Moursund's IT in Education Home Page


Volume 20 1992-93 Editorial (with Retrospective Comments)

 David Moursund

Reprinted with permission from Learning and Leading with Technology (c) 2000-2001, ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education. 800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 541.302.3777,, Reprint permission does not constitute an endorsement by ISTE of the product, training, or course.

1. Aug.-Sept. 1992 Buying Into the Future
2. October 1992 What Is a World-Class Education?
3. November 1992 Crossroads
4. Dec./Jan. 1992/93 Empowering Teachers
5. February 1993 Questioning Overly Simplistic Solutions
6. March 1993 The N-percent Solution
7. April 1993
8. May 1993 Design of User Interfaces

Buying Into the Future

Moursund, D.G. (August/September 1992). The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

I enjoy reading newspaper ads for computers. Perhaps you have seen the type of ad I am talking about.

No down payment! MS-DOS compatible, 16-megahertz, 386 machine with 2 megabytes of memory, 80-megabyte hard drive, and 14" VGA color monitor. Only $-.

The price may be under $1,000. The ad may be from a furniture store, a department store, or a computer store. For a somewhat higher price the same store may be selling a "486" machine running at 25 megahertz.

What's so interesting about such ads? First, these ads are in newspapers because there are literally millions of potential customers-and many are people who might buy a computer for home use. In the past year in the U.S., there were probably more than twice as many computers sold for home use as the total number of computers that are currently installed in all K-12 schools. The total sales of computers in the U.S. now exceeds 20 million per year and seems likely to reach 30 million per year within five years.

It seems clear that people who have money and a need for computers are quite willing to buy them. Of course, K-12 students and their teachers have the need, but they don't have the money!

Perhaps more interesting, however, is what current computer sales portend for the future. Intel is the company that developed the original 286, 386, and 486 CPU chips. These chips came into mass production in 1983,1986, and 1990 respectively. Nowadays, it does not take very long from the time a CPU chip enters mass production until the time that "popularly priced" computers using this chip are being widely sold across the country.

At the current time, the Intel 586 chip is nearing mass production, the 686 chip should enter mass production in 1994, the 786 chip in 1996, and the year 2000 may see the 868 chip in mass production. The Intel 786 chip will contain about 20 million transistors and will be rated at 250 millions of instructions per second (MIPS). This may be contrasted with the 130 thousand-transistor Intel 286 chip that was rated at 1 -MIP, or the 500 thousand-transistor 386 chip that is rated at about 5 MIPS.

In the past, predictions five years into the future have proven quite accurate on chip technology. Based on current forecasts, it seems quite likely that a 32-megabyte memory chip will be in mass production by 1997. Thus, a few years later (say in the year 2000) we can expect that annual sales of 32 or 64 megabyte machines based on the 1996-97 technology will exceed 30 million in the US.

Increasingly, the traditional materials and traditional tests are irrelevant. The knowledge and skills needed to pose and solve problems in a high-tech environment are substantially different from those needed in a paper and pencil environment.

The trend of rapidly increasing computer power is apt to continue well into the 21st century. Right now Intel has some expectation that in the year 2000 a 100 million transistor, 2 billion MIPS chip will enter mass production! It may contain four CPUs and a considerable level of fault tolerance (ability to continue to function when some components fail).

How do these computer capabilities compare with the computers that your students are currently using in your school? More importantly, are you preparing your students to conceptualize and solve problems, to be a productive adult citizen, and to readily adjust to such continuing changes in the high-tech world of tomorrow?

Many people have observed that computers haven't made a great deal of difference in our schools so far. What they tend to mean is that learning of "traditional" materials, as demonstrated by traditional tests, has not been significantly affected.

I feel that this completely misses the main point of computers in schools. Increasingly, the traditional materials and traditional tests are irrelevant. The knowledge and skills needed to pose and solve problems in a high-tech environment are substantially different from those needed in a paper and pencil environment.

The implications seem clear to me. A few components of our school curriculum have been substantially changed because of computer technology. However, the majority of the curriculum content remains virtually unchanged. As long as this situation continues, the impact of computers on schools will be, at best, only moderate.

Think about the alternatives. Pick a discipline, such as math or writing (in a hypermedia, desktop publishing environment) and consider how computer-related technology has changed how practitioners function in that discipline area. What would it be like for a student to grow up in a math or a writing environment in which a powerful computer was always available, the teacher and curriculum materials were geared to availability of such facilities, and all assessment took into consideration such facilities?

Of course, the answer is that we don't know. The necessary research has not been done. The same could be said about schooling at the time reading and writing were being introduced, or at the time that universal literacy was deemed desirable. We should not be deterred by such a lack of research.

The world outside of education is changing far faster than the world of education. A large part of our curriculum is archaic. It even seems to me that the gap between our school curriculum and the world outside of school is widening! We cannot solve this problem by "tweaking" the curriculum-by making minor changes. We need massive restructuring of the curriculum content, pedagogy, and methods of assessment. This should be based on the assumption that our forecasts of continuing improvements in computer related technology are correct. We should be taking immediate action.

What Is a World-Class Education?

Moursund, D.G. (October 1992). What is a World-Class Education? The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

One of the new educational buzz phrases is "world-class education." The United States wants its students to receive a world-class education. Indeed, the goal is often stated that students in the United States are to be second to none, and they are to be first in science and mathematics.

Of course, I can imagine that leaders in other countries have the same aspirations for their students, which does seem to create a slight problem! I wonder whether an international competitive model for education is appropriate?

I hate to admit it, but I am not sure what constitutes a world-class education. The summer Olympics have recently ended, so I know what constitutes a world-class performance in an athletic event such as swimming or running. In these events, performances can be clocked to the nearest thousandth of a second. In sports like soccer or basketball, athletes earn points under a system of carefully defined rules. In performance events such as gymnastics and diving, the judging process is quite complex and the results are sometimes controversial.

This suggests one definition of world class. It is a competitive definition, and it refers to a person or a team being competitive with the best in the world. In areas like mathematics and computer programming, there are international "Olympiads" in which teams from different countries meet head-to-head. The teams are asked to solve problems that are sufficiently challenging so that a clear winner usually results.

However, most people who talk about a world-class educational system are interested in the education of the vast majority of children, or all children, and not just a small elite. Probably they have in mind an extension of the above competitive model. The idea would be to develop assessments (tests) that are highly accurate and that are absolutely equally fair to the students in every country. Then assess every child in every country, compute the average scores for each age level, and see which country comes out on top.

Unfortunately, there are a few flaws in this approach. For example, Japanese students spend quite a bit of time memorizing the names of their country's rulers going back for a thousand years, while students in other countries face longer or shorter lists. Should our international educational assessment include a measurement in this area? Or should we leave out any topic that varies across regions or countries?

As another example, in many countries, children grow up speaking two or three languages. In other countries, they learn only one language. Should fluency and literacy in several languages be part of the international competition? Or perhaps we should concentrate just in one's native language. I can imagine trying to compare quality of written and oral communication among students with differing native languages. That would certainly be a challenge to the test makers.

Will we measure students' abilities to survive in a jungle, desert, or large city? Should we assess skill in using public transportation systems? Will we measure students' abilities as hunters, farm workers, factory workers, and service industry workers? Will we measure artistic creativity? If so, should the artistic medium be crayons, brush and black ink, or a computer? Should we measure composition and performance in music? If so, should the instrument be guitar, bongo drums, or a computer with a MIDI interface?

I believe that this line of reasoning and argument illustrates the difficulties, if not the impossibility, of defining a world-class education. What seems to emerge from this morass of difficulties is a simplistic definition of world class. We will select certain things that are relatively easy to assess. Given a map of the globe, name and locate the continents, the major oceans, the 10 most populated countries, and the 10 most populated cities. Perform the following computations; solve the following math problems. Balance the following chemical reactions, and solve the following physics problems.

If the nature of the assessment is clearly defined in advance, then schools can prepare their students to do well on the assessment. However, that means the assessment drives the curriculum. It also means that we need worldwide agreement on what is to be assessed, so we need worldwide agreement on directions in which to drive the curriculum.

At the current time, it would be impossible to achieve such worldwide agreements. Moreover, it is not clear that it would be desirable to do so. It may be okay to agree on precise international definitions on athletic events, and not change these definitions over a period of many years. It is another thing entirely to agree on precise goals for various parts of the school curriculum, and not change these over a long period of years.

Continued rapid advances in computer technology, along with rapidly growing interest in "authentic" assessment, further complicates the issue. Many students are learning to answer geography questions, solve math and science problems, and communicate in a computer-rich environment. If assessment of these students is to be authentic, it should be done using the facilities of this environment.

During the past year I have gotten quite good at having the term "world-class education" flow through my keyboard. Maybe in the next year or two I will learn what it means.


Moursund, D.G. (November 1992). Crossroads. The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

The National Educational Computing Conference held this past summer was overwhelming. More people, more exhibits, and more announcements of new products. The conference has been followed by a rash of price cuts and additional new product announcements this fall. The pace of change seems to be quickening.

I am particularly struck by three major, apparently conflicting, roads that are being built. One road is computer-assisted instruction. Here, the computer is viewed as an instructional delivery system. The underlying aim appears to be to develop computer-assisted instruction delivery systems and instructional materials that are educationally sound and more captivating than MTV or Nintendo.

The second road is computer-as-tool. Here, the underlying goal is that of providing students with powerful tools that are related to the curriculum they are studying-aids to problem solving and communication. Some of the newer tools increase the ability of students to easily work with a combination of text, sound, graphics, and video. Others provide increasingly powerful aids to solving the range of problems that students study in a broad-based academic program. Still another category, known as "groupware," facilitates groups of people simultaneously working on a project from different physical locations.

The third road is consumer market products such as "personal digital assistants." Some are designed to solve a particular problem that consumers might have (for example, need to carry around a large file of names and addresses; need to have easy access to a number of words and phrases in five different languages), while others are designed to create new markets (home hypermedia; Apple's forthcoming "Newton"). Such consumer products have substantial applicability to education.

Which road should education take, and which road will education take?


Obviously, education should take the road that leads to students obtaining the best possible education commensurate with the available resources. Still, that does not help us much in making a decision.

One aid to analyzing the problem comes from the business world. In recent years, business has undergone a strong movement toward empowering workers. Workers are empowered by being given the authority, responsibility, and education to do their jobs well. This formula has worked well in many countries and in many different types of business.

...any educational reform movement will fail that is not firmly rooted in giving substantially increased power to students and teachers.

A similar aid comes from the literature on school improvement and change. In recent years, some leaders in the movement to improve schools have asked why all of the previous efforts have not lead to greatly improved schools. While the issues are very complex, quite a bit of the answer seems to lie in the "power" structures of education. Who has the power? Does it reside mainly with students, teachers, parents, school administrators, school boards, or legislatures? Seymour Sarason in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform (Jossey-Bass, 1990) argues that any educational reform movement will fail that is not firmly rooted in giving substantially increased power to students and teachers.

I will write about empowering teachers in my next editorial. What does it mean to empower students? Sarason and others argue that for most students, school is dull and is relatively unrelated to their world outside of school. Students are put into an environment with a restrictive set of rules and with few options. Much of the curriculum content is of the nature, "Memorize this for the test." It is a "throwaway" curriculum.

What would school be like if students were more empowered? You might play a mind game of imagining that a great deal more power resided with students. Would the typical student focus on "learning" the content of a specific textbook, and demonstrating knowledge by passing an objective and short answer text? Would science classes spend more or less time on hands-on, inquiry-based activities? Would students chose to spend more or less time on drill and practice types of activities-whether based on paper and pencil worksheets or computer based systems? Would school be competitive or cooperative?

As you come to understand the notion of empowering students, you can begin to answer the crossroads question for your particular school environment.

The Answer

The answer to the crossroads question is that "the" answer cannot exist. Each road can empower students if the students are assisted by knowledgeable, supportive teachers and a wide range of other humans. No road empowers students who do not have such support. And, of course, there are many other elements of the educational system that must be considered as one answers the crossroads question. Thus, the crossroads question must be answered in light of considering education as a system, not as individual elements.

Empowering Teachers

Moursund, D.G. (December/January 1992/93). Empowering Teachers. The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Many schools now have a ratio of one computer per 12 students, or even better. While these machines may vary widely in capability, the total computing power in schools is both quite large and is growing quite rapidly.

So, why isn't education getting a whole lot better? Indeed, why do so many people argue that the quality of our educational system has been declining during the past decade while so many resources have gone into schools acquiring computer hardware and software?

This is a complex question, and I am going to provide a simple answer. The answer comes from the business world. In recent years, business has undertaken a strong movement toward empowering workers. Workers are empowered by being given the authority, responsibility, and education to do their jobs well. This formula has worked well in many countries and in many different types of business.

Business has also faced the problem of dealing with an immense amount of technological innovation. Studies indicate that providing workers with high technology fails-be it in a factory or in an office-if the workers do not receive adequate training, encouragement, incentives, and continuing on-the-job support. If the workers are not empowered by appropriate training and support, the technological innovations prove ineffective.


Why should it be any different for teachers? Many schools have acquired a great deal of computer hardware and software. However, few schools have analyzed the amount of education, encouragement, incentives, and continuing on-the-job support needed by teachers. Few educational leaders appreciate the difficulties involved in a teacher learning to make comfortable use of even a single piece of software in a complex educational environment-that is, in the typical classroom.

To take a single example, compare a skilled secretary learning to use a word processor to handle correspondence versus a teacher learning to use a word processor as both an aid to instruction and as an object of instruction.

It is obvious that the task faced by the teacher is many times more difficult than the task faced by the secretary. This comes both from the fact that the teacher is not likely to be a skilled typist, but also because the classroom environment is very complex. Teachers not only have to deal with whatever questions arise as they make personal use of word processors, they also have to deal with the full

Studies indicate that providing workers with high technology fails-be it in a factory or in an office-if the workers do not receive adequate training, encouragement, incentives, and continuing on-the-job support.

range of questions that occur as their students use word processors. While the secretary most likely uses a single computer that nobody else uses, the teacher may have to deal with several different makes and models of hardware and software that are being used by different students every hour. (Students are very good at messing up computer systems.)

Empowering Teachers

Our educational system has done a miserable job of empowering teachers to make appropriate and effective use of computer-related technology. It isn't just the training-although in most cases it has been woefully inadequate. It isn't just the lack of computer-oriented curriculum-although, in most cases good curriculum materials are not available. It isn't just the assessment system-although, in most cases teachers are still expected to have their students perform well on assessment instruments that are totally unrelated to use of computers. It isn't just the amount of hardware and software available in the classroom-although, in most cases the facilities are quite inadequate. It isn't just the support system- although, in most cases the teachers are "on their own" if something goes wrong with the hardware or software during a class.

It is all of these things and more. Computers have not empowered most teachers. Rather, by and large, computers have decreased the actual and perceived power of teachers. Most teachers perceive their power to be diminished when they are expected to teach topics and deal with questions where their knowledge and skills may be far less than some of their students. Most teachers perceive that their power is diminished when the knowledge and skills they are gaining are obsoleted by rapid advances in hardware and software. Most teachers perceive that their power is diminished when they are told that they should be teaching students to communicate in a multimedia, hypermedia environment, and they have difficulty coping with a motion picture projector and a VCR.

If the above analysis is correct, it will take a long time for computer technology to make a significant contribution to improving education. This long time is will be required to provide teachers with the education, encouragement, incentives, curriculum materials, and continuing on-the-job support needed to make effective use of the technology. If the resources needed to accomplish these tasks are not made available in adequate amounts, computers will not contribute to improving our educational system.

Questioning Overly Simplistic Solutions

Moursund, D.G. (February 1993). Questioning Overly Simplistic Solutions. The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a small working group of computer scientists who were addressing problems of computers in education. One of the dominant people in the group was the director of a large computing center. While his initial focus was on the college-level problems created by precollege people teaching computer programming, he quickly expanded the issue. His conclusion was that education in this country would be greatly improved if we would fire all precollege teachers. After he said this several times, I threatened to walk out of the meeting. At that time, I was not able to think of a better way to deal with this type of person.

Interestingly, I recently encountered a somewhat similar situation. This was at a meeting of higher education faculty from science, mathematics, and engineering departments. The purpose of the meeting was to address what these departments might do to improve precollege science and mathematics education. In one of the working groups, a professor made a recommendation that the introduction to our group's report begin by criticizing the Colleges of Education throughout the country because they are responsible for our current educational problems. Indeed, it was clear that his solution to our educational problems would be to abolish Colleges of Education. He repeated this recommendation several times, and soon a number of others in the working group seemed to be supporting it.

Needless to say, my blood pressure began to rise and I became somewhat more than "peeved." It really surprises me when a group of intelligent and well-educated people address a very difficult problem and then fixate on a simplistic proposed solution.

At the same meetings, a different working group discussed the merits of having a special "Mathematics for Elementary Teachers" sequence of courses versus having all preservice elementary teachers just take the "regular" math sequence. The simplistic proposal was that mathematics education at the elementary school level would certainly be improved if the preservice teachers took the regular math courses. Interestingly, the mathematics educators in that working group were able to convince others in their group that it just might possibly be better to have a Mathematics for Elementary Teachers course.

The problems faced by our educational system are immense. There are huge numbers of very bright and well-educated people thinking about and working on ways to solve these problems. The thinkers and doers include teachers, school administrators, parents, school board members, business people, legislators, and so on. One of the characteristics of education is that it is quite easy to propose solutions-even without having a very good understanding of the problems. This is quite different from fields such as science, mathematics, and engineering where there is an assumption that it is necessary to understand a problem before proposing a solution.

The educational system in the United States has a great deal of local control; this leads to a great deal of diversity. Local control and diversity mean that a relatively small group of people can identify a problem and address it. A small public or private school has the potential to quickly implement quite major changes in content and teaching methodologies.

The net effect of the local control, coupled with large numbers of private schools, is that our educational system can be considered to be an ongoing collection of research experiments. Moreover, there is a great deal of communication among the experimenters. Thus, if a school in one state has few drop outs and consistently produces far more than its share of national merit scholars, chances are that it will receive a lot of publicity and will have a steady stream of visitors trying to learn how to replicate this success.

The next time you run into a person who loudly proposes "the" solution to our country's educational problems, you might ask them some questions such as the following:

  1. What problem are you actually addressing? Could you state it more carefully so that I can understand how implementation of your recommendation will solve it?
  2. Is there any research to support your recommendation? Can you give me several examples where your ideas have been implemented and this has led to solving the problem you have stated?
  3. Quite often the steps one takes to solve a problem produce new problems. While horse manure problems were reduced by the wide scale use of automobiles, it is clear that the automobile has produces some other problems. If your proposed solution is implemented, what are the types of problems that you foresee will likely result?

Questions such as these can help defuse a tense discussion-or, at least, help lead to a more productive discussion. Just keep in mind that the problems of education are very complex. Most likely a simplistic proposed solution, be it based on technology or not, is suspect.

The N-percent Solution

Moursund, D.G. (March 1993). The N-percent Solution. The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

The following is quoted from "The TwoPercent Solution" an editorial in the March 1984 issue of The Computing Teacher.

I am frequently asked how much money schools should be spending for instructional use of computers. My answer is that it depends upon the goals set by the school or district.

But that answer is less than satisfying to administrators in a school district who are just beginning to make a serious commitment to the instructional use of computers. Administrators need help in determining the level of expenses and nature of the commitment that may be necessary over the long run.

With these people I discuss "The TwoPercent Solution." The idea is simple enough. Let's see what could happen if a school district budgeted two percent of its total funds, year after year, for instructional computing.

The closing paragraph of this editorial states:

Two percent is a good initial goal. It is enough money to establish a solid program of instructional use of computers. However, two percent will probably prove quite inadequate over the long run. Perhaps a few years from now I will be writing an editorial on the five-percent solution. That is closer to the level of funding that will be necessary if we want to provide one microcomputer per two students, a good goal to aim at in the next decade.

Almost a decade has passed since that editorial was written. The computer world has changed immensely. The number of computers in schools has grown rapidly, but the ratio is still considerably less than one computer per 10 students. The amount of compute power that a dollar will purchase has gone up by far more than a factor of 10. The quality and quantity of educational software has steadily increased. And, of course, we now have hypermedia that greatly increases the need for more computer power and more equipment.

I think it is time to reanalyze the recommendations in "The Two-Percent Solution." Should the recommended percentage now be much larger, such as the five-percent mentioned in the closing paragraph of the March 1984 editorial? Or has the rapid gain in price-to-performance ratio of microcomputers made it possible for schools to achieve their instructional computing goals with less funds?

One of the key ideas that is emerging is that students and teachers need both the convenience of easily portable computing facilities and the greater power and versatility of non-portable facilities.

There are lots of ways to approach these questions. The approach used here is to estimate the dollars per year needed in each of four major categories, convert each dollar figure to a percentage, based on an estimated average school budget per student per year, and then tabulate the results.

One of the key ideas that is emerging is that students and teachers need both the convenience of easily portable computing facilities and the greater power and versatility of nonportable facilities. It seems evident that students need both portables and docking stations-systems that connect to portables and that can tie together and provide easy access to a full range of the multimedia facilities appropriate for use in education.

Category 1: Teachers. This category includes hardware, software, teacher training, curriculum development resources, and other direct support of teachers in their professional work at school and at home.

Category 2: Students. This category includes hardware, software, and courseware that students carry around to use at school, home, and wherever else suits their convenience.

Category 3: Classroom. This category includes the hardware, software, and courseware in a classroom for use by teachers and students (for example, docking stations providing access to multimedia facilities).

Category 4: Other (Infrastructure and Miscellaneous). This category includes networking, computerized libraries, maintenance and support personnel, technology coordinators at the school and district level, contingency funds, and miscellaneous.

Here are my thoughts as to where schools should be headed in each of these categories.

  1. Teachers. Every teacher should have a powerful, easily portable computer. Many teachers need a docking station at home; all teachers need ready access to a docking station at school, for example in their office area. There is a tremendous need for on-going inservice for teachers. I would allocate between $1,000 and $1,500 per teacher per year.
  2. Student. Every student should have a reasonably powerful, easily portable computer for use both in school and outside of school. I would allocate between $250 and $400 per student per year.
  3. Classroom. Every classroom needs a powerful multimedia teacher presentation station. Most classrooms also need a reasonable number of multimedia docking stations for students. I would allocate between $4,000 and $6,000 per classroom per year.
  4. Other (Infrastructure and Miscellaneous). The computer facilities in a school and school district need to be networked to each other and to the world. Students and teachers need routine access to local and worldwide computerized databases and libraries. There are many special needs students in schools who need far more resources than are allocated above. Including contingency and miscellaneous, I would allocate between $100 and $200 per student per year, and between $500 and $ 1,000 per teacher per year.

What do all of these allocations add up to? Suppose that a school system has one teacher per 25 students, 30 students per class, and a budget of $5,400 per student per year (the latter figure being the current national average for K-12 education). Then the totals are:

Lower % of budget

Upper % of budget

Lower $ per student

Upper $ per student

1. Teacher





2. Students





3. Classrooms





4. Other










Lower% Upper % Lower $ Upper $ of budget of budget per student per student Teacher .74% 1.11% $40.00 $60.00 Students 4.63% 7.41% $250.00 $400.00 Classrooms 2.47% 3.70% $133.33 $200.00 Other 2.16% 4.32% $116.67 $233.33 Totals 10.00% 16.54% $540.00 $893.33

Most people laugh when they see these figures. "You are joking, right?"

When was the last time you visited the office of an executive secretary or administrative assistant in a high tech company? Do you think that $1,000 per year would pay for the equipment that this person is using?

One response is to suggest a look at business and industry. In "knowledge industry" types of businesses, what is the annual expenditure per worker for the types of support listed above? Of course, the answer varies a great deal. However, if we think of both students and teachers as "workers," than the recommendations I have made are small relative to the support that workers receive in many businesses.

When was the last time you visited the office of an executive secretary or administrative assistant in a high tech company? Do you think that $1,000 per year would pay for the equipment that this person is using? Arguments such as these tend to be convincing to people who are familiar with business and industry.

The next question is often, "Okay, I believe you. But where could the money come from?" The answer to that has three parts. First, reallocation of current funds can make a significant dent in the resources problem. For example, all schools have staff development, curriculum development, and library funds that might be reallocated. Second, good arguments can be made that school budgets will need to increase. Third, there will need to be a major change in the nature of school staffing. Businesses have made massive cuts to middle management and to support staff. Right now, in a typical school system, only about 40 to 45 percent of the budget is used for salaries and benefits of teachers. In addition, few schools make adequate use of a differentiated staffing structure that includes a number of instructional assistants.

The above type of analysis leads me to believe that a 10% to a 20% "solution" should be the goal in the next decade.

Design of User Interfaces

Moursund, D.G. (may 1993). Design of user interfaces. The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Have you ever tried to turn a computer or computer terminal on or off-and not been able to find the switch? That has happened to me a number of times. Each time I found it terribly embarrassing, since I am supposed to be a computer expert. How is it possible to be a computer expert and not even be able to find the on/off switch?

Have you ever pushed on a door that opens by pulling, turned on the wrong burner of a stove, or scalded yourself in a shower because you turned a handle the wrong way? Do you know how to program your VCR or set your watch back an hour?

All of these questions are closely related. They have to do with the design of user interfaces. Donald A. Norman's book. The Design of Everyday Things, published by Doubleday in 1990, contains a number of examples of good and poor design. While many of the examples come from outside the world of computers, all are relevant to computer educators.

Norman's book focuses on a relatively small number of key ideas. He gives lots of examples of poor design in everyday things: door handles, faucets, VCR controls, and nuclear power plant controls. He also gives examples of good design, for example, certain parts of the user interface in the Macintosh computer system.

As a computer educator, you are a user of a wide range of computer tools. In addition, you develop products that will be used by yourself and others. Thus, you depend on the designs of others in the computer field, and you are also a designer. Some introspection should convince you that you probably know quite a bit about evaluating designs developed by others and about the design process. Quite likely, you know enough to help your students learn more about design of user interfaces.


You and your students are consumers of a wide range of products that have good and poor design features. You can help your students to recognize good and poor design, and to become more critical consumers. Examples can come both from the computer field and from the everyday products that students encounter.

What are some of the characteristics of good user interface design? A good design lends itself to "naturally" doing the right thing to accomplish the desired outcome. Feedback is provided that lends confidence that the task is being accomplished and that allows easy detection of mistakes. Provisions are also made for correcting mistakes with ease. A tool with a good user interface is easy to learn how to use, easy to relearn, and just plain easy and comfortable to use. The tool can be operated effectively by a relative novice, but even more effectively by an experienced user.

Think about some of these ideas the next time you use a computer. Are the user interfaces for your computer applications essentially all the same, or do they vary widely from application to application? Do you and your students get into trouble by not reading the manual, and by using a trial-and-error approach to learning to use a new piece of software? When you instruct the computer to carry out a task that will take it quite a while, does the software provide feedback on the progress that is occurring? Is it particularly difficult to make a "fatal" mistake, such as to delete your only copy of an important file?


Think about developing a database, spreadsheet, hypermedia document, computer program, or other computer application that you or someone else will use to help solve a problem or accomplish a task. You must develop a user interface that you and/or others will use. This is not an easy task.

There is an extensive body of research literature on design. For example, entire books have been written on how to design the pages of a newsletter. There are good "rules of thumb" on use of white space, color, and placement of graphics and text on a page. That is, there are many commonly occurring design situations that have been extensively studied. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel in such cases.

However, one frequently encounters new design situations, or situations where there is not much research. There, perhaps the most important idea is that a design should be tested on a representative sample of users. Invariably, the design will not work as expected with some of the users. A trial-and-error approach, working through a sequence of designs, is almost always necessary. Norman's book suggests that in the commercial world, it typically takes a half dozen major trials to get a product design good enough so that it will experience commercial success.

For a concrete example, consider helping a student learn to write. Through many years of experience, conventions have been developed that aid in the design of writing. Some examples include: begin with an introduction that serves as a road map; begin a paragraph with a topic sentence; arrange paragraphs in a linear order that build on each other in a progressive fashion; and end with a summary or conclusions section. Of course, a "professional" writer may chose to violate some of the conventional designs in order to more effectively communicate a message.

Contrast this situation with what is known about the design of hypermedia documents. As compared to the art and science of writing, hypermedia is a brand new field. Very little research has been done. There are few conventions. Each hypermedia creator is, in effect, faced with design problems that have not been extensively studied.

This means that students, even at the grade school level, are being asked to do design work that is at the frontiers of the field. This is both difficult and exciting. It provides an environment in which each student can be a researcher. Each student can develop designs, test them on other students and the teacher, refine the designs, and test them again. Each student can share his or her learning about design. Each class of students can contribute to the slowly growing body of effective design in hypermedia.

User interfaces is an appropriate topic for inclusion in the curriculum at every grade level. While this topic certainly transcends the field of computing, it is an excellent topic to include in any instructional situation that involves computers. Moreover, the topic is one where teachers can learn alongside their students.