Tag Archives: DEC

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.



Interview with Bob Albrecht by Jon Cappetta

Jon Cappetta: What do you think sparked your interest in computers?

Bob Albrecht: My interest in computers? Well, let’s see; it began in 1955. After going to college for quite a few years, I finally quit halfway through a masters degree and went to work at Minneapolis Honeywell Aeronautical Division in Minneapolis. This was one of those places where almost as far as you can see in this huge room were rows and columns of desks and engineers; sitting at them doing things. At first, I worked on analog computers there- REAC analog computers. It was a room about let’s see two-thirds the size of this room (20 yards by 20 yards) full of these components and analog computers. You would use wires to hook components together and than you can simulate differential equations. We were working on flight control systems for high-speed jet aircraft. There were other ways at that time to analyze control systems, several mechanisms’ feedback control systems. Then upstairs they got an IBM650 computer, the upstairs where I hung out and worked at my desk. One day my boss called me in, I have only been there for three or four months, and he said that he would like me to go upstairs and learn how to use that computer. Once I learned how to use it he then wanted me to spread the word down where we were. So that was my introduction to computers, an IBM650 drum computer. The memory was a drum that would spin. We used punch cards for input and such. So that was my introduction to computing.

Jon: How did this introduction affect you?

Bob: I liked that so much better than the stuff I was doing before, and after about a year I started looking around for a job in the computer industry. And, at the time, I especially wanted to go live in Denver because I loved skiing. I got married during this time and also had a child.

I went to a conference, a computer conference at UCLA and then on the way back there was another computer conference in Denver. So I stopped in Denver and I met these guys from a company – from Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs had just acquired a computer company called Electrodata which was based in Pasadena CA. The Oakland office was recruiting, I interviewed and I ended up being Burroughs’ first person in Denver. They had a couple computer installations there. My title was called sales technical rep where I did sales support and also programming. So I stayed in Denver for a while, left Burroughs, did a little consulting, went to work in the aerospace industry at Martin Denver in a math think tank that had various kinds of computer stuff along the way — many different computers in fact. At that time the small computers were all drum memory. This is so much more powerful (picks up iPhone) than those computers were back in those days. The Burroughs205, used when I first went to work for Burroughs, is iconic. In old episodes of Batman you will see the console because they had lots of blinking lights and so it was the Bat-puter in those early Batman episodes. After that I joined Control Data in Denver — back when Control Data was pretty small. I then transferred to Minneapolis and worked at Control Data in Minneapolis for a while. Around the early 1960s or so I quit, dropped out and began doing a little consulting — and by that time I was traveling all over the country to teachers’ conferences giving papers and running workshops. When BASIC came along in 1964, by that time I was already running a course for high school students. So I started teaching high school students Fortran Programming in 1962.

Jon: Can you further elaborate on your experience of teaching and computing in the early 1960s?

Bob: So, in 1962 I began to teach high school students. Some of whom are well known now such as Randy Levine and Bob Kahn, both of whom were in the first group of students that I taught Fortran to in the Control Data office. I talked the University of Colorado Denver Center into going for a National Science Foundation grant. Control Data than provided a 160A, which would run Fortran paper tape, punch a paper tape on flexi readers and feed it in. So we ran that. My students were the teachers; so, they taught students and teachers in the evening classes under this NSF grant. I wrote about these kids in Datamation magazine in about 1964 and the article I wrote was called a Modern Day Medicine Show. We picked up the 160A moved it into George Washington High school and for an entire day my students ran demonstrations for different classes that were brought in. Similar to an old fashion medicine show of some guy standing up there trying to sell phony medicine, it struck with me, that this was like this with my students as the barkers. (Students including Levine and Kahn, and Fred Riss whom, I believe, eventually became a vice-president of Research at IBM.)

Jon: Let’s talk about your campaigning for BASIC.

Bob: Well, this was in the day of time-sharing systems, so the only access to BASIC at that time was by a time sharing system. BASIC was created by Kemeny & Kurtz at Dartmouth, as an open lab tool for any student on campus at Dartmouth. Kemeny is a famous mathematician and I believe he was the President of Dartmouth at the time, so they created this language called BASIC. They wanted to enable students in fields other than science and mathematics to use computers. At the time, nearly all use of computers required writing custom software, which was something only scientists and mathematicians tended to learn. I said that’s it! No more Fortran, so I started traveling all over the country crusading for BASIC.

In Minneapolis I worked for a while towards a PhD in behavioral psychology; and I just wasn’t PHD type, I think. But during that time I taught the teachers at the University of Minnesota High school, which was on campus at UoM. At this time, BASIC had come along and I was sort of touring the country with the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics Group called the Computer Oriented Mathematics Committee. The Committee had six members. So we would meet every so often at educational conferences and we wrote a couple of booklets published by NCTM. We decided to write an introductory booklet, a little thin booklet about computer languages suitable for the teaching of mathematics.

Some people in the NCTM lobbied the booklet to incorporate Fortran, and I lobbied, ranted, and raved for BASIC. By that time I had made big buttons that said SHAFT (Society to Help Abolish Fortran Teaching), also I made SHAFT business cards, so I was crusading all over the country for BASIC. We voted and it was 5 and 1 in favor of BASIC. We wrote a little booklet, we wrote most of that booklet in a conference in Miami — wrote a booklet called Introduction to an Algorithmic Language — BASIC, so that was my first BASIC effort.

One day, a member of Addison Wesley Publishing Company tapped me at one of the conferences and gave me a contract to write a book for teachers and high school students on BASIC. So I worked for a while on that book. Although I grew up in Iowa, went to Iowa State for a couple years than UoM — as you may know, Minnesota is kind of cold. My publisher was in Palo Alto [California]. And then one December, 23 days of below zero weather, I said to myself: “Why am I writing this book here in Minneapolis for a publisher in Palo Alto? Why don’t I move to California?” So I did. I moved to California, to San Francisco, and continued to write the book. Took me about three years to write a book I could write in six months now. That was my first big book, it was called Computer Methods in Mathematics. It was mostly about BASIC but they required me to throw a little Fortran in at the end of the book.

Jon: What discoveries and adventures came next?

Bob: Well I piled everything I owned at the time — I was single now — in my Volkswagen bus and drove to San Francisco. Lived in San Francisco for a while, wrote the book (Computer Methods in Mathematics) with lots of programs and some pretty complex programs and I mostly did not have access to BASIC — to a time sharing terminal. So I sat down and hand executed them, and fortunately almost every program worked later on when they were checked. I lived on Lombard, the most crooked street in the world, in the house on the east side at the top of a street. It was several stories and I was in a two story flat with a friend of mine. Every Thursday evening I would run computer programming, wine tasting, and Greek dancing parties. A guy named Dick Raymond came to one of these. Dick told us how he had an idle, non-profit corporation that isn’t doing anything right now, and this looks like something that might be fun to do. So I moved to Menlo Park.

Portola is a very important part of this story. Dick and I started cranking up Portola Institute. Now I was still going around to a lot of educational conferences, especially California math counsel teacher conferences, at the time. I was being quite successful in talking some of the early makers of programmable calculators into loaning me equipment. So I would load up my Volkswagen bus with equipment I borrowed from various places — now I was also able to borrow equipment from DEC [Digital Equipment Corportation] as well as Hewlett-Packard. I would borrow mini-computers and I could carry one, but it was fairly large. I would load up my VW bus with equipment and go to University of California campuses and teach a weekend course on BASIC, and Bob Kahn went with me a couple of times.

Leroy Finkel was one of the most influential people in the early days of computers in education. At Portola our little group was called DYMAX, which came from dymaxian world of Buckminster Fuller. This was in the heyday of the counter culture movement. All kinds of interesting things were going on in Menlo Park, including the Mid-peninsula Free University 2848. There were a thousand or eleven hundred people either giving or taking free classes through the MFU. This is when Doug Englebart was doing his magic at SRI, so we quickly accumulated a few, somewhere between bright and brilliant, high school students that started coming in to use all of this equipment that I got on loan. They were amongst the early hackers — hackers in a good sense. We then caught a contract from Hewlett-Packard which had come out with its first programmable calculator. I think it was called the 9600 and it was about the size of a typewriter and programmed in Reverse Polish notation and it was the forerunner of, eventually, the handheld HP calculators. At the same time there were several other programmable calculators that were coming available. One interesting programmable calculators was the Wang, which had a box about, oh, so big (6 in. by 12 in.), four hardwired calculator terminals, so it was programmable. Of course they had all the scientific operations that you might see on today’s calculators. So this money provided enough income for Portola to began to expand a little bit.

Jon: What were some things that came out of Portola?

Bob: One of the things that happened was — is — Stewart Brand came to Portola and set up his group which eventually produced the Whole Earth Catalog. So Portola is best known for Stewart’s work. My little group eventually split off. We went and found a cheap warehouse in Redwood City and set up there. We had a couple of PDP-8 computers on loan. The PDP-8 ran four terminals with BASIC using high-speed paper tape input, 10 characters a second and high-speed printer output — Teletype model 33. So various people came drifting in to use this equipment: Mark LaBrun, Tovar, Jane Woods, and others. That’s when I wrote My Computer Likes Me. I wrote it. But people like Gerald Brown and Mary Jo did such a beautiful job of pasting it up, laying it out, that they contributed tonnes to this, tonnes — that is t-o-n-n-e metric, I’m sort of a metric evangelist. Then, one day, wandered in to our place in Redwood City, DYMAX, was Judie Wilson from John Wiley & Son’s. She asked us if we would like to write a self-teaching guide. Now Wiley was just beginning to start these self-teaching guides that were initially linear Skinner programs. Linear Skinner programing is a system of self teaching developed by B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist. Other people began behavioral psychology but B.F. Skinner was the great popularize. A linear Skinner program is a book consisting of frames. A frame might be informative and then immediately followed by a question or an exercise or something for you to do to write in the book, which is then immediately followed by the answer. So you go down, frame by frame by frame, with constant reinforcement. Then, at the end of the chapter, there is a self-test with answers. So we started writing self-teaching guides for Wiley and that continued for a long time, for years. So Leroy Finkel and several other people eventually fit in to DYMAX as co-authors of books of this type.

Around 1970, we moved to Menlo Park on Doyle St. Me and Dennis Allison started doing things initially as DYMAX, there on Doyle St., and I got a great urge, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog, to do a periodical. In 1972 Leroy said we could do it if we can do it cheap. So that is why we did the tabloid newspaper — the cheapest way to publish a lot of stuff. So I decided to call it “People’s Computer Company” in the same spirit as “Big Brother and the Holding Company”. See Big Brother and the Holding Company was not actually a holding company. People’s Computer Company was not a company at the time.

Jon: Tell me more about People’s Computer Company. What were the main objectives?

Bob: We didn’t really think about objectives, we just did things as they occurred to us.

October 1972, first issue of PCC: by that time we were doing all kinds of fun things — like Wednesday night potlucks where we would make our computers available to anyone who came, and I tried to teach Greek dancing and stuff like that. So that was the first issue of PCC which became a six times a year periodical. It’s frequently referred to as a quarterly in some of the current online stuff, but it was six times a year. First issue October 1972 was, what, about 16 pages, tabloid. Mark Labrun drew the cover and I put the stuff at the top about computers being used against people. So that was the beginning of PCC, the newspaper, the periodical. Then Dennis and I, Leroy, and some others decided to start a non-profit corporation called People’s Computer Company. Now we had PCC the periodical, and PCC the non-profit educational corporation. So this was in the early 1970s and during this time and a few years there after, Leroy and I, Bob Kahn and others continued to load up all of the computers and go to educational conferences where they would give us a space. The California math counsel conference was held at a Asilomar every year and Asilomar has all of these wonderful little buildings. They put us in a little octagonal building and we just ran open workshops all day. If the conference doors were open we were open. We would — when we would be doing a presentation [this] allowed us to talk about this or that. And, of course, what we were showing was BASIC and programmable calculators like the Hewlett-Packard and the Wang [calculators] or whatever else we could borrow and take to this thing. We started writing lots of material so that people could teach themselves how to use all of this equipment and of course most of our work was done on the context of the teaching of mathematics.

Jon: What came next?

Bob: Now it was about 1972 or 1973 and I stayed on as editor of PCC, the periodical for the first five years. I then created Dragonsmoke — it was my page or sometimes two pages in PCC. Basically this page was whatever I felt like putting in, so that’s why I called it Dragonsmoke. This was an 8 1/2 by 11 thin periodical consisting of a mish mash of computer and computing related information.

During that time I began the move to create the Community Computer Center. We rented the space next door. My group eventually moved downtown in Menlo Park. PCC, the periodical, was produced by PCC, the non-profit corporation, and Community Computer Center set up its very own non-profit corporation that remained on Doyle St. Of course during all of this time we were writing books. From 1969 when Computer Methods of Mathematics was first published until 1996, I was author or co-author of about 33 books. Most of the books about some form of BASIC, up to and including visual BASIC, but also other things like Ramon Zamora and I wrote a shareware book. The shareware book was 768 pages, a big thick book on shareware word processor and spreadsheet and, I think, a drawing program. Ramon and I wrote a book, a little tiny book, on Excel. So we kept on writing books and brought in other authors. I think something like 10 or 11 people wrote their first book as my co-author and then they would branch out and write their own books. Jerry Brown wrote a beautiful book. Jerry started as a co-author on our first Wiley book called BASIC a Self Teaching Guide. Then he wrote a beautiful book later on his own called Instant BASIC. Jerry was a graphic artist and video artist; he had a huge collection of talents and skills. I have no idea of how many of his copies sold but I hope a lot of Instant Basic. He would do the whole thing — he wrote it, did all the graphics, laid it out, pasted it up and everything, and sent it off to a publisher, and it got published

Jon: What was it that made you see the potential in the concept of education through computing?

Bob: What got me into that was when I taught Fortran to those high school kids. I said, “Wow this is so much more fun than anything I have ever done.” So because of that – and word started getting out – I was then invited to lots of teachers conferences, mostly math teachers. There were also a few beginning conferences about data processing and computing which eventually led to the huge conferences that exist today, but these were smaller conferences. So I was still with Control Data at the time and Control Data acquired Bendix Computer Division. Bendix had a computer called the G-15. The G-15 is about the size of a Coke machine with a typewriter input and output paper tape — input and output. Later on they had some [magnetic] tape drives for the G-15. Well, Control Data wanted to sell these G-15s to schools, very cheap at the time, although it was kind of a trap because you needed access in the same town to an engineer in case it broke down. So I got involved with G-15s. I would travel around to an educational conference, computer conference. I would go in two days early and Control Data would ship a G-15 in and I would teach 10 or 12 kids and help these kids teach themselves on the G-15, the language called Telecom. So I traveled around the country with a G-15 and then these kids would put on a show. They got out of school for this. They loved it and every kid would produce an interesting program, typically related to mathematics. They would then demonstrate that program to everybody who wanted to see it at the Conference. Later on, at the Association for Computing Machinery meeting in Denver, my high school students: Bob Kahn and Randy Levine, those guys were set up by Control Data on the exhibit floor and they spent the entire conference demonstrating what they had learned about Fortran. ACM at that time did not like this. They castigated me. They dissed me for having the audacity to teach computer programming to high school students. At the time they thought they should teach computer programming only. Also, they felt it should be taught only at the college level. A couple of guys would get on my case because I was using BASIC instead of something like APL (a computer language that uses Reverse Polish notation).

Jon: How did Fortran Man come about?

Bob: Fortran Man was done by two guys. They were classic nerds or geeks if you will. They were so clever it was terrific. One lived in Chicago and one lived Milwaukee. On one of my trips I made it a point to visit them and talk to them. They were just classic nerds and I wonder where they are today or if they are even still alive. As Fortran Man grew it became graphically better. I think Ann, Mia, or somebody on the PCC staff started re-doing their work and it really looked beautiful. Not only Fortran Man but Billy Basic too. Billy Basic came in later and it was sort of like the dynamic duo so it was Fortran Man and Billy Basic. The best thing to do about Fortran Man is just for you to sit down and read all of the episodes of Fortran Man. It is beyond me to describe, it was so much fun.

Jon: What was your favorite experience in People’s Computer Company?

Bob: We became a focus for a lot of activity during these early days of computers in education. Then, of course, I loved traveling all over California and teaching weekend courses. We typically get around 30 teachers to attend the courses. These courses were called “Computers in the Classroom 1 and 2”. Two different courses two credits from the University of California extension. Teachers could use these credits to lobby for pay raises, and the other courses were called “Games Computers Play 1 and 2”. Whenever we went to teach somewhere we ran all four concurrently, so if you have taken Computers in the Classroom 1, you can sign up for 2. If you have taken Games Computers Play 1, then you can sign up for Games Computers Play 2. There was virtually no structure, the instructors, usually two of us, would wander around and help people play games or if they wanted to learn to program we would give them teach yourself set up materials so they can start teaching themselves how to program. Sometimes we would wander around and say: “For all of you people who crave structure we will be in the lunchroom at 1:00 for an hour to have a seminar if you want to come.” And a few people would come and some wouldn’t. Some would just continue working away. We also asked these teachers to grade themselves because I was not a classroom teacher in a normal sense. A lot of teachers intensely resisted grading themselves and practically begged us to give them a grade. So I have no idea of how many of these we did, but it was a lot of them. We taught a few at Lawrence Hall of Science (UC Berkeley), UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbra, UC Davis, and we even ran one course at the airport in San Mateo. We traveled to almost all of the campuses of the University of California extension and ran these courses.

Well, all of this happened because I began teaching kids how to program, and I liked doing that so much that it sort of just took over my life. Almost everything that was going on was related in some way to helping kids teach themselves. I don’t like to say that we are teaching, I like to set up environments in which people can teach themselves with a little help. That is why I write ‘teach yourself’ instruction materials. I wrote teach yourself books so that people who did not have access to a computer teacher could use these books as an alternative; so all they need is access to a computer that ran BASIC and they could teach themselves how to program. It was really fun. I loved Wednesday evenings because all of these interesting people would come in and they would play computer games; especially when the computer center was set up next door. So, we had these two places; we had so many things going on at the same time.

Interview with Liza Loop by Jon Cappetta

Interview with Liza Loop: Q and A*

Jon Cappetta: What do you think sparked your interest in computers?


Liza: For starters, computers aren’t the focus of my interest – people are. Computers are a technology that people have to adjust to. It was clear to me that the personal computer was a really powerful technology, and it was going to change the way we did things. I was excited to be in at the beginning of the popularization of computers so I could see how people changed.

That’s what was going on in the early ‘70s when I started working on this, but I would have to admit that my family was into computers a lot earlier than that. I grew up in a science and technology household. My father was an audiophile and had done some research on coding, worked with scientists at MIT. It was both questions of language and questions of coding and questions of the use of technology for all kinds of things that were dinner table conversation for us.  Computing isn’t a big leap for me.

‘Technology’ doesn’t mean electronics; it means know how. ‘Technique’ is how you do things and -ology is the study of things. I think you’re asking when did I see the potential of electronic computers for education not [just as] technology? Everything has a technology whether it is a pencil or a digging stick. It is all technology.

Educational technology, when I was in school, was books, what we call ditto sheets or spirit masters, mimeographs, blackboards. There is a wonderful description [from the early 1900’s] of a blackboard as a fantastic new educational technology. But kids were using slates in the 1600’s; so, a big slate in the front of the classroom was a new technology compared with the small slates kids had at their desks through the 1800’s. [When I was in elementary school in the late ‘50s,] we were using what were called programmed learning books. These were little workbooks, small paper bound books, 8 1/2 by 11 inches, with questions or exercises on one side arranged so you folded a paper over the answer. Then you can slid the paper down to get the answer. You would look on the left hand side of the page — left because we are working in English, because I’m American — and the question or the exercise would be on the left hand side and you had the answer page closed. You wrote your answer down; then you slid the cover sheet down so you could see the answer. Then you could correct your own work.

My first introduction to computing in educating was automating that process [multiple choice drill and practice]. When we first started using computers they were large computers being time shared, so there were lots of people using the same computer. It was a no-brainer to go from that to communicating between those people. There was no Internet but you could send a message to somebody else. So the idea of creating simulated classrooms both synchronous (meaning everyone is communicating at the same time), or asynchronous (meaning one person puts in their ideas comments, responses and another person can see those later and interact in time segmented ways, asynchronously) arose quite easily.

Those were radical ideas for ordinary classroom teachers but for those of us who were trying to imagine what the future could be like, they were pretty obvious. That was a formal education aspect of educational computing but the non-formal education aspect of it was there, too. Here were these new instruments that we wanted to learn how to use – how were we going to learn how to use them when nobody else knew either? I think even more important than the effort to automate existing teaching techniques was the growth of peer interaction. You go study, or experiment however you can, then you come together in a group and you share what you discovered with everybody else and you hope they discovered something different so each one can teach each other. [The contemporary term for this, coined by Howard Rhinegold, is ‘peerogogy’.]

Two social technologies combine to create today’s educational technology landscape: studying by yourself and then coming together in a group to peer teach and the growth of what were originally printed newsletters or how-to-do-it manuals into what has now become the internet and all the how to do it YouTube videos — that was a pretty smooth transition. But back before today’s technologies were available we could imagine using these instruments to create that world.


Jon: You, Dean Brown, Stuart Cooney, started LO*OP Center, what were the main objectives?


Liza: Well, I was here at Sonoma State University at the time. My fellow students, and the professors as well, had access to the state college computer system — the actual computer system was at Cal State Northridge. We were sitting in Stevenson Hall in a little room with what were called glass teletypes. They were terminals with keyboards and screens and we were timesharing with Cal State system’s computer. There were what we would now call applications. In other words, if you wanted to crunch some numbers you could get a program to do that. There were games and lessons and programming languages available. There were about 6 or 7 seats in that little timeshare room and everybody was hunched over their keyboard. When somebody had a question, if they didn’t know how to do something, you turned to the person next to you and asked.

It was a real privilege to be able to use those. There were also, by the way, outside of the timeshare room, 3 or 4 punch machines so you could make your own deck of cards and submit your own deck to be batch processed which was more common at that time. In the early 70s, batch was the more normal way that people did computing – you didn’t do it in real time [on a keyboard and screen]. Unless you were a student at a university or working for a company that used computers, nobody had access to them. Nobody else could get to them. They couldn’t learn about them. They couldn’t access them. They couldn’t use them for their own purposes.

I thought that these things would infiltrate society, as they did. There were going to be two kinds of people in the world in the future: the kind of people who knew about computers and computing and how to control them, and the people who were controlled by them. To me that was a real anti-utopia. [LO*OP Center] was a way for ordinary people, those who were neither university students or people working for companies that had computers, to get access to them, learn about them, use them either for their work, for their play or for their education.


Jon: What are some opportunities LO*OP Center allowed the people?


Liza: We were right on the bus line between Petaluma and Santa Rosa [California] because we were in downtown Cotati.

There were almost no computers in schools so kids could come after school to LO*OP Center and do whatever they wanted with ours. We taught programming. We taught applications as they came up. We had games that required logical thinking. We had simulations.

We had the only publicly accessible copy machine as well. At that time, there were no copy centers; so, if you wanted to make a copy of something — I’m trying to think of where one would go aside from the LO*OP Center. Xerox machines (and there were only Xerox machines, that was what you could get) were just not publicly available. Big companies had them; otherwise, if you wanted a copy of something, you retyped it. When you knew you were going to want copies, you used carbon paper when you typed it. That was just a sideline but it actually brought us enough money to keep the doors open. People would come in and pay 15 or 20 cents a page.

There was one man who had a stock investment scheme who was working out his process on our computer, which was a PDP-8, a Digital Equipment Corporation machine. He came in often. Computer time was $10 an hour [on a walk-in basis]. If you wanted to rent time on one of our computers you could choose one of the 3 or 4 we had. You could rent private time on the computer for $10 hour, but for $10 a month you could become a member of LO*OP Center. The members could use the computers anytime [there was no walk-in traffic]. Kids came and played games. Schools brought field trips. After the first or second year we started taking the computers over to schools because people became more interested. [LO*OP Center] was also a place where people could just meet and greet. We had a lounge, and people could come, sit, and talk about their interests.


Jon: Can you further explain the story of the LO*OP Center being a milestone 1976 in the development of the internet and its significance for education?


Liza: That’s what happens when people who were not there try and rewrite history. I don’t think we were instrumental in the internet. All we did was show people that you could use a computer in a remote place over the telephone.

When we first opened in December 1975 we were on East Cotati Ave. in a second floor office. You had to get a special phone line to send data over the phone line. For starters, you couldn’t send it through the air [wi-fi didn’t exist]. We used what was called an acoustic coupler. You had your data conditioned line and an old fashioned telephone handset which had two round circles in it: one for the microphone, one for the speaker. You dialed up the computer line to someplace where there was a computer that had a modem at the other end. When it started buzzing and clicking, then you took your handset and you pushed it into two rubber cups on the modem. Modem, which stands for modulator-demodulator, took those audio clicks and buzzes and turned them into audio signals, which was the modulation. At the other end, the other modem demodulated, sent it as an electronic signal into the computer. Of course, if there was any noise or static on the line you got an error in the computer signal and would have to resend it.

We had an account with an organization named Call Computer in Mountain View California, which just sold time on their HP computer.  We also had an account with Lawrence Hall of Science. That is how we opened. We did not have our own computer when we first opened. There was no Internet. There was the phone company, only one-phone company, which was AT&T. There were no alternate competing phone companies at the time. We had a teletype which is what they used to send telegrams through. It was all uppercase. The modems and the phone line went directly to the computer time that we rented on somebody else’s computer.

Just popularizing and letting people know that they can get access to a computer over the phone lines was, I think, creating the social context for the internet; so, maybe that’s what the person who wrote [about us contributing to the development of the internet] was talking about. Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet, existed at the time; but it was only [accessible] through universities and government agencies. It was started as a military communication device and there was connection at Moffett field in Mountain View with another connection at Stanford Research institute. There was no connection up here so if I wanted to get on Arpanet, I had to make a long distance phone call. There was a connection at UC Berkeley. it was probably a connection at Stanford University. Each of the connections was called a tip.

This was a time when there were a lot of counterculture people out there, some of whom were actually in the military and were in big corporations. A friend gave me the access codes for the Arpanet tips. Some of us got on the Arpanet and used it to send messages, precursors to email, to our friends across the country or the world. I think the person that picked up that we were doing Internet kind of stuff was just looking at us using telnet, which was an intermediate service you needed in addition to the phone company. I’m trying to think of what the relationship was between them — you had to have both an AT&T account and a telnet account. The telnet number called the computer number and both the sending terminal and the receiving computer had to have telnet accounts.

I want to do HCLE [The History of Computing in Learning and Education Project] so people have a concept of how complicated it was to do what we take for granted today. I have lots of manuals showing, telling, how to use this stuff and what exactly the process is. Of course because we had a public access computer center I had to write instructions for how to do this for people who came in off the street and wanted to use computers to play computer games [that were only available remotely].


Jon: How did HCLE come about?


Liza: Well actually there were two triggers. One was that I had to close the storefront several years earlier. HCLE started in 2003 as a dream, not as a reality. The LO*OP Center had been closed as a  storefront computer center for over 10 years. The public access dream was not happening at that time but I [had collected everything I could find about using computers in education and] never threw anything out. I had it in storage and had to move all that stuff. I said to myself, “Well, I have to get rid of most of this. Either I can throw it out, or I can assume somebody might be interested in it and make a museum out of it.” As I was trying to figure out what to do one of my board members for LO*OP Center, Jackie Hood, said she would really like to do the museum project. She started working on it but we ended up deciding to take it in different directions. Since I was the founder the project took my direction but Jackie was instrumental in getting me going.


Jon: What are your thoughts on the use of computers as an educational tool and where do you see the future of this technique?


Liza: Education comes from the Latin word -educare means lead out of. Education is always a way of leading someone out of the way that they are into some new place. I always contrast education with learning. Learning goes on all the time. Everything and every situation is an opportunity for learning. If a person has changed, they learned something. They may learn to be afraid of thunder, or they may learn to calculate differential equations. Those are both learning experiences. Learning to use a new tool is just as much learning as being able to recite the Gettysburg address; even though one may be on some formal curriculum and the other one isn’t.

Learning to use a computer has become a part of formal education. It’s both a school subject and a tool to teach other things.

Another aspect of education is that, in general, we only teach proactively those things that people don’t learn spontaneously. This is becoming a problem because, in a world surrounded by books and writing and computers, little kids often learn these things without any formal teaching. There are lots of kids who get curious and teach themselves to read. Most of us don’t learn to use a modern computer in school. We learn it from our friends at home. There is a tension between the process we see at school where somehow the learner is supposed to wait for the teacher to present information to them and then acquire it through that presentation process vs. the absorbing that we do when learning from our environment.

It is important to think about those issues and the relationship between computing and school because the modern computer does two things. First of all it has become ubiquitous. 2 or 3 year olds are learning how to use computers the way they are learning how to use crayons, which doesn’t necessarily happen in school. In a home, one which wouldn’t be considered a ‘culturally deprived’ home, every kid learns how to use a computer and probably learns how to hold a pencil. Today, lots of kids are learning how to use computers without needing to be formally taught. The fact that the computer is part of the home environment and you learn to use it from your older brothers and sisters means it is not a school subject. Once you know how to read and use a computer there is a huge world of information that is open to you which didn’t used to be open to people.

We used to be pretty much limited to the knowledge that was available in our family, in our neighborhood, through our teachers, through our school. Once you have a computer and its related connections to the rest of the world it becomes a window on a world that is much bigger than the funnel through which any single teacher could feed you of information. I had that particular concept in the early 70’s and was really excited about empowering people to be self-directed learners. In a sense, that’s a very disruptive function for the machine. It disrupts the function of the school.

I am a rebel and didn’t much like school, was always bored. I  saw computing as a way for everybody to break out of the classroom, to break out of the lockstep of school, to be able to access the information you are interested in, follow your dreams, learn what you wanted to learn. In a sense, when you have that kind of access to the world of knowledge, a teacher becomes an accessory to your world of learning, the learner becomes the center of the activity, and the teacher becomes one of many different tools that you use to learn. It is a completely different way of thinking about growing up and continuing to grow, growing out. Once you’ve grown up you still keep growing out. It’s a different way of thinking about the teaching process than the teacher-centered classroom.

In a way, the computer is a Trojan horse that would break down the walls of the school. I was very excited about that possibility. I’m also really unhappy when I see schools try and lock down the computer —  close it up. I think that is a defensive move to try to preserve the status quo of the teacher-centered classroom. I think it is doomed to failure. The sooner we reinvent the way we scaffold learning the better. The computer is now actually being the Trojan horse that I thought it would become.


Jon: What is some key knowledge you gained and some lessons or facts about computers you feel everyone should know or be aware of?


Liza: I think the key facts in learning are not about technology; they are about people. I think, since we are humans, we live in our own psychology and our own bodies. Knowing ourselves and what keeps us happy, active and interested are the most important things we can know. I know that I can not sit in front of a computer forever. It is really important for each person to experience computing but not to become enslaved to it. Because the computer is a window on the world it is very addicting to sit looking out that window. We have to understand the danger of that addiction and learn to cope with it. We must not lose sight of all of the other joys that are available to humans.

So that is number one. Number two is that the computer with its associated telecommunications breaks down both time and space between us as individuals. It gives us opportunities for social relationships that we have never had before. This society, whether we are talking about American or western or global, doesn’t yet know how to use our newfound ability, talent, opportunity. I think we are going to have to do a lot of — I like the term ‘social engineering’. I know a lot of people think the term is pejorative but I see it as building and inventing new ways of relating that enhance the common good.

The anti-utopia is the possibility that those folks who know about computers will use them to control everybody else. That is why I started LO*OP Center. I didn’t want that scenario to become reality. In a way it is becoming a reality. An awful number of modern jobs basically use the person, the worker, as a peripheral to a computer. When I call a helpdesk or customer service, I’m really not interested in having the person I talk to read to me what is on the screen — what I could read for myself. To me that is an example of being a peripheral to a computer. If I’m going to talk to a human I want him or her to be a thinking, feeling person. I don’t want the customer service person to give me an apology which is written on his or her screen, or to tell me “Thank you for my patience.” when I have given every indication that I was not patient at all.

This suggests another opportunity for reinventing our society — to make sure we stay honest and do not let ourselves become what I perceive as slaves to the machine. Really, the danger is not being slaves to the machine; it is being slaves to the person behind the machine. There is never a case when the computer will not let you do something because the computer never gives permission. The computer just does what the computer is programmed to do. If somebody tells me he or she can’t do something because the computer will not let him, I respond: “that’s a small matter of programming.” I have to get through the shield people have used the computer for, use it to protect themselves with. The key is to get to the person who is doing the instruction of the programmer. That person is telling the programmer what to have the computer tell the customer service representative what to tell the customer.  The customer is the consumer, the user, the poor bloke who wants to get something done.

Why did I start LO*OP Center? – So that we, as individuals, would be inoculated against this tyranny of the machine — really the tyranny of the people behind the machine. A computer literate public  just wouldn’t fall for that. I don’t think I have succeeded. This story needs to be told and told over and over again. It is a rallying cry.


Jon: What is the ideal future of HCLE?


Liza: There are three ideal futures. My intent is for LO*OP to be an ongoing institution.

One ideal future is that the virtual museum survives in some form. I really want to preserve the story of how computing got from being completely irrelevant to education to being considered a foundation stone of teaching and learning. That story is getting lost. People do not know anymore what we went through to get here and what we thought about how to create the future we are living in now. Having a sustainable format and keeping the history of computing and learning in education accessible is just one ideal.

Having HCLE be a force for keeping people from being terrorized by the machine, oppressed by the shield that the machine is used for, is another ideal for me.

That credit is given to the visionary people who worked very hard to  bring about the personal computing revolution is another ideal. They had foresight and now they are dying and being forgotten. If I’m forgotten that is not so important. But if all of us are forgotten, that is a bad thing, I think. It is a story of innovation. It is a story of change and it is a story of a great deal of creativity. I think it would be fun to have it told.


Jon: What is the best way for an individual to handle technology that they might feel is out of their control?


Liza: That is a wonderful question. There are a lot of different ways of controlling, different kinds of control.

When I was teaching at LO*OP Center, when it was open for 3 years as a public access computer center, the kids were often excited about robots. The best way to control a robot, the sure fire way to control a robot, is to remove its power supply. If it doesn’t have some source of electricity it is dead. Whether that meant unplugging it, or taking its batteries out, or turning it off – that is the number one way of controlling electronic technology.

Another aspect of control, at least with respect to computer and internet technology, is privacy concerns. This includes maintaining and protecting one’s identity on the web and whatever other information one wants to keep out of public knowledge. I think the best way to do that is not to put it on the internet in the first place. If it is on the airwaves, on the net, in a computer that is connected to anything else, you might as well kiss it goodbye. It is public. Sooner or later our whole banking system is going to get hacked and we are in for an amazing surprise. That’s my personal belief. If you’re trying to control your privacy then don’t put the information on a computer. Another way to control secrets is not to have any. If you do put it on the computer be prepared for the public to know, for the world to know. I like the no secrets approach myself, but in those few cases where I don’t want the public to know I just do not put it on the computer.

One additional form of dealing with a technology is to learn a lot about it. Again technology is not only computers, not only electronics. Technology is know-how and, in a sense, without know-how there is no electronic technology. You don’t want the other guy to be the only one who has got the know-how. If you want control, you have to have to know and understand what you are dealing with.

Learning the basic principle of ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’  is incredibly important. There was a management textbook that I read when I took a management course here at Sonoma State. It cited a study of whether people had more trust in content that was handwritten, typewritten, or presented as computer printout. Those were the days you could tell the difference between a computer printout and a typewritten page. At the time the study was done in 1965 people believed the computer printout first, the typewritten second, and the handwritten third. That’s backwards. Anyone can make a computer print out anything they want. The fact that it is on a computer is totally irrelevant to its accuracy. That is what the ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’ principle means. You’re more likely to get something honest if somebody wrote you a handwritten note than you are if you are to find it on Wikipedia. Another way of taking control is learning what messages to trust and what messages are suspect and learning how to verify. How do you triangulate? How do you figure out whether something that somebody is telling you, I won’t say ‘is real because I don’t know what reality is, but has a high probability of being reliable in this small piece of the universe that we live in?



About Jon Cappetta: HCLE Intern

One of my favorite things about being a Communications Major at Sonoma State University would have to be the elective credit classes that they offer. One of my all time favorite classes I have ever taken would have to be Coms 365, which is Sonoma States radio class. I took Coms 365 first semester of my senior year and loved the freedom of playing my own music on air live and loved the opportunity to bring in my friends and talk about anything that we to. Even though I’m no longer taking that class, i still find myself in the KSUN studio every once in a while as a celebrity guest on my roommates show. My roommate’s partner this week happened to be out of town for the weekend so I stepped in as a co-host replacement. I thought it would be a cool opportunity to tell Sam and his viewers about my internship at History of Computing in Learning and Education and what I have learned so far. It was fun yet different being asked questions about HCLE, because in my newspaper class I was always was so use to being the interviewer. It was fun because I felt prepared with the questions Sam had for me because I had recently interviewed Liza and many of Sam’s questions were questions that I had for Liza in our interview. Speaking of the interview with Liza, I found myself to be very appreciative of that interview for it bettered my knowledge on HCLE to where I now feel as though I can fully explain the history and objectives behind HCLE. I had a blast on Sam’s radio show this week and glad he gave me the opportunity to talk about HCLE. Every week I feel as though I’m learning something new about HCLE. That being said hopefully Sam will need me on his show again, so we can talk more about some of the new discoveries I learn from HCLE.


*  Interview paraphrased for clarity.

Computer Dating a la 1965

Do you think of computer dating as a very “today” thing? Like many computing activities, it actually originated years ago and hasn’t changed all that much. I first used a computer dating service in 1965. Here’s the story.

I had dropped out of college, was working as a chemical lab technician, and was sharing a house with 3 friends, two of whom were attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA. One morning, at breakfast before we all took off for the day, Joel pulled out a large paper form with lots of little fill-in boxes on it and a No. 2 pencil. “Liza,” he said, “we’re all applying for this computer dating thing. Andy will read you the questions and I’ll fill in the answers for you. It matches you up with guys you’ll be compatible with. I tried it, it’s fun.” “OK,” say I, “how does it work?”

My roommates all worked with computers and explained to me that the form would be automatically read into a big machine that would compare the requirements of all the other applicants. Then it would spit out a list of guys who fit my criteria. (I don’t remember whether gay matches were an option in that era.) This certainly seemed more logical than hoping my mother would introduce me to someone or cruising the local bars (besides, I wasn’t yet 21). I mention that the target computer was “a big machine” because there weren’t any little ones in those days. One roommate, Richard, was actually working for Digital Equipment Corporation, a company that pioneered “minicomputers” but “microcomputers” only existed in science fiction stories.

The multiple choice questions on the form were not surprising: age, physical characteristics, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, intellectual interests, hobbies, pastimes, sports, etc. There was a section for me and another for the “target”. It never occurred to me that my roommates might not be filling in the answers I gave and I never found out. I wasn’t picky except about education and intellectual interests so I answered “any of the above” for lots of them.

Three dollars and about a week later the results came back: 13 names and phone numbers, 9 of whom I went out with at least once. Most of my “matches” were from outside the US. I don’t know what the matching algorithms were but I suspect that there were a lot of lonely foreign students in male-dominated, high-tech Cambridge. It may be that most of the female applicants were looking for white Americans of a specified religion. It did not occur to me to ask my “matches” what they had put on their forms.

So what has changed? We use online screens now instead of paper to initiate the matching operation. The results come back faster and we can exchange photos online although some services suggest you don’t do that until you get to know the person. We now have the option of using email as well as phone and face-to-face meetings in a neutral setting. Many of us have online personas that can be searched. But the questions are the same and the need for “chemistry” in a real-world, romantic relationship is still there.

IMHO, the most significant shift is that we now have the opportunity to participate in rich online relationships with individuals located around the globe. History gives us many examples of friendships and romances conducted by letter but the timing is very different. And, video technology allows us to simulate an in-person experience that only lacks smell, taste and touch. I hear they’re working on that too.

Oh, you want to know what happened with my nine dates? Six of them were duds and we only met once. One I went out with three or four times but there was neither “chemistry” nor enough common interest for me. As for number 8, I enjoyed hanging out with Basil, a tall, beautiful and very bright Jamaican, for several months but I think he lost interest in me. The last one, Charlie, was actually rooming with the girlfriend of one of my roommates so it’s likely that we would have eventually met even without the computer. Charlie and I hit it off, became lovers and lived together for more than two years. Although our romance ended we remained friends for about 20 years until he passed away unexpectedly in his early 40s.

And those roommates with our crowd from Cambridge? We’re spread across the county now and, you guessed it, we check up on each other via Facebook.

You can read more about early computer dating at http://www.onlinepersonalswatch.com/news/operation-match/