using a variety of media. They represent a sample of what is available to Apple II owners and owners of other systems.

Assuming for a moment that you have been able to follow your Apple manuals well enough to assemble your system and that you have a disk drive, you may find Know Your Apple by Muse Software a valuable reference. Rather than a manual, this is a disk containing a program that mixes text and graphics to explain the most basic workings of your Apple II.

After you insert the disk in the drive and turn the system on, the program displays a title page on the video screen, then a picture of an Apple system and a series of five lesson titles (this is called a "program menu'). The lessons detail information on your monitor, disk drive and keyboard and examine the back of the Apple and the insides of the system. By hitting the space bar you can select the lesson you want to see; pressing the RETURN key begins the lesson.

The lessons themselves are very comprehensive, considering the minimum of text used. The monitor lesson explains the difference between using a computer CRT and a regular home TV for your video display and the differences between the text, low-resolution and high-resolution screens. Expert use of graphics gives you a dramatic A-B comparison between the two graphics screens.

The disk drive section explains how floppy disks work and how to care for them to prevent the loss of data. The lessons explain how information is organized on the disk, how it can be loaded from the disk into the computer memory and how programs in memory can be saved on a disk.

The Back of the Apple section is a short lesson covering the power on/off switch, the video and cassette jacks and the slots in the cabinet, which accommodate cords for peripheral devices such as disk drives and printers.

The Inside the Apple section is the most fascinating lesson, covering the location of the 6502 CPU, differences between ROM and RAM chips, and their location in the computer. The lesson also discusses uses of peripheral slots, where game paddles, cassette cords and cables for video monitors are placed, the location of the power supply, and the location and use of the speaker.

The final lesson covers the Apple keyboard, explaining the difference between numeral 0 and letter O, what characters must be keyed in using the SHIFT key, the function of the CONTROL and ESCAPE keys, how the arrow and REPEAT keys are used, and the functions of the RESET and RETURN keys.

Know Your Apple makes a good introduction to the system. It gives you all the information you need to know to use your Apple without "getting technical.' The graphics are very good, greatly enhancing the lessons.

VHS or Beta Format

If you have a videocassette recorder, a better introduction to the Apple is How to Use Your Apple II In Ten Easy Video Lessons, published by Stoneware Incorporated and Kennen Publishing. The producers of this tape (VHS or Beta format) have managed to cram a comprehensive tutorial in a program only an hour and forty-three minutes long. This outstanding video program is almost as good as a classroom tutorial--with the added benefit that it is endlessly repeatable for those who don't absorb all the information it has to offer in one viewing.

The tape covers all the material mentioned on the Muse disk, but it does so more vividly thanks to television, which illustrates the material in moving color images.

In addition to the basics, the tape shows you, in step-by-step fashion, how to set up your system and to ensure that all is well before you power up for the first time.

The tape also illustrates the various peripheral devices available for the Apple, including game paddles, printers, disk drives, phone modems and graphic tablets, among others. In addition, the tape illustrates the workings of the disk system, explaining what DOS is and how it helps the computer retrieve program data from a disk and how it saves program data to disk. In very graphic form it then demonstrates the procedure for booting a disk, examining the disk catalog and loading a program from the disk into the computer memory.

After a discussion of applications software (pre-programmed software packages like VisiCalc and Apple Writer), the taped program offers an elementary introduction to programming. The section covers some of the basic operating and programming commands including NEW, HOME, LIST, PRINT, GOTO, INPUT and END. It covers the difference between immediate and deferred execution of commands, native arithmetic functions of the Apple, linking print statements on the same line, automatic numerical ordering of program lines, loops, and creating variables in conjunction with input statements.

The best part of this package is that the videotape visually guides you through hands-on experience operating the Apple II and programming. Moreover, the novice is not rushed through the lessons. As you are prompted to perform various tasks on the Apple II, a pause is signaled at appropriate moments, using a special screen symbol and a series of beeps. At that signal, you hit the pause switch on the VCR and then complete the example as shown on the screen.

When a pause is signaled, the TV screen shows the program line being used in the exercise, allowing you to key it into the computer exactly as shown on screen. After each exercise, the video program carefully explains the point of the exercise and the functions of the various program commands.

The Stoneware video instruction package is a very powerful tool for learning. The approach to the subject is orderly, concise and friendly. This program is ideal for the average first-time computer user and a real blessing for anyone suffering from computer phobia. The video program demystifies the Apple II and systematically builds your confidence. The package lists for $120 and is available in VHS and Beta formats. (Instructional video cassettes for the Apple III and the IBM PC also are available from Stoneware.)

An alternative videotape for the beginning computer user is Computer Fundamentals and Beginning Programming, produced by Avion Video Computers. The tape reviews most of the elementary operational functions covered in the Stoneware production and covers some of the simpler programming topics, including screen output and use of numeric and text variables. It seems to be a nice way to get your feet wet as a programmer, though the coverage is not comprehensive. The tape is available in VHS and Beta formats for $69.95.

Assuming that you have mastered the basics of operating your Apple II, you should be ready and eager to tackle a comprehensive beginner's programming tutorial so that you can start writing your own software programs. If you are still reluctant to work strictly from a manual and feel more comfortable having things explained to you, then a workable alternative would be an audio cassette.

Audio Cassette

The New Step by Step, by Program Design Inc., mixes audio cassette instruction with disk-loaded tutorial material. The package, a tutorial for beginning programmers in Applesoft Basic, consists of four cassettes containing ten audio lessons, two disks with software to back up the audio lessons and a workbook.

To use the package, you run the disk program and play the audio tape simultaneously. The audio tape prompts you when and how to advance the computer program to the next block of material. Each of the ten audio lessons is extensively illustrated on the video screen.

The materials cover a wide and representative selection of basic programming skills. The course begins with some basic concepts, including the uses of the PRINT command with numbers and text, how the Apple does arithmetic, how and why program lines are numbered, deletion of program lines, and error correction.

The package explains the creation and handling of variables, program loops, program counters and the library functions of Applesoft such as ABS (convert to absolute value), INT (convert to a whole number) and so forth. Next, the student learns how to access subroutines and return to the main program, to create and read data lines, to create FOR-NEXT loops, and to create and handle arrays of variables.

The concluding lessons give the student basic instruction on using the low-resolution graphic screen of the Apple. The last lesson offers a rare moment indeed, an explanation of scientific notation in a way anyone can understand.

Little quizzes designed to review and reinforce the concepts covered frequently interrupt the program. When it is time to answer review questions, you have the opportunity to stop the audio tape and take your time considering an answer. At the end of most of the lessons there is a larger quiz reviewing the material. At the end of the last lesson, you are given two very thorough tests, which will help you gauge your overall progress.

Hands-on experience is indispensable in learning programming. Step by Step incorporates many opportunities for first-hand experience. At the end of each half lesson, you are referred back to the workbook, where the lesson material is briefly summarized and supported with a few exercises that you can work out on the computer. At the end of each lesson, the computer software frees the memory of the Apple so that you can complete the exercises.

This learning package represents a skillful blending of two very different media. None of the three principal elements of the package, the audio cassette, disk, or workbook, can stand alone, but together they make a surprisingly powerful tool for learning. The only real weakness in the package is that it is hard to find the starting points of specific lessons on the cassettes. The tapes are not labeled or indexed to show the location of the lessons (but you can make your own index by checking the numbers on the tape deck counter at the start of each lesson). Aside from this slight drawback, Step by Step comes highly recommended for beginning home users and for school use as well. The package, priced at $89.95, is compatible with the Apple IIe. Similar packages are available for Pet and Commodore 64 systems.

Self-Teaching Software

Now let's look at a tutorial which relies primarily on computer media--How to Program In Applesoft Basic by Hayden Software. This is true self-teaching software which runs on a 32K Apple II with Applesoft or Apple IIe. Two disks contain most of the text of twelve progressive lessons. When you boot the disk, a main program menu is displayed on your monitor. Options include a brief tutorial on use of the disk, six of the twelve lessons, and a quit option. Choosing a lesson brings up a table of contents that shows how the lesson is organized.

When you begin the lesson, you soon find that you may go at any speed with which you are comfortable. The text of the lessons is displayed only a few lines at a time. You may take as long as you like to absorb the material before you hit the space bar to signal that you are ready for the next block of text. If you wish to review material, you hit the ESC key and the Let's Talk option menu appears. You can quit the lesson, review the section, go to another section of the same lesson or see the lesson table of contents again.

Questions appear at various intervals during the lessons, enhancing the learning. The questions are multiple choice; if you pick a wrong answer, additional text material reviews the concepts, guiding you to a better understanding of the material. This is a feature that a book cannot easily duplicate.

A manual that accompanies the software is divided into chapters corresponding to the lessons. Each chapter very briefly outlines the material in the appropriate lesson and ends with a series of exercises that you can perform on the computer. The disks include a memory erase option which clears computer memory for the exercises. You also have the option of using a scratch disk to save your exercise programs.

More Comprehensive Than Audiotape

Evaluating the package, I found that it is more comprehensive than the audiotape. The Hayden disks cover all the material in the cassette tape package and have additional or expanded material on several subjects the tapes lacked. This includes material on functions and logical operators, functions available in handling string variables, using low-resolution graphics to create animation and to make graphs. The Hayden package also tackles high-resolution graphics, a subject not covered on the audio tapes.

(In fairness, it should be pointed out that several crucial concepts are explained more clearly on the audio tapes than by the Hayden program. These topics include the creation and use of variables, how the Applesoft library functions work and how the Apple handles math. The tapes ignore hi-res graphics, but they explain scientific notation, which Hayden omits.)

One of the most valuable sections of the Hayden program is the last lesson, in which a nicely representative sample of all the programming skills hitherto developed are used in a practical calendar program which displays any month from January, 1900 to December, 1999. The lesson shows how the functions of the program are logically organized and describes in detail the construction of the routines.

How to Program in Applesoft, including the disks and the workbook, costs $49.95.

Approaching the subject matter in a way similar to the Hayden package, the Apple II Microcomputer Workbook and teaching disks are offered by Sterling Swift Publishing. The format is a series of lessons loaded from disk, and supported by a workbook with supplemental exercises.

The principal difference in approach is that the lessons loaded from disk require more hands-on involvement of the learner. Instead of answering multiple choice questions, you must develop your own answers. For example, when asked to write a program line to display the word HELLO on screen, you must write PRINT "HELLO' to register as correct. The value of these questions becomes more apparent when you delve into more advanced concepts such as arrays, string variables, FOR-NEXT loops and library functions.

The subject matter is strictly beginner's level. High-resolution graphics are not covered, and low-resolution graphics are not examined in depth. Space on the disk, which could have been better used to explain some of the subject matter in greater depth, is used instead to discuss applications software.

One real strength of this package is the excellent workbook that accompanies it. Each lesson from the disk is extensively supported by many workbook exercises. The questions in the book are not perfunctory; they challenge as they drill concepts and test knowledge. The nature of the questions seems to indicate that the authors of the program, James L. Poirot and Donald Alan Retzlaff of North Texas State University, were thinking of the classroom when they designed this package. If the home or business learner overlooks the tone of the exercise questions, the program works fine as a self-teacher.

This instructional package comes in two flavors--disk and cassette; both list at $69 (plus $5.95 for the workbook). Other versions include tutorials for the Apple IIe, Texas Instruments, Commodore 64 and TRS-80.

Classroom Packages

Let's digress for a moment and look at classroom learning. Teachers have special problems. School boards across the country have been hastening to buy batches of Apples, Ataris, TRS-80s and Commodores for junior high and high school computer literacy programs often without providing texts and teaching materials. Finding instructional materials that will work in the classroom is a difficult task for teachers. The materials for children, as for adults, have to suit varied learning styles.

Well, here are some answers. First, any of the software packages discussed will adapt well for school use on the junior high and high school levels. There are also, in increasing numbers, teaching packages specifically designed for classroom use.

A representative example of a classroom package is Discover Basic-- Problem Solving With the Apple II Computer, published by Sterling Swift and created by Rick Thomas, a programming teacher at Junction City High School, Junction City, OR. Like How to Program from Hayden and the Microcomputer Workbook, Thomas's program blends materials loaded from disk with a written text. The difference is that the written word has a decided advantage over the electronic medium. The factual material is to be communicated by the teacher and through the workbook, not through the computer. The computer serves only as a medium for completing assigned exercises.

The role of the disk material is to provide a variety of demonstration programs that a student or small group of students can load, run and--most important--modify as the workbook or instructor suggests. In the teacher's guide to the learning package, Thomas calls it a learning by discovery package. The student, armed with the appropriate concepts, is given a chance to experiment, to observe the results and to write his observations. Eventually the student is able to predict the results to be obtained by writing specific program statements. At that point, the student is programming.

The material appears to be just right for an intensive semester at the high school level or for a year's work for junior high children. It covers screen output commands, creating and using variables, counting, error checks, IFTHEN conditionals, loops, character strings, library functions, arrays, and low-resolution graphics. Combing through the listings of the demonstration programs, modifying them and writing new programs, the student should get a thorough grounding in the basics of Basic.

The Teacher's Guide with demonstrations and solutions disk lists for $74.95. The student workbook costs $5.95.

Writing Software

The goal of lwarning to program is to acquire the ability to write software that solves a specific problem or performs given tasks. Having the basic skills, a beginning programmer may still find it difficult to start from scratch in creating a sophisticated applications program. Though I found many tutorials in print and mixed media on programming basics, I found few books focusing on narrower programming tasks.

One self-teaching guide, combining a printed manual and a disk is Apple Basic: Data File Programming by LeRoy Finkel and Jerald R. Brown, published by John Wiley & Sons. As the title implies, the book focuses on creating files of numerical and text data by writing programs to enter that information, organize it and then access it as necessary. The course reviews the fundamentals of Basic, which you should be able to assimilate using one of the tutorials. It covers data entry and error checking, the creation of sequential files and programs, and the creation and use of random access files.

The authors are well aware of the value of hands-on instruction. Most of the book is programming exercises, in written form and, with the Apple II, designed to reinforce concepts and get the learner thinking.

On examining this course, we discover that we have come almost full circle, back to dependence on the written word. The subject matter is presented primarily through the written manual. In fact, the book can fulfill its teaching purpose perfectly well without the supplementary disk which contains no instructional material. The disk simply loads program examples from the text as a timesaving alternative to keying them manually from the book. It runs on a 32K Apple II with Applesoft.


These are only a few of the teaching packages available to you as you approach your Apple II for the first time. Similar tutorials are available in everincreasing numbers for the other major microcomputer systems.

How you choose an instructional package for yourself should depend on three basic points: First, what you want your computer to do for you? If you want to run only preprogrammed applications software and games, leave programming courses alone for now and choose instead a course theat teaches you the basics of computer use.

Second, what medium do you feel most comfortable with? Whether you believe you can learn best from a book or whether you want to learn through video instruction or audio tapes, try to skim through or preview the learning package before you buy.

Finally, does the learning package give you a chance to get your hands on the computer and work with it? No amount of text, written exercises, pictures or sounds can replace the experience of actually testing your programming knowledge on the computer.

Few learning experiences are as gratifying as writing a computer program and running it, seeing that it works error free. That is the moment you can say for the first time, "I'm a programmer.'

Table: Apple II Software

Table: Videotape

Products: Apple Basic: Data File Programming (computer program)
Cdex Apple IIe Training Program (computer program)
Program Design The New Step by Step (computer program)
Apple II Microcomputer Workbook (computer program)
Discover Basic - Problem Solving with the Apple II Computer (computer program)
Muse Software Know Your Apple (computer program)
Hayden Software How To Program in Applesoft Basic (computer program)
Stoneware Microcomputer Products How to Use Your Apple II in Ten Easy Video lessons (video tape)
Avion Video Computers Computer Fundamentals and Beginning Programming (video tape)