Tag Archives: computer

A Glance at Early EdTech a la DEC

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Digital (also known as DEC and Digital Equipment Company) did more than sell one of the first so-called minicomputers. It also published some of the first educational software to be used in regular subject classrooms and pioneered in supporting computing teachers. Our Collection includes several documents in the EduSystems series; “computers are for kids – EduSystems – expandable, economical”.

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See, for example, HCLE Item 1015: Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics. For $2, students and teachers received a 75 page resource manual that took at least two approaches to teaching programming and problem solving. (Today you can get it for free by clicking on the linked title above.)

As the general headings in this booklet suggest, approaches to mathematics can be dry, with abstract titles that are correct and descriptive but not particularly exciting.

  • General Mathematics
  • Intermediate and Advanced Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Mathematical Analysis and Physics

Under these headings you find sets of increasingly difficult problems that might be solved more easily using a computer program that either paper and pencil or calculator. Today, an educational software company would be likely to supply the student with either 1) a graphically fancy, game-like program that provides a solution to the student followed by a multiple choice quiz; or 2) a computer-generated video that lets the student make predetermined choices within the problem space without requiring that the student understand how to state the problems or generate the answer. In the mid-1960s when Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics was published there were not computer graphics or videos. Only images created with typewriter characters could be made. There was no internet and no common medium on which to supply and store the programs. The most practical way to share the software was to print the program itself in the booklet and let the students type it into whatever computer they had access to. This process built a bridge between the academic discipline being studied (mathematics, in this case) and computer programming.

In Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics problems were frequently presented in a way that suggested the steps required to solve them. Then, the student is instructed to; “Write a program…” (in BASIC.) A sample program is provided to demonstrate one possible solution. If the learner’s program actually worked (ran) after a couple of tries s/he could move on to a harder task. But the computer isn’t actually doing any teaching. It’s role is more like a laboratory or playing field.  When the learner must troubleshoot and debug a teacher (or fellow student) will be a key tool for learning. Digital’s early approach to educational software illustrated the utility of the computer along with experience of computers’ limitations. It also demonstrated that answers might be approximations, not exact. There’s even a study of how rapidly and accurately (or inaccurately) π can be calculated. “At 10,000 terms, the approximation to π is off by 1 in the 4th decimal place.

Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics provides some abstract problems but several are word problems that suggest a variety of practical, real-world applications for computer programs.  

  • What’s the volume of a potato? A study in calculus.
  • How far must someone travel to get from various places in Possible Gulch over Bell Mountain to Probable Junction? Bell Mountain has the shape of the normal distribution curve, providing a study in statistics.
  • How does a crosswind affect a plane’s flight? An exercise in a simple simulation.

While the utility of the computer is demonstrated, alternatives to the latest technology are also supplied. For the potato problem, they include a solution Archimedes used over 2,000 years ago. Sometimes a bowl of water is all you need. As it says in the text; “Hey, that’s a good method…keep the beaker and get rid of the computer.” The computer is presented as a tool, but not the only tool. An interesting perspective considering the publication is from a computer company.

The document itself is worth studying. Even though the publication is about computers, it didn’t use desktop publishing software. There were no word processors at the time. Some pages are photocopies of computer printouts. Fonts change depending on the source. Symbols like π and graphics like the airplane were hand-drawn.Screenshot 2018-02-05 at 10.16.03 The last page is copied from the list of Digital’s Sales and Service contacts around the world, an implicit reminder that at least one motivation for producing the series was to increase sales.

Computers, computing, and new ways and reasons to learn developed together. While such publications may have helped sales, they also represent a time when an industry knew it had to build itself, its user community, and its future workforce. Prior to this, there would’ve been a much smaller audience and the publications would be directed at professionals who cared more about content than layout. Soon after this, the audience was much larger and broader, and the expectations were for more polished presentations.

Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.



HCLE Writing Competition – January 2014

We have a lot of work to do, and you may be able to help, and your work may win an award.

The HCLE (History of Computing in Learning and Education) Virtual Museum is coming alive. 2013 was a year of building a foundation and framework where we’ll store the digitized documents, software, and stories from the pioneering age when computers met classrooms. In 2014 we’re filling the shelves. We’re asking for your help with the stories.

Thanks to Stanford, Internet Archive, and other collaborators we’ve arranged for some excellent support for archiving the documents and software. Automation and existing archives enable efficient and effective storage. But, the stories are harder to collect and store.

We need to collect biographies, anecdotes, and references that describe the educational pioneers and their work. This is a job for people, not machines.

Anyone is welcome to submit stories to our “digital loading dock” which is our wiki, but we decided to provide an extra incentive. The writer who submits the best Pioneer’s story before the deadline will be awarded $200. It and the other top entries will be publicized via our wiki, blog, facebook, and twitter accounts. All of the entries that are chosen to be incorporated into our story database will be available to the public and researchers.

Our goal is to acknowledge the contributions of overlooked educators – and to connect the people, their stories, their lessons, with the documents and software archives into a research resource that will help future educators better understand how to adapt to technological change in the future. The computer’s entrance into the classroom was a major step in the shift from education centered on the instructor to education centered on the student. There are lessons to extract from the experiences of the pioneers.

Help us collect those stories, to help future educators and students.

Here’s a link to the details and hopefully answers to any of your questions.

Good luck.

HCLE Pioneer – LeRoy Finkel

LeRoy Finkel is a recent addition to our wiki’s list of Pioneers. We wanted to bring attention to him now because we just discussed one of his compatriots: Bob Albrecht.

A list of pioneers can seem like a long string of individuals. While many educators were alone in their struggles to bring computers into classrooms, many were also fortunate enough to find support from other educators and advocates. As the referenced article states;
“he showed the way, cajoling, nudging, encouraging, criticizing, as teachers struggled to integrate computers into their classrooms”. He, Bob Albrecht, and several others came together to create People’s Computer Company,

LeRoy Finkel’s work is easier to access than most because he published his work. Particularly, Technology Tools in the Information Age Classroom, a book that “is designed for use in an introductory, college level course on educational technology, and no prior experience with computers or computing”. When he published the book in 1991, most people knew of computers, but not about computers; yet, many were confronted with having to quickly become comfortable enough with them to incorporate the hardware, software, and topics into existing classes. LeRoy Finkel is one that led the way.

It is too late for this year (the deadline was mid-December), but there is a Fellowship Program in his honor that promotes leadership in the field of educational technology because the task continues. Know someone who fits that description? Pass along the word so they can apply for the next grant.

Thanks to iae-pedia and Computer-Using Educators for the background so far. Please pass along additional information so we can all expand the stories of the Pioneers.

1996 Reflections on Technology and “Distance Education”

This post is an excerpt from Liza Loop’s story on the HCLE Wiki

My greatest professional frustrations occur when I encounter narrow interpretations of ideas. For example, many people assume “technology” means electronic gadgets. I think technique is “know-how” and technology is the study of know-how. Certainly there has been an explosion of know-how around designing, building and using electronic devices. But learning to use a pencil and alphabet is just as much a case of mastering techniques as learning to use a word processor. In many circumstances, a pencil is a better tool than a computer for the task to be accomplished. I lose patience with people who fall so in love with the complexity of the tool that they fail to assess its appropriateness for the job within its surroundings.

Here’s a little triumph I experienced at the end of a workshop for teachers who were introducing computers in their classrooms. One of my students approached me and said, “Now I know how to operate my computer, but you didn’t explain how it would solve teaching problems.”
“Wonderful,” I replied. “You have learned that the computer is only a medium of communication between teacher and student. It can never replace the teacher. Solve teaching problems yourself. When you do, the computer may be one tool you use.” When assessing technology, it’s important to remember that it’s people who achieve. As we use electronic and communication technologies, we will open up new ways to distribute know-how, new ways to teach and to learn. I expect to contribute most in distance learning and schools.

Moving electrons is more efficient than moving people.

Distance learning involves learners led by live or recorded teachers who can reach their students regardless of location. Every time we turn on a radio or TV, open a book, magazine or newspaper, receive a telephone call, fax or e-mail message, or play a video game, we use distance education tools. If we are changed by the experience, we have been educated. Today, distance learning is market-driven by consumers willing to pay for receiving messages. Only a small portion of distance education is part of a conscious teaching effort in schools.

However, by 2000, I expect a few struggling organizations will take up the mission of delivering teaching to students wherever they are. The effort will be led by transnational corporations that have learned that any data or information that can be squeezed down a wire or transmitted on the waves, should be. Moving electrons is more efficient than moving people. Traditional schools will compete with new institutions offering quicker, cheaper, deeper, more varied access to know-how in mediated form. We will be trying to figure out how to redeploy physical plants built for an industrial era in an information age. Perhaps 2005 is too soon to expect social acceptance of the paradigm shifts brought about by radical developments in information transfer technology. We may still be mired in the illusion that copyright can be preserved. We may not have discovered that information is only valuable when it is disseminated and does not obey economic laws of scarcity. We may have failed to sort out critical aspects of face-to-face encounter as compared to distance communication. But we will be learning.

This is an excerpt from a longer article. Enjoy