Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 2, NO. 6 / SEPTEMBER 1983

Computers in Education

Benefit or Bombshell?

by John and Mary Harrison

"Our nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. If an enemy power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking unilateral educational disarmament. History is not kind to idlers."

This assessment by the National Commission on Excellence in Education has received widespread press coverage. We repeat it here to emphasize present educational problems and the need to explore alternatives and improvements in the way a child is educated. This is especially pertinent since one of the commission's recommendations is for all students to have a half-year computer science course.

No one can deny the explosion of the microcomputer industry over the past ten years. TIME magazine named the computer its "man of the year". Computers influence the games we play to the movies we watch. This potential just waits to be tapped to improve the quality of education. As parents, educators and ATARI users, we intend to explore the role of the computer in the revitalization of the education process.


Ever since the development of ENIAC by the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, the role of the computer has expanded to encompass tedious or dangerous tasks. Originally designed as an electronic calculator to solve complex mathematical formulas, today the computer can be found performing numerical computations, inventory control, point of sale transactions, manufacturing operations, word processing, and a variety of chores in the home. Of all the uses for computers, their role in education has generated the most controversy.

One of the first educational applications was designed by Patrick Suppes in the mid 1960s. A series of programs to drill arithmetic facts for elementary school children was developed and tested. This modest beginning touched off the debate that continues today about the proper role of the computer in the classroom. Regardless of the answer, it is certain that the microcomputer will be a permanent fixture in the classroom of tomorrow.

The spread of the computer's influence on society is due largely to the major advances in electronics technology. The first electronic digital computer, ENIAC, covered 1500 square feet, stood nine feet high, weighed 30 tons, contained over 18000 vacuum tubes and was able to perform 350 multiplications per second. Today's ATARI 800 microcomputer covers about one square foot, stands 4.5 inches high, weighs ten pounds, contains no vacuum tubes, and can perform about 300,000 additions per second. Meanwhile, as computing power increased, prices decreased. The ATARI 400 that sold for $630 three years ago is now available for under $100.

Not only are microcomputers inexpensive, they are more reliable than their larger and more expensive ancestors. Schools are taking advantage of this trend, buying computer equipment in ever larger quantities. Families, too, are buying computers, providing their children with an introduction to computers even before the schools. The rush to computing has almost obscured the important question: How are computers to be used in education?


There are two generally accepted applications for the computer in education: as a dispenser of education and as a tool. To date, the emphasis has been upon the student as a recipient of information from the computer. This application (also known as Computer-Aided Instruction - CAI) can be seen in the original work by Suppes as well as most of the educational programs on the market today. Although the packaging of today's programs may be more sophisticated, the basic tenet remains the same - the computer presents the problem, the child responds, the computer evaluates the response and the process repeats.

This is the basis for drill and practice programs. These programs allow a slow student to repeat an exercise without embarrassment or ridicule. Other students can practice new concepts to reinforce instruction already received. Since the computer, as well as the student, immediately recognizes a correct response, the program can adjust the difficulty level of successive problems.

The logical extension of drill and practice programs is the tutorial. Here, the student is introduced to new information in a series of lessons. Following each lesson, drill and practice routines are used to reinforce the material. The advantage of this method is that it allows the student to progress at his or her own rate. lessons can be repeated to gain mastery of the topic. Well-designed tutorials include both a pretest and a post test. The pretest determines whether the student has the prerequisite skills, or sufficient knowledge to bypass that lesson. The post test is used to determine the retention of the material.

A third type of CAI is gaining popularity - the simulation. The computer mimics a real world situation and poses options to the student. The computer evaluates each decision and determines its effect. The program may then prompt the user with another question. The student must develop logical reasoning to successfully pilot the simulation. The major advantage of simulations is that they allow the student to repeat the process and vary responses in an attempt to determine the correct combination of choices to reach the desired goal.

Considerable research has determined that these methods do affect a student's real understanding of the concepts presented. However, to regard the computer only as an electronic workbook or sophisticated teaching machine does not begin to tap its potential. No one knows the uses to which the computer may eventually be put, but new applications are emerging regularly. The computer can be manipulated by the student to explore ideas and draw conclusions. In this way, the student becomes an actual participant in the learning process rather than passively receiving knowledge from the computer.

The idea of active student participation was explored by the University of Pittsburgh starting in 1969. Supported by the National Science Foundation, Project SOLD was organized into five laboratories - computer, synthesis, dynamics, logical design, and modeling/simulation. Here a student could combine his knowledge of computer science and mathematics to test an experiment of his own design. The student, rather than the computer, set the pace and made the decisions. This concept is gaining popularity as more computers proliferate in the natioifs classrooms. Students use the computer to perform tedious or repetitive calculations in mathematics and laboratory science courses, leaving more time to explore the topic being taught.

The idea of student control at a more elementary level has been the subject of research by Seymour Papert. Using turtle graphics and a programming language called Logo, Papert's group at MIT has been working with children ranging from preschool through college age for over twelve years. The purpose of this research has been to create an environment for exploring computers. Logo was designed as an interactive language to minimize the impact of continually defining and modifying procedures that would be present in a compiled language. An excellent summary of the work done by the Logo Group and some exciting ideas for new directions in education can be found in Papert's book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (New York: Basic Books, 1980).


The family of ATARI computers fits into this spectrum of educational uses however the user desires. The excellent sound and graphics capabilities can liven up drill and practice, tutorials, and simulations. The use of color and sound help maintain the studenes interest and relieve the boredom of staring at a screen of text.

The ATARI computers are also well suited to the role as a tool. To encourage the beginning programmer, color and sound are easily accessible from ATARI BASIC. Character graphics are available from the keyboard. A wide variety of resolution modes encourage experimentation with line drawings. Hence the student programmer can utilize the graphics and sound capabilities of the machine to design his experiment more realistically or display the results more vividly. The ATARI also has the processing power to perform the tedious calculations often found in mathematics and science courses.

To bring the excitement of programming to a wider audience, ATARI PILOT and ATARI Logo are available. Both languages support turtle graphics and encourage structured program development. Since a sophisticated mathematics background is not required, young children and adults are able to quickly grasp programming concepts. Thus the ATARI can provide the environment for exploration similar to that developed by the Logo Group at MIT.

An additional use for the ATARI machines is in word processing. Errors and changes in text, once the bane of all writers, are easily handled with a word processor, and there are several good programs for the ATARI. This removes at least some portion of the dread of preparing reports because the writer knows that each page will only need to be typed once.

The independent software houses have finally recognized the potential of the ATARI computers. There has been a software explosion to accompany the hardware boom. Everyone from major publishing houses to occasional users are producing educational software. But children and beginners are not the only beneficiaries. There are many programming languages available for the ATARI owner besides BASIC, PILOT, and Logo. These include Pascal, LISP, Forth, C, and machine language assembler/editors. Combined with the huge selection of books and manuals covering every facet of the machine, the ATARI becomes one of the most versatile microcomputers on the market.


If the commissions's recommendation for community involvement is to be taken seriously, what are the implications for parents and teachers?

Parents are a child's first teachers. In some respects they will know their child better than anyone else ever can. The examples parents provide, the priorities they set, and their attitudes towards school deeply infiuence their child's academic and social behavior.

There are several stages in a child's development, many before age six. Several child psychologists have theorized that an enriched early childhood may foster readiness for school. This is the motivation behind "Sesame Street," Head Start, Montessori and other preschools. Certainly an early exposure to computers through friendly educational games should be a rewarding experience.

Parental involvement with a child's education must not stop with the first grade. The computer explosion has caught teachers by surprise almost as much as it has parents. Some educators fear computers, and for various reasons. Some doubt their own ability to learn computing. Some feel that computers may reduce the need for teachers, or diminish the teaching role. Certainly some of the effects of the computer in education will be difficult for the traditional teacher. Still, nothing can replace human kindness and the real concern of a teacher for students. The computer will assume the clerical tasks associated with attendance, day-to-day record keeping, grade calculations, and if cleverly programmed, may seem to relate personally to students. With the support of the computer, the teacher will be better able to guide each student's progress. The weak student need not automatically fail. The gifted need not be bored. All students should benefit from the greater variety of materials to which the teacher has access.


Recognizing the influence of computers on education in the home as well as in the schools, ANTIC has renewed its commitment to education. Over the next few months you will notice changes in the amount and content of education-oriented articles and programs that appear. As a result of this reorganization, we intend to pursue the following areas:
  1. Articles discussing how to write or evaluate educational software.
  2. Reviews of educational software on the market, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each product.
  3. Reintroduction of the kid's page. Though still by and for children, we envision this as a place for the parent and child to discuss and submit questions, answers, and programs.
  4. Educational software by ANTIC readers for other readers.
  5. Other articles that reflect the educational uses of computers.
In order for this effort to succeed, we need your support. We hope to establish a dialogue between us so that our articles are timely and relevant. Please tell us what you want to see in an education department. We will make every effort to address the desires of the widest possible audience while providing a service to all age groups. Please, take the time to get involved and help us make ANTIC your computer magazine. John and Mary Harrison are parents, teachers and ATARI hobbyists. Mary teaches math and computer science at the high school level. John holds an M.S. in computer science and develops educational software. They will be coordinating the Education Department for ANTIC.