Computers in Education

It is now about fifteen years since microcomputers and therefore educational computing began to appear in schools. Since that time there has been much excitement with regard to the role that these machines would have on education in our schools. During that fifteen years, we have seen many examples of uses of computers in school. Teachers experimented with this technology in their teaching. These teachers spent many hours of their own time coming to grips with this technology and setting up activities.

As time has progessed, so has the emphasis placed on educational computing. These changes of emphasis are the result of many changes in computers like, increased power and capabilities of hardware and software, increased availability of the technology in schools, advances in other technologies such as communications technologies. The introduction of computers into schools has not significantly changed the way teachers teach. Some possible reasons for this would include: High school students using computers as part of their studies began in the early – mid 1970’s.

In most cases this took the form of students and teachers accessing remotely and centrally located mainframe computers indirectly (through specially marked cards sent in via post). The students took elementary computer programming exercises in a language like Fortran to run on the machine.. Generally there was no direct access to a computer in their school. The role of the traditional teacher in these circumstances was hardly affected. At the same time teachers in at least one state could request printouts of randomly generated sets of arithmetic problems, together with answers.

These were then duplicated for the class to work through. Other types of activities like mazes and spelling games such as jumbled words and wordmazes were also available. Teachers from both primary and secondary schools availed themselves of this service. The role of the teacher continued to be one of selecting the resources required for use within their teaching just as it would have been had computers not been around. Towards the end of the 1970’s, microcomputers began to appear on the market.

Machines like the Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore PET and BBC Model B began to gain popularity. Education Department had purchased some computers which were loaned to schools for short periods of time. The beginning of the 1980’s saw the first awakenings that computers may well have a place within schools themselves. Suddenly there was available a relatively low cost, small, yet powerful computer which did not need the progamming skills of the computers of earlier. It did not take long for these new machines to find their way into schools.

In many cases the first microcomputers were taken into schools by teachers who were enthusiasts. The pressure on schools to provide computers for students increased dramatically in the early 1980’s. Pressure was also being put on the government by computer manufacturers and retailers. It was not uncommon to hear non teachers calling for the widespread use of computers in education without any understanding of teaching objectives, techniques or strategies to be followed.

Unfortunately, the needs of teachers with regard to professional development was almost entirely overlooked too. These pressures resulted in computers finding their way into many schools for the wrong reasons. Little or no consideration was given to the planned introduction of these machines. Unsure of what they could do with these computers, or lacking confidence to use them or time to learn how, many teachers simply ignored them or left it to the ‘computing teacher’ to cater for their students for them as for example they might do for the teaching of a subject like ‘Music’.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now see that the major ramification of the above process has meant that progress (by and large) in the use of computers in education, in the sense of them being fully integrated into the curriculum, has been far short of what could have been achieved with a planned introduction of the technology. It needed to be a planned introduction, especially with the competition for teachers’ time brought about by the coinciding, numerous new demands of teachers during the past fifteen years. Schools began to purchase microcomputers for themselves.

At first secondary schools purchased one or maybe two computers which were probably used to provide a resource for mathematics students, circumventing the need to send materials off campus. This enabled better, more instantaneous feedback to students. The beginning of the 1980’s also saw a few primary school teachers taking an interest in microcomputers and their use in classrooms. These people usually were enthusiasts who purchased their own machines and began experimenting with what could be done in their classrooms.

However, computing as such was still seen by the majority of people to be the exclusive domain of computer scientists, mathematicians or businesses at this time. Microcomputers were expensive and so out of the reach of many schools, particularly when there was no clear understanding of their place within education and the competition for money to be used to resource other areas of the curriculum. For example, colour television had only been available since 1975 meaning that many schools were just acquiring colour televisions and video recorders (remember the U-matic) were expensive items with higher priority on a school’s purchasing list.

Towards the end of 1982, Apple Computer made schools an offer many found hard to resist. A 64K RAM Apple II+ computer, with a 128K capacity floppy disk drive and colour hi-res monitor was offered to schools at a relatively low price. Each school was limited to one machine only under this deal. This helped set the scene for educational computing to take off at both primary and secondary levels of schooling. All of a sudden, just about every school community thought that they should have computers for their students to use.

In 1983, Apple released its Apple IIe series of microcomputer, Commodore released its Commodore 64, while the BBC Model B maintained its popularity, especially for its British based software and at that time superior networking capability. Microbee gained a foothold in the eastern states. In 1985, the Macintosh computer began to make its presence felt in education. IBM and compatible machines began to appear in numbers in schools. Today these two platforms dominate the education market. The availability of quality software which was relevant to the Australian education system was an issue then and remains to this day.

Up to this point in time it is probably fair to say that most educational computing activity was immersed in the ‘computer awareness’ period – teaching students about computers. Since 1983, schools have invested in numbers of computers which were often placed in designated computer laboratories. Many schools appointed computing specialist teachers to provide leadership in the area of educational computing. During this time educational computing left the exclusive domain of the mathematics department and relevant activities such as wordprocessing were undertaken as part of the Language curriculum.

Database and spreadsheet software were found being used in other areas of the curriculum e. g. Environmental Studies and Science. Today, computers have found their way into niches of every subject domain of the curriculum as a whole. During this time we have seen many new ways of using computers in education introduced. The use of Logo as a computer programming language for children, problem solving through the building of robots using Lego equipment, corresponding with overseas schools via electronic mail as part of projects like ‘Computer Pen-Pals’ are but a few.


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