Reflections on educational computing. Kenneth Brumbaugh.
I first met Dave Ahl some ten years ago--at the same time the first issue of Creative Computing appeared. Perhaps that is why he asked me to share a few of my thoughts in this special issue. Although I am not sure if this is what Dave wanted, here are some personal reflections on educational computing, then and now.
Nineteen years ago I began using computers as a supplement to the math and science classes I was teaching. Ever since then I have been directly involved in the use and support of all purpose instructional computing at local, state, national, and international levels.
In those early years computing educators were faced with problems such as the availability of funds, isolated and narrow base of activities, and the need for individual and institutional acceptance. Today a much larger group of computing educators is still faced with the problem of funding along with several new ones. Now they face an enormous array of computing equipment to procure, an even larger body of quality computer of software, and extensive curricular planning. Timesharing in the Schools
In 1965, when I began teaching with computers, student interest in timeshared computing was overwhelming. A school considered itself lucky if it had a single computer, so naturally students and teachers pulled many strings to find ways to maximize its use. School custodians were taught to enter student paper tapes at night and even bribed to open buildings at odd hours. I remember an average student who wrote a sophisticated computer program to track missiles and completed it in several months. It was then I knew that this thing called the computer was not going to be a passing fad in education. It made kids smile and want to try more. And it still does!
My college teaching in the early 1970's was highlighted by the receipt of two National Science Foundation Grants to develop instructional computing courseware (computer programs and the related teacher support manuals) for use by secondary mathematics, science, and social science teachers. Others such as Lud Braun at Stony Brook, NY had made similar efforts but, in general, colleges and their faculties were not attuned to the growing interest and need for all purpose instructional computing materials. Most college educators at the time thought that computing in schools meant simply learning to program. Today we see the computer being used in all disciplines and at all levels of educations for simple and complex programming and as a valuable supplement to conventional instruction.
In 1974 I was fortunate to be one of the first employees of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. MECC has since evolved into what many educators believe is the best example of an all purpose educational computing support organization in the world. MECC's early years were difficult and fraught with many problems but, nonetheless, rather enjoyable. MECC staff, hardware manufacturers, teachers, and students all seemed to be experimenting with computers in the classroom. Attempting to serve two thousand terminal users with a four-second response time on a 448-port timesharing computer that was designed to do only batch computing made life interesting to say the least. It seemed that everyone appreciated the situation and was willing to accept the difficulties in order to have his chance at computing. MECC rapidly solved the problems of providing user base and, for several years, had one of the world's largest and most successful timeshared computer systems. The Advent of Microcomputers
I recall several other significant computing events in my life. One occurred in November, 197m, when Don Holznagel (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, OR and formerly of TIES, Minnesota) delivered a Tandy TRS-80, Model I computer to my door. As I remember, I stayed up most of that night and spent the next several days playing with it. From that moment on, it was apparent to me that educational computing would soon change radically. That simple, inexpensive, portable device offered a solution to many of the problems facing those of us whose job it was to foster this growing field. Several months later, MECC undertook a study of microcomputers to ascertain which one should be selected for use and support in Minnesota.
The awarding of MECC's microcomputer contract to Apple Computer, which I believe established a standard for the educator's computer in this country, brings two other interesting events to mind. The first occurred the day that contract bids were going to be opened by the State Procurement Office. The bid from Apple was delivered to the correct office with 75 seconds remaining before bid closing. I often wonder what might have happened to MECC and to Apple if that bid would not have been delivered in time: Minnesota educational institutions have now obtained, through MECC, more than 10,000 Apple computers since that day. Bids were also received that day from computer manufacturers that no longer exist, including Astral, Compucolor, and REX.
The second event occurred shortly after we awarded the bid to Apple. During a one-day meeting at the Apple office in Cupertino hosted by Roger Cutler, the Apple employee who persuaded Apple to submit their bid to MECC, I met nearly every key person in Apple at that time. Today, meetings with Jobs, Markula, Scott, and Carter, or their equivalents could not, quite understandably, be so easily arranged. Mike Scott, then president, took me on a twenty-minute tour of the entire Apple complex, which at that time consisted of two rather modest looking buildings. Apple now has numerous buildings in 24 locations throughout the world, housing approximately 5000 employees. The Creation of Courseware
The changes that the 1980's brought for me and for MECC included the establishment of a formal process for the creation and distribution of microcomputer courseware. MECC now produces several courseware products each week, approximately half of which are for the Apple II and the remainder for IBM, Commodore, Tandy, and Acorn computers. Similar growth in the area of MECC in-service training and conference, which attracts tens of thousands of educators each year, also means that individuals must now work together in teams to handle the volume of activity. Supporting instructional computing is an enormous undertaking.
Perhaps my most sensational computing experience came when I spent an entire Thanksgiving vacation learning how to use a Lisa computer. The capabilities of this machine are phenomenal. The integration of its hardware and software produce capabilities which are easy to use in an office system environment. This machine and the others that will follow should permit both clerical and management staff to do more in less time. When I began using computers, a system with the capabilities of the Lisa would have cost several hundred thousand dollars and would have required a computer center facility and staff to function properly; now it sits on my desk and plugs into the standard electrical outlet. I am forced to wonder, "Can the world continue to move this fast?"
In summary, as I try to recall my years in educational computing, I keep thinking of the problems, the people, and the potential. The problems are being solved. People continue to be the key to success in educational computing. They will be the ones who will plan who is to do what, when, where, and why. They will be the ones who will find and acquire the right amounts and types of courseware and hardware. And their motivation will be the vast potential that the computer has and will continue to offer to educators.
A magazine such as Creative Computing can do a great deal to eliminate what is and probably will continue to be the biggest hurdle to high quality and quantity use of computers by educators; that is, getting the proper information to those who need it in a timely fashion. Thank you, Creative Computing, for featuring education in selected issues each year, as well as for the regular columns which provide important information to hundreds of thousands of educators around the world.