an illustration of people walking into a school carrying bulky computers and walking out with a stack of books

From the Archive

Computers: The New Kick in the Schools

Computers were seen as fads in 1983, but Harold Howe II gave readers a window into the future of education—one where the new technology transforms how students learn

By the early 1980s, computers were everywhere. Maybe not in the home; PCs were still too expensive—the cheapest PC a consumer could buy was $1,500, or $4,270 in 2019 dollars. But nearly every other aspect of daily life had been infiltrated by computers: banks, grocery stores, airlines, newsrooms, Wall Street. “Computers have become such a way of life that many people believe they don’t invade their privacy,” ABC News reporter Bettina Gregory said in a 1982 Nightline segment. “That’s because, in America today, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is inevitably linked to a computer.”

That included schools, of course, where computers had made their way into elementary classrooms and university labs alike. And for the Summer 1983 issue of The College Board Review, former United States Commissioner of Education Harold Howe II contributed a cover story reckoning with the educational potential of computers, why the technology was no passing fad, and how they will force students and teachers to look beyond the physical presence of the device and rethink its impact.

“There is more to computer literacy than the capacity to tinker with the machine,” Howe writes. “People need a sense of the problems that accompany this technology. School social studies discussions might make projects out of such topics as computer crime, invasion of privacy by computers, and author’s rights and the new technology. We need to be aware of what technology is doing to us as well as knowing how to use it.”

In this era of social media, “fake news,” big data, targeted advertising, and digital manipulation of facts, images, and video, Howe’s call still resounds—and it’s one we still have yet to fully embrace.

a black and white photo from 1983 shows eight elementary school students male and female facing each other as they sit and work at two rows of computers

Rhoda Sidney/Monkmeyer

About one-fourth of all computers now in the schools are being used in elementary schools, three-fourths in junior and senior high schools.

When Aldous Huxley published his novel, Brave New World, in 1932, he foresaw many of the scientific discoveries and technological changes that have become realities today, and he explored imaginatively the ways human beings would adapt to these changes. But even his most extravagant imaginings failed to predict the situation we confront today—the certainty that in a few year’s time we can have access to any information we require, whenever we want it, and in the form in which it is most useful, whether that be print, pictures, sound, electronic impulses, or some combination of these media. To be fair to Huxley, he did conceive possibilities we have not yet achieved, among them “the feelies.” This addition to the movies would enable members of the audience to grasp electrically sensitized handles with the capacity to provide the viewer with feelings like those experienced by movie actors as the hero embraces the heroine. I suspect that it’s just as well that we are not there yet.

Technology now at our disposal through the computer, multichannel cable, video-disc and tape recording, television, and satellite transmission, challenges every sector of human endeavor to rethink its way of achieving its goals. Let us focus our thoughts upon education and its relationship to this technology, particularly the computer and its uses in the schools. But as we do so, it is important to remain aware that people in the realms of economics, religion, the arts, government, health services, transportation, scholarly research, and others too numerous to mention, are all going through the same experience. They are asking themselves how they can adjust and adapt to the new capabilities and the dramatic changes they are bringing to the fundamental institutions of society.

The people who will make the decisions on what to do and why as our schools are affected by the communications-information revolution are not specialists in the technology that is producing it. They are, instead, teachers, principals, school superintendents, school board members, parents, officials of state departments of education, and state legislators. Quite a few of them have never even seen a computer, and a very large majority wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what to do with one if one were given to them as a present.

Here and now I want to confess my own status as a computer illiterate. While I have a vague sense of the capabilities of computers and have even bought a number of them for organizations for which I have worked, I have to report that I am mystified when I confront one. If I can do anything at all for you, who may be seeking a deeper understanding of how and why new technology should be introduced into schools, it is likely to be by providing a perspective. I hope to give you my perception of some of the problems and opportunities confronting the people who run schools and the classrooms in them as this technology becomes more available.

A Look at the Recent Past

One way to gain some perspective on the relationship between schools and communications-information technology is to take a brief look at the recent past. When television spread like wildfire through the homes of America in the 1950s, there were numerous prophesies of its impact on education. Here was a medium with the capacity to bring all the world to the classroom, and when efficient taping of programs was added so that they could be shown at the convenience of teachers and students, there appeared to be no barrier to the powerful enrichment of the learning process through TV. Indeed, some prophets expected the TV screen to take over for the teacher in many aspects of instruction. After all, it offered the opportunity to bring the best teachers in the world into the classroom. On this basis, a revolution in education was predicted with television as its foundation.

What happened? Nothing like a revolution. A few interesting, small experiments were relatively successful in using TV for direct instruction. In a few places, more of them colleges than schools, closed circuit TV became an important and cost-saving medium for direct teaching. One major national experiment in television for home and school consumption by children—the program, Sesame Street, produced by the Children’s Television Workshop—was a real breakthrough in showing how good programming could result in a positive influence on basic learning skills. In addition, the program was a breakthrough in the imaginative use of public and private funds to serve the national interest in education. I’ll have more to say on that subject later.

By far the biggest change in the schools resulting from TV was not its use to improve teaching or enrich learning, but rather the adjustments schools had to make because kids were spending most of their waking hours at home watching various entertainment programs on TV. Youngsters have always brought the home with them to school, and the largest component of their home life became what was appearing on a 19-inch screen. As a result, homework for school became even more of a problem than it had always been, and teachers found themselves confronting in class ideas and information about which they were unprepared. Some schools tried to fight this intrusion; others tried to beat it by using it; most did a bit of both. No one really knows what the net effect of TV is on children and schools, but we do know there are powerful effects that are both positive and negative. We know also that television so pervaded society that the schools never really had a chance to choose their options in regard to it. They were invaded by home-based TV. The same thing may happen with computers.

But why didn’t schools latch onto the capacity of TV to communicate powerfully and effectively? It was evident from Sesame Street and other sources that carefully prepared programs were powerful teaching tools. This article is not the place for a complete answer to this question, but I do want to make a few comments on it and explore briefly their application to the situation we confront with computers.

an illustration of people walking into a school carrying bulky computers and walking out with a stack of books

Illustration: Charles Saxon

One factor in keeping TV out of schools has been teacher attitudes toward it. The presence of TV in the classroom as a means of direct instruction is, in a sense, an affront to the teacher, although its use as an enrichment for lessons the teacher is presenting is probably less so. But when the teacher is asked to use it by preparing tapes for presentation over closed-circuit television, he or she confronts a whole new world of complexity and expertise, for which no training has been provided. These and other concerns about the possible displacement of teachers have worked against the introduction of TV as a major tool of the education process, and I suspect that similar concerns will appear in regard to any new technology affecting education, including computers.

The experience with TV suggests that schools and school districts flirting with the use of computers must make plans for new opportunities for staff training and must provide the funds to make those opportunities a reality. To lay on the backs of individuals in an underpaid profession the obligation to ready themselves for applying a new technology in their classrooms will almost certainly guarantee that computers will receive the same treatment in the schools as television.

A second reason for television’s failure to realize its promise in education is the problem of getting good programs for direct instruction or for the enrichment of learning in the many areas of the school’s curriculum. We know from the example of the Children’s Television Workshop that excellent programs for teaching reading and arithmetic can be produced; why is it that they aren’t widely available and in great demand by schools? There are many answers to this question, and most of them hold lessons for the adoption of computers in schools as important tools for learning.

Among the answers are the following: (1) good programs are very expensive to make; (2) very few people have the skills to make them, and they are busy making commercial programs for lots of money; (3) making programs for classrooms where the skills and interests of children and teachers vary enormously is a specially complex task; (4) the market for good programs is at best an elusive one so that those who take on the difficult task of making them are not likely to get a reasonable return on their investment; (5) a corollary to number (4) is that there are totally inadequate funds available to create good programs for school television as well as for school computer applications.

A third reason that TV hasn’t made much of an impact as a teaching-learning tool in the schools is that it threatens the basic organization and structure of the school. So does the computer. Professor Seymour Papert of MIT, one of the authorities on what children can do with computers and what computers can do for children, observes that “schools as we know them today will be obsolete before the end of the century” through the effects of computers on children’s learning. This same sort of prediction was made by enthusiasts for TV in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s much less was heard about the revolutionary role of television in the schools.

What we have to understand is that the school as an institution has a massive capacity to resist change. The people who run schools are inclined to think that we turned out pretty well, and so, we reason, why don’t we model our children’s schools on those we attended. New technologies almost always find their way into the home or into the business world before they creep into education. Seymour Papert is probably right about schools as we know them being obsolete by the turn of the century, but we have to remember that there are a great many Americans who are quite happy and comfortable with obsolete schools. If I may be allowed a political dig in the midst of a non-political discourse, it is that the folks presently in control of our national government exude a spirit more friendly to the mythical good old days than to the “brave new world.” As I will explain in greater detail later in these remarks, the modesty of their interest in computers for education may be attributable to this general attitude.

I assure you that I am not as pessimistic about the possibilities for computers in the schools as the analogy with television might suggest. I have six reasons for this more optimistic view. Briefly stated they are as follows, and I would like to comment on each later:

(1) There is already considerable penetration of the schools by microcomputers and computer terminals.

(2) Although good computer programming for schools is time-consuming, expensive, and scarce, it is probably less expensive and more likely to become available than good TV programming, particularly if adequate funds can be provided from government sources to work in partnership with sources of private funds.

(3) Computers offer a technology in which students are active participants from the beginning, whereas most TV programming leaves the student in a passive mode. In this sense, computers are more sound educationally. They constitute what is called “interactive technology,” and they can be linked with television and other technology, much as the videodisc can, to create highly versatile two-way communication between the learner and the program.

(4) The cost, the mobility, and the adaptability of microcomputers are rapidly changing in ways to make these instruments more practical for schools.

(5) So far most in-school use of computers has been for fortification of the traditional learning of skills, but they offer major possibilities for encouraging new levels of thinking and problem solving among children, so that the computer is a learning tool with vast untapped potentialities. The computer as a tool for learning, as opposed to the computer as drillmaster, is of great significance.

(6) Computers are permeating every aspect of our society so deeply that some degree of literacy concerning them seems a growing necessity for participants in our economic system and for being an effective citizen.

The Present Status of Computers in the Schools

Trying to find out about the present use of computers in the schools in the United States is like trying to find the population of China. There are numerous experts with as many answers; and while you are locating the experts and getting their answers and trying to figure out which is most reasonable, the picture has changed, and a new group of experts has appeared. For what they are worth, here are some recent but already out-of-date facts about computer use in U.S. schools:

  • In January 1982, the director of the National Science Foundation sent the president and Congress his second Five Year Outlook on science and technology. It says, “There is yet little evidence that the modem electronics revolution has had much impact on the formal educational system. ... However, realizing the full potential of those technologies in the classroom would necessitate a considerable restructuring ... of educational strategies and methods, including teacher training and retraining.”
  • In May 1982, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) surveyed computer use in schools. It reported as follows: (1) At that time there were 97,000 microcomputers and 26,000 terminals in the country’s 82,000 schools. (2) 28,000 schools, about one-third of the schools in the U.S., had at least 1 computer; 11,000 had at least 3; 4,000 had at least 7; and 2,000 had at least 10.
  • These figures compare with a 1980 survey by NCES showing 31,000 microcomputers and 21,000 terminals in the schools.
  • Predictions are that the growth rate implied in the above figures will continue and probably increase.
  • About three-fourths of the computers now in the schools are in junior and senior high schools, leaving one-fourth in elementary schools for a larger student population.
  • There are substantially fewer computers in schools that serve children from poor families, and there are more computers in school districts with higher expenditures per child than in those with lower expenditures.
  • Even when the children of the poor get access to computers in their schools, the technology is more likely to provide routine drill than to encourage mastery of the machine so that it can be used as a tool for advanced learning.
  • Most of the computers in schools get there through some form of outside-the-regular-budget funding. Federal funds were the largest source, but there were many others, including private funding. There is a tendency to shift funding to school budgets after the activity is established.
  • In schools that have computers, mathematics dominates their use, followed by reading and language arts, social studies, and science. Partly because of this domination by mathematics, a field in which girls and young women tend to avoid, females in the schools are underrepresented in computer activities. This fact has serious implications for their future opportunities.

If one tries to assess these and other facts to form a judgment, I think it’s reasonable to say that computer use in schools is more than a fad. No doubt there are bandwagon aspects, in the sense that computers are fashionable to have around in schools, just as language laboratories once were. But the decisive factor is the fairly solid evidence that most computers are in schools because some teacher became interested in having one around and acquired enough background to have some ideas about how to make use of it.

It will be many years before there is a computer in every classroom and even longer before more than a few schools can respond to Seymour Papert’s call for “one computer per child.” He thinks that “the computer can and should come to be as commonplace as the pencil,” and it’s a sign of the future that a few colleges now require all their students to have computers. As we live through the transition years implied by these estimates, one of the problems we shall certainly confront is the zealous overselling of equipment to schools that have not had the opportunity to plan its use of computers adequately. The hardware will be hawked with glittering promises of programs to be available in the future, but until there are more resources than there are now to make those programs in a way that guarantees their quality and effects by thorough pretesting, school districts will be wise to move deliberately into computer activity, basing their judgments primarily on the number of teachers who are trained, motivated, and available to work on computer applications in the school. Opportunities for such training are developing rapidly at schools of education, and school boards would be wise to offer incentives to teachers for enrollment in them.

Possibilities for Quality Programs

The programs made for computers to serve the multiple purposes for which the computer can be used are known as “computer software” to distinguish them from the hardware of the computer itself. A persistent and long-term problem of adapting new technology to school use has been that of getting well-prepared software. This problem has surfaced with every audiovisual device known, from the tachistoscope to television, and it is clearly evident with computers.

A litany of problems can be raised in connection with the software now generally in use. Drawing on a January 1982 report from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, let me list a few of them:

  • “Most educational software is written in short, disconnected modules that are unrelated to one another and not clearly tied to other instructional activities or to specific textbooks.”
  • “Most programs are boring and repetitious.” This is particularly true of those that serve a drill function.
  • Much of the software available has these characteristics because it is produced in haphazard fashion by people working on low budgets and trying to capture a piece of the market more than to produce a comprehensive and well-tested program.
  • Very little of the available programming takes full advantage of the computer’s capacity to lead a student into problem solving and other more imaginative tasks.

Having listed these negative statements about today’s computer programming, it still seems to me that we can find ways to work on software that will improve its quality and effectiveness. The fundamental need for breaking the software bind is adequate funding, and I believe that a major portion of that funding will have to come from government sources.

My reason for this view is the simple fact that the available market for software does not call forth the private capital to do the job. It is unlikely to do so in the near future. The normal suppliers of learning materials to schools are textbook publishers, who provide text, workbooks, and tests. Theirs is a low-profit industry, and they are not highly motivated to risk the large-scale funds needed for well-tested software when there is little assurance of getting their money back with reasonable interest.

a black and white photo from 1983 shows a male elementary school student sitting at a computer with a female teacher who is using the keyboard

Mimi Forsyth/Monkmeyer

"A computer almost never puts the student in the entirely passive ... role that other media emphasize so heavily."

By way of looking at the possibility of government funding, let me read you the opening paragraph of a widely leaked, but officially unavailable, February 1982 report by a technology planning group in the Department of Education:

The new education technology provides an unusual, perhaps unique opportunity to improve excellence in education, student learning, and teacher productivity. The schools, school publishers and other interested private firms are tentatively investing in exploring this opportunity. But certain barriers exist that prevent development of the full potential of the new education technology, and that prevent the schools from full realization of the benefits of its use. These include a shortage of courseware and educational software of all kinds to enable the schools to realize the benefit of their investment in hardware; and the absence of adequate basic and applied research to ensure the steady improvement in the quality of presently available courseware.

This sensible statement in a report approved by the Secretary of Education for a program later announced by him to get the federal government involved in software funding is followed by the meager suggestion of providing $16 million to cover the cost of the program for 3 years. That is about the amount of money Philadelphia should be spending for this purpose each year. It works out to spending 13 cents a year for each student in the country’s schools. I’ll bet the Russians had a good laugh when they heard the Secretary’s announcement!

Lest I seem to be denigrating Secretary Bell’s leadership in an important field, I hasten to say I am not. He is stuck with the administration he works for, and the very idea of launching a new federal program in education, even if it makes good sense, is ideological anathema to the Reagan concept of government. What Secretary Bell should have done is to write new legislation for a broad program based on the excellent report he received from his technology planning group. Probably he wanted very much to do this, but was either turned down by the White House or realized that he would be.

A year and two months after the above-mentioned report, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a trumpet blast calling for new federal initiatives to undergird learning in mathematics, science, and computers. It has received similar treatment from President Reagan, who spoke in favor of prayer in the schools at the announcement of the Commission’s report.

But the day will come when we have different leadership in Washington and when it will be possible to act decisively on the national educational priorities of the country. We should be grateful to Secretary Bell that he had the fortitude to make even the small gesture he did regarding computers in 1982. Indeed, he has already sustained severe criticism for it from ultra-right-wing Reagan supporters and staff.

When leadership changes, I suggest adding two additional elements to the program devised by the Secretary’s planning group. They focus on three program emphases: providing information to schools about technology and its software; cooperative arrangements between schools and private firms for software development; and basic and applied research to find out what works best in different subject fields. To these should be added some federal support for teacher training, in the same mode the National Defense Education Act of the Eisenhower administration made possible for teachers of science, mathematics, and foreign language. Such recommendations are included in the April 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In addition, the program should require reaching those children and schools that will otherwise be bypassed, the schools serving the poor and minority families of the country.

Both republicans and democrats in Congress are working hard on new education legislation in spite of the President’s opposition. The House has a bill proposing close to half a billion dollars for improved mathematics and science education, and on May 11, 1983, a Senate Committee recommended such a bill by a 16 to 2 bipartisan vote. Whether or not such initiatives can prevail over the President remains to be seen. In the meantime, states and localities are moving forward on their own to find funds for software development and other aspects of introducing interactive technology into the schools. Minnesota, through its statewide Educational Computing Consortium, provides information and support for teachers, and several other states are active in such ventures, as are a number of cities and smaller school districts. There are across the country quite a number of other initiatives not directly involved with the schools. Future Center at the Capitol Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C.; Computer Town U.S.A, in Menlo Park, California; Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania; the Marin Computer Center in California; the Control Data Institutes for children with learning problems, to mention a few. To these efforts has been added an $800 million futuristic park by Walt Disney Productions incorporating technology and computers in five interactive centers.

But the idea of this kind of sporadic out-of-school activity, admirable as some of the projects are, as the way to bring American children to effective use of the new technology is naive. It will result in the same pattern of development we saw with television: there will be computers in many homes and community institutions and relatively few in schools; those that are in schools will not be used as effectively as they might; the children of the poor will get shortchanged in the process; and we will have a patchwork map of computer use in our schools that will frustrate many students who can’t get what they need and want and ought to have.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 brought federal dollars to improve the teaching and learning of science, mathematics, and foreign language, and it was augmented by a substantial commitment of the National Science Foundation to improve curriculum. As a useful stimulant to local action over a period of 10 years or more, efforts helped immensely to move our schools’ science curriculum from eighteenth century physics to the twentieth century and to bring other useful changes as well. Our schools are now dominated by a system of communication developed by Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century. We are looking for ways not to abandon that system but to add to it the extraordinary power of some new ways of conveying meaning and information. Our national government has just as legitimate a stake in that endeavor as it ever did in the science curriculum. In my judgment, it has more to gain by a broad program of national support for computer use in education and much more to lose through the failure to create such a program. If it was acceptable for our national government to assist in moving our schools from Newton to Einstein in 1958, it should be possible to lend a hand in the 1980s with reaching beyond Gutenberg. Yet in 1981, the Reagan administration removed from the National Science Foundation all concern for improving education in the schools. Paradoxically, it reversed this decision in 1983 when the national wave of interest in improving schools in order to help the economy reached even the White House.

The Educational Soundness of Computers

Whatever the educational function to be served, there appears to be some way to use a computer to enhance learning. Sometimes the function is simply one of keeping track of each individual child’s learning development, so that a teacher can know accurately the progress of each member of a large group and thereby do a better job of individualizing instruction.

In other uses students deal directly with a computer. They can learn to program it and, in the process, gain great confidence and improve their learning motivation. Although they may get bored with it when it is used unimaginatively for repetitive drill, a computer almost never puts the student in the entirely passive listening and watching role that other media emphasize so heavily.

Looking at the potentialities of computers rather than their actual use in schools today, the report from Johns Hopkins University that I have cited lists five educational advantages implicit in their use. I have paraphrased them as follows:

  • Providing instructional stimuli on an individual basis, including diagnosis and feedback both to the student and the teacher monitoring his or her progress.
  • Opening up possibilities for teaching subject matter outside the regular curriculum, and perhaps beyond the competency of the teacher, but important for children in the world of the future.
  • Giving the student a capacity to get information more efficiently and in the process arming him with valuable skills for the future.
  • Opening up the potential for learning inherent in simulations that provide actual participation in events or experiences that would otherwise be too costly, too risky, or too time-consuming.
  • Through the experience of programming computers, developing a generation of young adults with an improved capacity for logical thought and for performing analytic tasks.

These seem to me extremely worthwhile goals to reach for in our schools. They do not include some of the more far-out dreams and predictions about the educational value of computers, and I shall touch on these later.

The Decreasing Costs and Growing Convenience of Computers

This is a down-to-earth topic that someone who sells hardware can tell you much more about than I can. I can’t help recalling a visit to a computer-assisted instruction project in a New Haven private school at least 20 years ago. It was paid for by the Carnegie Corporation and conducted by a psychologist named Omar Khayam Moore, who was working with youngsters in kindergarten and the early grades. Installed in a special facility were several massive machines each with a keyboard and a display screen on which youngsters could respond to questions by typing. The keys were color coded to assist with learning the letters, and the kids put different colored nail polish on their fingernails to help them use the right finger on the right keys. Fascinating relationships were developing between the students and the machines.

I never knew what happened as a result of this experiment, but I remember leaving with two powerful impressions. One was a sense of wonder at the capacity of some first graders, who were putting out a daily newspaper. They dictated the articles into regular office dictating machines; they typed up the dictation on mimeograph stencils; and they put the stencils on a standard mimeograph machine and ran them off. All these skills reached back to their work for an hour or so a day on the computer. Here were first graders doing something that most high school students couldn’t perform and doing it routinely and well. It included writing good prose, because their writing was based on the way they talked.

My other impression was that this endeavor was doomed to failure. Because of the costs involved, I thought it would never become practical. Subsequent developments have proved me wrong, and my guess is that any predictions we make now about computer costs in the future will be equally wrong. Indeed, my view, for what it’s worth, is that the real cost problem of taking advantage of computers in education lies not in the hardware but in the software. Simply by allocating a slowly growing percentage of their books and equipment budgets to acquiring hardware, schools can get started with computers.

There are, of course, other equipment costs in addition to computers if schools are to take full advantage of the technological revolution in information and communication. The 1982 Department of Education report cited earlier mentions the importance of connecting the computer to a video-disc to create a learning system with great versatility. A computer can be bought for $600 and a video-disc system for $750. These can be connected to the screen of a regular TV set as a learning system. One side of the disc holds 54,000 separate frames of full-color picture images that can be brought up on the screen individually. None of this, including the disc itself, which costs the same as a long-playing record, is exorbitant in cost. The rub comes with getting the right pictures on the disc. The military, which has plenty of money, is already making major use of such systems for training purposes. So are the business world and a few schools.

Seymour Papert’s prognosis of a computer for each child rests on an interesting cost analysis as follows:

Not only are computers becoming less and less expensive, but even today the formula of a computer for every child would be amply cost effective. Personal computers which can be bought in the stores for $2,000 would not cost more than $500 if mass produced for distribution to every child. The cost of educating a child is at least $30,000 for the 13 years from kindergarten through high school. Thus, on the assumption that the computer will be replaced several times but the prices will fall, it is reasonable to estimate that keeping every child supplied with a personal computer will not cost more than 5% of what we are today spending on education.

I suspect that it might be easier for Professor Papert’s university to set aside 5% of its present budget for new adventures than it would for the average taxpayer-harassed, public school system, but there is still comfort in his calculations. The main point is that no one is talking about 5% right away. By the time learning technology assumes that proportion of budget, some other costs will almost certainly move downward. Also, there’s no point in talking about a computer for every child without provision for software, staff training, and a variety of other adjustments.

My final comment on this topic is that computers are changing rapidly just as schools are beginning to use them. By the end of this decade, the capabilities of the computer you can buy for $1,000 will be vastly greater than those of the computer you can buy for that amount today. So this machine will become obsolete even more rapidly than the textbooks schools now try to patch up with tape to make them last longer. Businesses have already become accustomed to carrying the costs of buying each new generation of computers as it appears. Schools will have to do the same.

an illustration of students walking in a row between two cartoon computers with robotic arms and legs and smiling faces on their monitors

Illustration: Charles Saxon

The Dramatic Potentialities for the Computer Are in the Future

The uses to which computers and allied equipment can be put in the schools are categorized differently by different authorities. Here is a listing drawn from the aforementioned Johns Hopkins report:

  • Drill and practice. Using computers for student practice of skills being taught in traditional ways by teachers.
  • Tutorial dialogue. Using computers to present information to students and to diagnose their misunderstandings.
  • Management of instruction. Using computers to provide the teacher with automatic reporting on student performance, including work on computers in the above-mentioned modes, test results, and other sources of information.
  • Simulation and model building. Using computers to demonstrate the consequences of a system of assumptions, or involving the student in making judgments about an assumed situation, which is particularly useful in science and social studies instruction.
  • Teaching computer-related information skills. Using the computer to teach students and have them apply such skills as typing, editing text, and retrieving information from computer systems.

Teaching computer programming. Having students learn to program computers to solve problems in mathematics or simply to reach an understanding of programming itself. (Many students are attracted to inventing new computer games.)

Before I leave this topic, I want to mention briefly a concept raised by Seymour Papert—the possibility that there may be a special potential in computers to help children with activities that they now find difficult, especially the mastery of writing and mathematics. He argues that “the computer will enter the fabric of the child’s life, becoming, in a very real sense, part of the culture into which the child grows.” As this happens the child’s capacity to deal with written language will become as easy and natural as his use of spoken language (perhaps I unknowingly observed this phenomenon in that long-ago visit to New Haven). Mathematics as the normal language of the computer will no longer seem a difficult foreign language, but a natural and easy set of concepts to master.

If this is so, the schools that can progressively reach this stage of computer use will indeed be doing a service for children. More than that, evidence of success in this mode of computer use will rapidly create demands for its extension to all schools.

Finally, on this topic, I want to raise the implication of the fact that the way into a computer is through a keyboard like the typewriter’s. Several commentators I have read point out that typing may well be an easier and more natural activity for young children than writing script. Their dexterity is more attuned to typing than to mastering the manipulation of a pencil in cursive writing or even printing. Young children learn rapidly to recognize letters and words as they work with a computer to form them on a screen.

Papert argues that children don’t learn easily how to write because they have no reason to write, while they learn well and quickly how to speak because they need to use this facility. He then points out that youngsters using a computer did have a reason to write: “First, it allowed them to produce exciting effects on the computer screen. Secondly, it gave them an exhilarating sense of power and control over the machine. And, thirdly, it allowed them to achieve one of the principal desires of children: to master what is perceived as an adult activity.” These views suggest the importance of getting more computers into elementary schools. They also raise the question of whether all those typewriters in high schools should be moved to kindergartens.

Computers Permeate Society, Schools Should Take Heed

On July 25, 1982, The New York Times carried a long article about a computer writing an opera. Everyone’s bank account is maintained by a computer. The President of the United States has a computerized list to send out his Christmas cards. Serious political candidates depend on computers to get information about how the public perceives them. Space vehicles are launched, flown, and landed by computers. If you have been to a hospital, all sorts of information about you is in its computer; information about you is likewise stored in computers owned by your employer, your insurance company, your credit card sponsor, and the Internal Revenue Service. Kids are going in droves to computer camps, and Newsweek reports it’s hard to get them away from the computers to go swimming. What more needs to be said to prove that computers are permeating society?

All of this argues that those of us who don’t know anything about computers are at a disadvantage. And it argues also for trying to achieve in the years ahead a higher level of what is called “computer literacy.” I can’t find out from anyone exactly what this is, but it is obviously something more than just reading about computers, as I have done to prepare these remarks. Computer literacy probably has within it something of what is called these days a “hands on” aspect. Just as you don’t appreciate the possibilities and dangers of a car until you learn to drive one (and some folks miss the point even then), you can’t deal intelligently with a world in which computers are universal tools without the sense that comes from operating one.

If this is so, it carries a distinct message for the schools. I very much doubt that any schools can stay aloof from the computer revolution and stick with old Johann Gutenberg against all odds. If a school tries to do this, it will at best find itself where schools are in relation to television. But with computers the situation is different, because so many work opportunities are related to some degree of knowledge about computers, and this is much less true of TV. So parents will insist that high schools offer computer opportunities; they are less likely to push hard for computers in the elementary schools, where, as we have seen, some of the most exciting possibilities lie.

Looking at computer literacy from the viewpoint of the national interest, rather than that of the individual student, efforts to enhance it become an absolute necessity. The shifts predicted in our economy emphasize the need for millions of workers trained in modern technology. The present shortage of such people handicaps both our economic prosperity and our military preparedness. Other kinds of literacy are, of course, extremely important in upgrading the basic skills of America’s working population, but unless we add computer literacy to them, we are almost certainly shortchanging ourselves.

There is more to computer literacy than the capacity to tinker with the machine. People need a sense of the problems that accompany this technology. School social studies discussions might make projects out of such topics as computer crime, invasion of privacy by computers, and author’s rights and the new technology. We need to be aware of what technology is doing to us as well as knowing how to use it.

In conclusion, I want to enter a note of caution about the use of technology in schools. Teachers, principals, and others working with children must remain aware that there are aspects of the world that are best perceived by other means than technology. Technology can explain and help youngsters to understand the natural world; it cannot replace the firsthand observation of nature. Technology can make presentations of poems and plays that will bring more young people closer to the world’s great literature—not to mention music and other performing arts. What it cannot do is to duplicate the process of imagination that occurs when a poem or a novel is read in its original form. This is a process in which the reader creates for himself the image of what the characters look like, along with ideas about their emotions and motivations.

Years ago, John Mason Brown wrote an essay criticizing television and film because they destroyed imagination and forever fixed one image in a person’s mind, without allowing him to create his own image from reading. He used the example of the film, Disraeli, in which the actor George Arliss played the lead. Brown complained that for him Disraeli would always be George Arliss, thus denying him the luxury of imagining his own version of the great statesman. I don’t know what the computer counterpart of this comment is, but I expect it exists. We must remain wary on this front as we bring more technology to the schools.

Notes on Sources: This paper could not have been written without the assistance of Inabeth Miller, Head Librarian of the Gutman Library at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She did her doctoral thesis on the subject of computers in schools, and her book Microcomputers in School Media Centers, will be published in the fall of 1983 by Neal Schuman. Conversations with her were extremely helpful, and she pulled together for me a collection of recent articles and excerpts from various studies that were invaluable to me in seeking an overview. I won’t attempt to list all of them, but the following are particularly interesting:

  • Becker, Henry Jay, “Microcomputers in the Classroom—Dreams and Realities,” Report No. 319, Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, January 1982.
  • Fisher, Francis D., “Computer-Assisted Education: What’s Not Happening,” a Paper for the Ford Foundation, Haverford College, 1981.
  • The Five Year Outlook on Science and Technology, 1981, National Science Foundation, 1982.
  • Microcomputers in Education, No. 3, an overview of computer use internationally with articles on Israel, France, Japan and other settings, 1981.
  • Miller, Inabeth, “An Examination of Microcomputers in Educational Settings,” Doctoral Thesis, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1982.
  • Papert, Seymour, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NewYork: Basic Books, Inc., 1982.
  • Papert, Seymour, “Society Will Balk, but the Future May Demand A Computer for Each Child,” Electronic Education, Vol. 1. No. 1, September 1981.
  • Perrone, Vito, Micros in Alternative Settings, 1980.
  • Piestrup, Ann McCormick, “Preschool Children Use an Apple 11 to Test Reading Skills Program.” A Field Test Report for the Apple Education Foundation, 1981.
  • Sheingold, Karen, “Issues Related to the Implementation of Computer Technology in Schools: A Cross Sectional Study,” A Preliminary Report for the National Institute of Education, Bank Street College of Education, 1981.

In addition to these sources I have been able to draw in a general way on draft materials from a major study of technology in education by the Office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress. I have been a member of its advisory group. Arthur Melmed at the National Institute of Education in the Education Department’s Office of Education Research and Improvement has written a number of pieces on computers in education, and from 1978 to 1982, he and I discussed these matters on various occasions. His thinking is an important source.

Adapted from an address delivered at the Summer Institute on Computing in the Schools, Harvard University, August 1982.