The ragged race for computer literacy

David Thomas November 1 1982

The ragged race for computer literacy

David Thomas November 1 1982

The ragged race for computer literacy


David Thomas

Classrooms across Canada this season are stirring with the beginnings of a profound change in children's education, one which many educators believe is the first quantum leap in learning since the invention of the printing press 500 years ago. The cause is the personal computer, whose power as a lever of the mind is upending traditional concepts of education and creating a new set of practical and moral problems for teachers, parents and students.

So far, there is little scientific evidence about the impact on children of early computer use, but there is every indication that massive introduction of the machines in classrooms may be irreversible. Parents and many educators are concerned about the possible effects, among them the re-emergence of a privileged class of children from homes already equipped with the new mind tools. If nothing else, in the short term some experts fear that universal access to learning and information, which was provided by books and free libraries, may come to an end.

Other sources of contention include the acute shortage of educational programs, the absence of technical standards governing the use of the software on competing brands of computers and the overwhelming American content of the available packages. In the rush to computerize the classroom, the effects of exposing young bodies to the alleged health hazards of video display terminals and young minds to hours of intimate communication with a machine have barely been questioned. Many teachers and school officials also fear that Canadian students could be left behind in a computer age because of cutbacks in educational funding and the low priority that politicians place on

the machines. Warns Saskatchewan Associate Director of Program Development Frank Bellamy: “People who reject it or fear it are going to be swept over by it.”

Despite the unease, overall co-ordination of computer policy is almost nonexistent. No one, in any province, can give an accurate estimate of just how many machines are now in classrooms across the country. Teachers and local schools, who are not waiting for official approval or funding, are constructing their own programs. Some concerned parents are turning to private instruction, such as the after-school courses given by Vancouver’s Basic Computer Ltd. During their four lessons, at $10 each, children from eight to 12 are taught simple programming, and, unlike pupils in public schools, each has the full-time use of a computer.

The new computers have four identified roles in the new education, though the emphasis on each varies from province to province.

• Computer literacy refers to awareness programs that teach children

how to use computers. The teaching can include writing simple programs, improving keyboard skills or establishing rapport with the machine. According to the most widely accepted standards, set by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a computer literate “does not feel fear, anxiety or intimidation from computer experiences.”

• Computer-assisted instruction describes how students can use the machine to present information in an ordered way, to simulate scientific experiments too costly or dangerous to be done in the laboratory, and to perform practice drills. The usefulness of computer-assisted instruction depends directly on the amount and quality of “courseware,” as educational software is called. So far, educators agree, courseware quality is generally poor and little is Canadian. Even less is available in French and in native languages. Major education software suppliers say the Canadian market is too small to justify production of original programs.

• Computer science the most established of the computer disciplines, teaches advanced programming and operating skills that equip students for the jobs available in an economy based on information management. In the future, the insiders assert, few jobs will be performed without computers or robots,

and they expect that the only identifiable growth in the labor market will be in computer-related specialties.

• Computer management of education

involves using computers to keep track of a student’s performance and needs. David Bristow, English co-ordinator for Surrey, B.C., has developed a computerized system that quizzes pupils, analyses their weaknesses, and then prescribes individual programs of remedial instruction. B.C. students may eventually face cheat-proof exams, which consist of individualized questions, generated by computer, that

range in difficulty to ensure fairness.

The most striking characteristic of these applications of computers in schools across the country is the spontaneity of the movement by individual teachers and local school boards. Only recently, provincial education departments, playing catch-up, have begun to set uniform standards for courses, equipment and programs.

Of all the provinces, Alberta appears to be furthest advanced in official endorsement of computerized education. But Calgary’s University Elementary School struck the spark in 1980 when

Principal Ruth Duncan enthusiastically embraced personal computers for primary students. Duncan is an unlikely proselytizer. Almost grandmotherly in her warm enthusiasm for children, she is openly resentful of attempts by provincial education authorities to impose uniform standards for computer use. “Computers were a ground-swell movement,” she says. “The only thing it can be compared to is the women’s movement, which also came from the bottom. Our school systems are now trying to get a hold on it.” At University Elementary even the youngest children are exposed to computer literacy, simple programming and word processing. The machines are rarely used as mechanical testers. Says Duncan: “Drill and practice are just a waste of computer time.” She believes that young minds can expand when children learn to use computers to perform tasks. “There will be a measurable increase in intelligence over the next few years as these kids work on problem-solving with computers,” she says.

Alberta’s department of education has ordered 1,000 Apple Ils, modified for educational use by Bell and Howell Ltd., but local boards must pay $2,500 for each of them. So far, 600 have been installed. Says Duncan: “I’m not saying every school should collect beer bottles to buy computers, but sometimes that’s the way it has to be done.”

Alberta is the only province to choose a standard computer brand for the classroom, which ensures that a bank of standard courseware can be developed for all schools. Ontario’s quest for a standard classroom computer has slowed because of the risky and timeconsuming decision to await production of an all-Canadian educational computer that will handle English, French and native languages and be compatible with Canada’s Telidon videotex technology.

With Ontario’s policy in mind, Canadian companies formed a consortium last year to design and produce an educational computer. But the recessionsqueezed Canadian Educational Microprocessor Corporation did not satisfy Ontario’s desire for the new computer by the start of this school year. Nevertheless, impatient Ontario school boards continued to order available models, led by the Carleton Board of Education, which recently bought more than 200 computers—the largest educational sale of microcomputers in Canada and the fourth-largest sale in North America.

British Columbia has one of the most sophisticated plans for the spread of computers throughout the schools. The scheme proposes to accord teachers the same professional recognition enjoyed by authors of textbooks and to encour-

age them to produce courseware. But the B.C. plan has been stymied by the provincial government’s drastic costcutting measures.

Quebec educators are similarly frustrated. There is a plan to supply computers and to encourage the writing of French-language courseware, but the Parti Québécois government appears to be more dedicated to Education Minister Camille Laurin’s declared determination to abolish all elected school boards than to introduce computers.

There is a variety of approaches in other parts of Canada. Newfoundland, which this year introduced a high school program in computer literacy and programming, has indicated that it will pay half the cost of computers for participating schools. But, in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, where governments are mired in studies of the issue, initiatives by individual teachers remain the driving force of computer education. In Manitoba computer awareness programs for children from kindergarten to Grade 9 are scheduled to begin next year, while high schoolers will be offered job-oriented courses in programming and data processing. And, in Saskatchewan, provincial policy now calls for formal computer literacy training from Grade 7.

Authorities anticipate that the nationwide action will cause radical changes in the way schools teach the basic repertoire of skills. Increasingly, educators recognize that one-finger pecking at a computer keyboard is akin to pushing a car instead of driving it, and that touch typing is as useful to professionals as to secretaries. Says Saskatchewan’s Bellamy: “Keyboarding is a skill we are going to have to teach very early—much sooner than we taught typing.” Pens and pencils will lose their importance: “For personal use, handwriting will continue but you won’t get much practice at it,” he says.

Traditional mathematics will likely suffer as pupils learn to use machines. “We will move from where computation is the most important part to where problem-solving will occupy the mind— the machine can do the computation,” says Bellamy.

Finally, Bellamy welcomes computers as the tools of a new era that will alter the role of the teacher. “We are seeing a change equivalent to the introduction of the printing press,” he says. “Before that, education was one-to-one, a teacher and student. The invention of printing made information available to all, and the computer will have a similar effect because of the vast amounts of information which can be rapidly accessed. It will make the teacher much more a director and organizer than a purveyor of knowledge.”

With Robert Scott in Toronto.

Robert Scott