This piece follows “Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” and hopefully provides the set up for the next piece, “Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”. This is more of a story of how I got to this point in the technological development of this country.
I have personally been interested and involved with computers and the application of computers since 1963. Back then, programming a computer was primarily done with machine language and you operated on a huge main-frame system. In theory, because I successfully navigated my way through a self-paced book on machine language programming, I had the skills to be a computer programmer. But there were no main-frame computers available for 8th graders to practice on and I never explored that possibility.
By the time I got to college, programming had evolved into more useable languages and I learned FORTRAN. Still, the only computers available were big main-frame computers and it was a matter of sitting at a key punch and preparing stacks of punch cards, each with a line of code type on it. Each main-frame had its own set of codes for running your program and that complicated things.
Still, I began seeing ways that I could use a computer, even if it was a main-frame, in part because in the back of my physcial chemistry textbook was a FORTRAN program that do the calculations for a particular experiment that we did in the lab. Because I was familiar with the set-up codes for the main-frame that the college used, I was able to add some formatting codes and prepare a reasonably decent lab report. Unfortunately, my instructor would not accept the computer printer, even though it was typed and on 8-1/2 by 11 paper, because no one else in the class was able to do the same thing. I guess being on the cutting edge of technology doesn’t always help.
The main-frame computer was still the computer of choice when I began working on my doctorate but now one could sit in a room deep with the confines of a building and type in your program at a terminal instead of finding time to sit at a key punch. I also began learning SPSS (Statistical Programming for the Social Sciences) so that I could complete the statistics courses that were part of my doctoral program. The main-frame that I had access to also had a word-processing program and now it was possible to do my papers at a keyboard and have them printed out on 8-1/2 by 11 paper in the proper format for submission. This time, everyone had the capability of doing this so my work was accepted. While this was reasonable, it still required many hours at a terminal on campus. The personal computer revolution and the ability to work away from the main-frame was still a couple of years away. Still, there were those who saw possibilities of computer-based education and began developing programs that people could use as learning tools. Keep in mind that much of this early work was done with limited or no graphics.
The mid 1980s saw the development of the personal or desktop computer. Much credit must be given to those educators, occaisionally in administration, who saw the potential for this new device in education. Unfortunately, while there was vision, it was limited. There was very little knowledge about computers and the work that was involved in preparing programs that would allow the student to learn or test new ideas. Many people thought that all that they had to do was buy the computer and learning would take place automatically (perhaps a bit over-stated but I think you get the point). And if programs were needed, they were relatively easy to write. Needless to say, that wasn’t what happened.
As we moved into the 1990s, we saw the beginnings of the notion of computer literacy. But it was still very much based on the ability of a user to program a computer and not use the computer to solve problems or increase one’s productivity.
Faced with students who were considered computer literate because they had passed a class on basic computer programming (I never have determined if that was a class in basic computer language or an introductory class in programming) but who were unable to utilize a computer in their work, Marcin Papryzcki, George Duckett and I undertook some research on the nature of computer literacy. The one important conclusion for this moment is that computer literacy must be phrased in terms of what one does with the computer, not one’s ability to program a computer.
If we are to consider how long computers, in whatever form they may be, have been a part of our lives, then we have to figure that computer literacy, or the ability to understand how computers work, has been a part of our lives aw well.
The passage of time, however, suggests that while computer literacy is a stated goal of every school system (K – 12 and college), it is still very rudimentary in nature.
Computer literacy may have changed from understaning what computers do to being able to use a computer but there is still a limited understanding of how to use a computer in a particular setting.
When I began exploring computers in 1963, I had no idea where such explorations would take me. Computers were big and bulky, locked away in massive building accessible to a select few. Along the way, I found ways to use computers in ways that fit within the framework of my other interests. Perhaps my education gave me that opportunity.
What is clear is that many people still don’t realize or cannot realize the potential of the technology that lies at their fingertips. As we progress deeper into the 21st century, that is a very frightening thought.