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Precollege Computer Literacy: A Personal Computing Approach

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An April 1983 Booklet by Dr. "Dave" Moursund

The first edition of this booklet was published in 1981, and a revised edition was published in April 1983.

PDF April 1983 Version

Microsoft Word April 1983 Version

Retrospective Comments by Dave Moursund December 2003

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I established the Oregon Computing Teacher periodical in May of 1974. This periodical is now Learning and Leading with Technoloy, the flagship publication of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

In 1979 I established the International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE). This professional society was renamed the International Society for Technology in Education in 1989. This renaming occurred shortly before a merger with the International Association for Computers in Education.

During its early years, the International Council for Computers in Education grew rapidly, and it quickly expanded into book the publication business. By April 1983 ICCE had published 11 books.

The first edition of my booklet Precollege Computer Literacy: A Personal Computing Approach was published in 1981, and a revised edition was published in April 1983. While a large number of these booklets were sold, a still larger number were distributed free at computer in education conferences and through ICCE's Organization Affiliates. In total, many tens of thousands of this booklet were distributed. I like to believe that this helped in the development of the field of "computer literacy" in precollege education.

The booklet Precollege Computer Literacy: A Personal Computing Approach captures some of the flavor of the early history of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in precollege education in the United States. In some sense it represents a snapshot of the way things were and the expectations in early 1983.

One of the forecasts in the booklet is:

But by the year 2000, we may well have one microcomputer for every two students. A typical student may use computer assisted instruction materials for an hour or two per day. The computer, rather than textbooks and other print materials, may be the dominant mode of instruction. The potential impact upon teachers is not clear.

This forecast proved overly optimistic if we are just considering microcomputers in schools. However, if we also add in microcomputers in students' homes, than the forecast proved to be quite accurate. Now, in December of 2003, we have approximately one microcomputer per 4-5 students in our schools, and more than 75% of school age children have access to a microcomputer at home.

The booklet did not attempt to make forecasts on the speed, fast memory, and disk or other storage devices for these microcomputers. Very roughly speaking, "Moore's Law" has proven accurate during the past 20 years. This means that new microcomputers currently being purchased for use in schools and homes are perhaps 10,000 times as powerful as those being purchased in 1983.

The 1983 booklet forecast that computers would be having a significant impact on education by the year 2000. This forecast has proven to be overly optimistic. It failed to reflect a good understanding of the politics of education and the resistance of our educational system to change.

The booklet includes an emphasis on computer programming, and especially the potentials of programming in the language Logo. Now, 20 years later, Logo still exists and has a "following." However, its impact on our educational system is modest.

It is interesting to think about why this is the case. Off the top of my head, I believe some types of reasons a person might generate probably include:

  1. Logo became "dated" and is no longer competitive with more modern software.

  2. Software application tools such as word processor, spreadsheet, paint and draw graphics, email, and the Web (including search engines, browsers, and Website creation software) have proven far more useful and accessible to students and their teachers.

  3. Logo was designed as an aid to learning. However, software specifically designed for computer-assisted learning has proven far superior to the type of learning that can occur in a Logo programming environment.

The first statement is just plain wrong. Modern versions of Logo are very good and are in no sense out of date.

I think the second statement is correct. The quality and quantity of productivity tools that are relevant to students has grown rapidly over the past two decades.

The third statement can be the basis for interesting discussions. Seymour Papert (one of the co-developers of Logo) had in mind that students could learn how to write computer programs as an aid to representing and solving complex problems. He envisioned Logo environments as problem-posing and problem-solving environments that would help students develop their higher-order cognitive skills. In this environment, students would learn procedural thinking, and creating and debugging procedures that can be carried out by a computer.

However, Papert and other Logo leaders did not give enough thought to the human teacher elements of a rich Logo and problem solving environment. In the "good old days," large numbers of elementary school teachers received some instruction in Logo programming. However, very few of these teachers developed a reasonable level of expertise in problem solving or in teaching problem solving in a Logo environment. Teachers proved to be the weak link in the Logo movement.

The same chain of argument can be applied to the current overall situation of ICT in precollege education. ICT provides very powerful aids to representing and solving a wide range of problems. However, our precollege education system and our teacher education system have only a modest emphasis on problem solving and other higher-order cognitive activities. Thus, much of the current use of ICT in precollege education is at a modest cognitive level, and much does not make much use of the power of ICT as an aid to solving complex problems and accomplishing complex tasks.