In this little manuscript, I want to describe how I got on what has often been called the Information Superhighway. It is a journey that has transcended almost four decades and the transition from main-frame computers with punch card readers to the wireless technology of today.
I also want to ask some questions that not too many people ask today. In our desire to utilize this technology, are we really using it or misusing it? Do we really understand what is on the highway or have we sacrificed true understanding and knowledge for ease and comfort?
How Did You Get On The Information Superhighway?
Actually, a better title for this might be “How did we get on the Information Superhighway and isn’t it time that we get off?” But there is only so much space available for a title and I will settle for what I have.
It would be safe to say that I got on this virtual highway that so dominates our lives today quite by accident. Now, I have been interested in computers and the application of computers in education since I was an undergraduate in the early 1970’s. When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in 1971, I had twelve credit hours in computer science and programming courses on my transcripts. That may not seem like a lot but it was six more than were in the catalog (I took two programming courses at other schools during summer vacation).
I attempted to use my knowledge of programming in many ways, from preparing a lab report in Physical Chemistry to developing a program to analyze football plays after I graduated. The lab report wasn’t accepted because I was the only one in class who understood how to format an output in a “readable” fashion. The program to analyze football plays might have worked except that this was still the era of punch cards and I didn’t have ready access to the necessary equipment. I also quickly found out that FORTRAN was not an appropriate language for this sort of thing.
When I began working on my doctorate, things had progressed somewhat. Instead of punch cards or tape readers, we know could sit at a keyboard and input our information and programming information through a process of time-sharing.
I found out that there was a rudimentary word-processing system on the college’s main-frame computer and I began preparing my various graduate papers that way. I added to my programming skills by becoming somewhat of an expert in SPSS (for the record, I needed a foreign language in order to complete my doctorate and it was my proficiency in SPSS and FORTRAN than enabled me to complete that portion of my studies) and again found myself doing things with the language that the creators never intended. I actually created a database of addresses for a business using SPSS and set up a series of graphs detailing the output of an experiment we ran in the introductory chemistry laboratories. Graphing in SPSS was possible but not to the extent that I used it. I also found that many of my fellow students, who did not have the same mathematical background that I had, were not comfortable with the SPSS language (or computers in general). I found myself helping them as much or more than I was actually working on my own projects.
About this time, the first of the personal computers began appearing on the scene. There were some on that particular campus who could see what this would mean to the educational process and they began moving in that direction. There were also others who saw the potential but did not understand how to fulfill that potential.
The local school system bought personal computers for every classroom in the system and then told the teachers that it was up to them to use them. No support was given; no additional information was provided. It was assumed that all a teacher had to do was turn the computer on, type a few words that would appear on the screen and magical things would happen. Students would be learning more and retain the information longer. If the teachers needed some sort of program, they would be able to write the program, debug the program, and test the program on their own. Of course, that didn’t happen.
The teachers had no idea what a computer operating system was or what computer software was. In fact, not too many people in education understood these points. During these wonderful days of the early 1980’s, computer software was virtually non-existent and misunderstood. The visionaries on my campus began providing courses, not in software development but rather in software analysis (will this work in my classroom?).
When I moved to Iowa to continue working on my doctorate, computers in the classroom were still in their infancy. Software was being developed but the operating systems and the capabilities of the hardware limited its usefulness.
Then I moved to Texas. By this time, there were movements in the various states to make sure that teachers were “computer-literate”. But the definition of such literacy was still somewhat nebulous. In one of our first published papers, Marcin Paprzycki and I discovered that computer literacy was defined in terms of the ability to program. In other words, anyone who was proficient in a computer programming language was considered computer-literate. But this didn’t help individuals who were first and foremost afraid of computers to begin with and, second, could not transfer what they learned in a programming course into what they were doing in an elementary level classroom.
During that time, a friend of mine asked me if I could get her a copy of “The Cuckoo’s Egg” by Cliff Stoll. This book was ground-breaking in many ways. It described the Internet and outlined the first serious attempts at computer hacking. It showed that computers could be used for more than simply processing numbers and preparing papers; it showed that computers could be used as a communication tool.
Later, when I moved from Texas to Minnesota, e-mail was the method by which Marcin and I would communicate and prepare the manuscripts that helped us to redefine computer literacy. It was through this early electronic media that we developed a research group that spanned three continents and included people who never met.
Now, these were still the days when windows were things in walls that enabled you to see outside or into other areas of the building. Though the floppy disk had been reduced from 8-½” to 5-¼”, the operating system of the computer was still limited. It would be a few more years before our “floppy disks” would be 3-½” across and encased in a hard shell. Multi-tasking was still a few years off.
But computers had possibilities and I wanted to use them as much as I could in my classroom. I would take my students down to the room where the terminals for the main-frame were and give a rudimentary lesson in logging on and off, setting up an e-mail account, setting up the word processor, and the rudimentary bulletin board that was part of the main-frame operating system. Now, keep in mind that my students could not enter my classes unless they were “computer-literate” but what they had learned in programming courses did not prepare them or enable them to use any form of computer. And like students throughout the ages who are faced with a new technology or a new way of doing things, they were very (and extremely) reluctant to try what I wanted them to do.
One student complained that I was throwing them into the pool without teaching them how to swim. But as one other student noted, they were in the shallow end of the pool and all they had to do was put their feet down and stand up. Interestingly enough, while the information technology people supported my efforts, my own division viewed these efforts with skepticism (in part, because they did not understand what was being done).
Much transpired from those days to the present time. Now, we have operating systems that are faster and we have the capability of operating several programs at the same time. (I remember when it took me over fifteen hours to download a Lotus spreadsheet into a Word Perfect document; the day I got a 486 based laptop computer, the whole process took less than ten minutes.)
I will admit that I have not always been ahead of the curve. The development of the World Wide Web caught me by surprise and it took me a while to understand what a “URL” was. I am not as proficient in HTML programming as I should be now but I no longer have to be. I also missed being involved with the development of computer interfaces but others did the “hard work” and now we have to figure out ways to utilize what those interfaces can do.
I am told that our students are the most computer literate generation ever but I think that we need to reconsider what they are saying. In our papers on computer literacy we (Marcin Paprzycki, George Duckett, I and several others) showed that, outside computer science, computer literacy was better defined in terms of how people use computers, not in their ability to utilize a computer programming language.
Computer literacy is still taught today as a separate entity, not as part of other classes. The computer is a part of our lives but not a part of our educational system.
I am not convinced that students today are as computer literate as others might think. They are comfortable with instant messaging and sending text messages via any number of methods. But the cost and bandwidth have forced the development of a number of acronyms that reduce the size of the text string that is sent. While these may be coherent messages to the recipients, they do not help in the development of proper grammar skills.
The information superhighway has an uncalculated amount of information available to people today. And people today quite easily use the information that they find. But they do not process the information and determine the validity of such information.
I have an assignment involving scientific fraud that my students can complete with information available on the Internet. The majority of my students tell me that one of the individuals on my list is guilty of scientific fraud but never discovered that the information that leads to this conclusion is limited and incomplete. The Information Superhighway is good for finding information but it does not help process the information (in fact, no computer at our level is capable of doing so).
Through the web, it is possible to bring a wide range of people together. You can have video conferencing through the Internet and on-line, real-time interaction. It is helpful when communicating with family and friends, as so many of our soldiers and sailors overseas can tell you. But is it the answer to educational settings.
That is a far cry from the days when Marcin, George, and I began developing the first of our collaborative papers. More and more institutions are going towards on-line classes. But are these classes going to be interactive, which require that everyone be on-line at the same time? Or are they going to be merely modified versions of classroom lectures where the instructor posts information in a text form and students print it out? In my own field of chemistry, how are laboratory exercises going to be handled? It is possible, thanks to the pioneering work of Stan Smith and Loretta Jones, to have virtual laboratories. But such laboratories cannot give the student a sense of the feel of the apparatus they are using.
We must also understand that not every school has the same computer capabilities as other schools. Students who graduate from the top of the line research universities may have the best and latest of equipment available for their research but they quickly find that such equipment is virtually non-existent at most other schools. The same is true for computers. Often times, educational systems are behind the curve when it comes to computers, computer systems, and the ability to interface the computer with and within the classroom.
The Information Superhighway is out there and it is part of our life. Its uses and applications are probably greater than anything Tim Berners-Lee envisioned. But it does not have the answer for all questions. As a species, we are defined as much by our interaction with others as anything else. Traveling the Information Superhighway is an individual thing, not a group effort.
And not everyone out there has the ability to travel the Information Superhighway. There are parts of this globe that do not have any access to the worldwide web. There are many people, I am convinced, that believe that when we are done with a computer that it will be useful for other, less developed countries. If we consider a computer to be obsolete because it cannot do certain things, how will it be useful for someone else who must do the same thing we are trying to do?
The Information Superhighway is a fun way to travel but it is not the answer. In fact, it does not have the ability to answer our questions. Perhaps we need to get off this vastly overused and overrated path and try something else.
The Road Not Taken (Robert Frost)
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Had worn them really about the same,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
And that has made all the difference.