Chapter 8

Computers in education

CJ Potter

Chris Potter has experience both in teaching, including three years at a secondary school, and with the computer industry, having worked for IBM as DP Manager for Hamilton Medical Laboratory and as Systems Manager for the Waikato University. He has a long-standing interest in computer education, and has been a convener of the Computer Society’s National Education Committee, a member of the Vocational Training Council’s Microelectronic Technology Advisory Committee and chairman of its EDP Working Party. He holds a BSc in Physics obtained at the University of Canterbury and is at present Director of Computer Services, Waikato University.

The New Zealand Computer Society has always committed a healthy proportion of its energies to Education. This is to be expected in a young industry in which rapid growth and constant change are the norm. In the first place, it was clear that the existing educational system was going to have to meet the demands of the new technology and the society recognised from an early stage that it could assist with the establishment of appropriate courses and syllabi. Before long the demands of its own members for seminars to keep them up to date forced the society to place more emphasis in this area. Now, as the society moves into the business of membership examinations, a further level of involvement is required.

It is appropriate in this the society’s 25th year to review the changes that have taken place in the education scene in those years, to note some of the contributions made by members of the society and to look forward to the next 25 years, using what signposts we now have.

This review begins with the universities, since they were the first major branch of the education system to become involved. Universities recognised the need for computers in their teaching and research in the mid-1960s. Initially, their use of computers was mainly in the heavy application areas such as Engineering, Chemistry and Mathematics. In the early 1970s, computer science departments were established, in many cases to take over the load of service teaching, as well as to concentrate on computing in its own right. In the past 15 years the computer science departments have expanded enormously in size, and computing has become the most pervasive subject within the universities.

At the outset, computing teaching in New Zealand tended to be divided into service teaching (often subdivided into two groups; science and commerce) and Computer Science per se. The latter group started off small in size, producing graduates with a good knowledge of systems software, languages, and hardware but with little exposure to commercial applications. The service group has expanded dramatically, particularly during the last few years, and in some universities is no longer taught by the Computer Science departments.

Whereas initially, service teaching concentrated on elementary programming, the emphasis now tends to be much more on using computers and exploring their potential. Most students now have had some exposure to computing prior to coming to university, and are looking to wider applications. The more specialized computer science group has also expanded in recent years, and shifted in its attention. Programming skills are still paramount, but Computer Science teaching tends to concentrate on Pascal and its derivatives, with COBOL relegated to specialised business oriented courses, and FORTRAN left to the scientists.

As to the actual use of the computer hardware installed in the universities, this has been dominated by the traditionally ‘heavy’ computing departments of Mathematics, Science and Engineering. More recently Business or Management Studies departments have emerged as major users of computer resources, reflec­ting the demands of modern business. The recognition of the value of computers as teaching aids (teaching ‘with’ in contrast to ‘about’ computers) has led to their widespread use throughout the institutions, with most students now finding themselves required to use an interactive ‘workstation’ at some time in their stay at university. Another recent development to emerge has been the use of the computer by staff as a filing system and general organisational aid. Personal bibliographies are now commonly kept on the computer where they can be added to by secretaries or students and readily searched, sorted and printed. The Word Processor is a natural adjunct to this development and together these tools are improving the productivity of academic staff, enabling them to spend more time on their teaching and research.

Technical institutes have also been responding to the new technology. The first courses, evening classes covering mainly introductory topics, started as early as 1966, and a 1967 prospectus made the tentative statement; ‘It is probable that simple programs will be written and that an opportunity will be given for these programs to be used on a computer.’ In the following year the same prospectus made first mention of COBOL and FORTRAN. It was during this period that the decisions were made which were to set the directions for the years to come; namely, that training was to he provided for identified vocational occupations in the business and commercial community. This emphasis has been maintained to the present day, and has proved to be a most successful formula. However, it was not until 1972 that the NZ Certificate in Data Processing was established, providing a national standard and structure.

In the early years the technical institutes were obliged to take staff and hardware where they could find them. Typically arrangements were made to second lecturers from the larger vendors for periods of a few weeks, and hardware was donated — after first serving a useful life with a business firm. Student jobs were run on computers belonging to local businesses. The first processor supplied to a technical institute by a government grant was installed in 1978 in the Auckland Technical Institute, and it remained the only one until a block purchase in 1982, which saw all the larger institutes provided with mini-computers. In the years since those first evening classes were held, not only has the number of Computer Studies courses increased dramatically and the equipment available improved immeasurably, but also computer-related topics have filtered into a large number of other areas. For example, accountancy courses now have a large component of such studies, computer hardware technicians are being trained and computer control is studied in many industrial applications.

Our schools have been somewhat slower in getting off the mark. Very few secondary schools were able to afford their own computers until the advent of the microcomputer in the late 1970s. Many had offered some courses in programming before then, mostly by means of hand-punched cards processed by arrangement with local computer centres. The most widespread of such arrangements was with Databank Systems, which operated a service for schools throughout the country on its network of processors.

The acquisition of microcomputers by secondary schools has not been easy. Indeed it has been marked by controversy and confusion. Growth in numbers has been quite rapid, rising from fewer than 100 in 1980, to about 2500 in 1984. More significantly, 96 per cent of secondary schools now have at least one microcomputer. Despite this there is a wide and growing variation in facilities between schools, both in numbers of computers and in the nature of their use. This disparity reflects the scarcity of computer-knowledgeable staff in all subject areas as well as the difficulties faced by many schools in obtaining the relatively large funds required to purchase a set of microcomputers.

An attempt was made in 1980 to identify key areas and to set priorities for computer use in secondary schools, with the New Zealand Computer Society representatives playing a leading role. The suggested priorities, which still apply, were:

Computer awareness, for all students;

Computer studies, for upper forms;

Computer aided learning (CAL), at all levels across the curriculum especially for remedial work, with handicapped students, and for enrichment;

Teacher and school administration.

Similar priorities were arrived at by the Consultative Committee on Computers in Schools, reporting in 1982.

The computer invasion of primary schools is only now getting under way. The first survey of use has been carried out by the Department of Education, and early indications are that no more than one school in three has its own machine. There is still a lack of clear guidance on the capabilities of computers and their value in teaching at this level, but as noted below there is a commitment to remedying this shortcoming. It is clear that priorities will be different from those for secondary schools.

If the finger is to be pointed at government education institutions for being slow to respond to the needs for computer education and training, the private sector is not in a strong position to do so. Some training centres have been set up either to provide ‘in-house’ training for larger organisations or as businesses in their own right, with the aim of introducing practical business-related principles and disciplines so that graduates are better suited for immediate productive employment. But such centres are few and far between. As a general observation it would be true to say that employers have consistently avoided the expense of the initial training role, preferring instead to employ staff with experience gained elsewhere, notably in recent times from government computing facilities.

The New Zealand Computer Society has been acutely conscious of the prob­lems facing those engaged in computer education and one of the first national committees to be formed was an Education Committee. It is still active today. The society published a Position Paper on Education and Vocational Training in 1981 and republished it in 1983. This paper covered the whole range from primary to tertiary and continuing education, suggesting priorities and syllabi. In it the society emphasises the need for urgency, recognising that failure to act would cost New Zealand dearly, both in social disruption and through the inability to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by computer-based technologies.

Not content with publishing a position paper, the society has been very active in implementing its recommendations as the following highlights attest:

  • Involvement in the establishment in the technical institutes of the NZ Certificate of Data Processing and active participation in subsequent syllabus reviews.
  • Involvement in the more recent establishment of the NZ Certificate of Computer Technology.
  • Publication in 1978 of ‘Computer Education in NZ’, an exhaustive survey of courses offered by education and training organisations throughout the country.
  • Numerous activities related to the rational introduction of computers into schools, including active membership of the Consultative Com­mittee for Computers in Schools; sponsorship of the publication of ‘Micro Which?’, a guide to the personal computer market for educational applications; financial and active support for the establishment of the regional Computer Education Societies which recently formed a national body, the New Zealand Computer Edu­cation Society.
  • The donation of prizes to be awarded each year to outstanding students at technical institutes and universities in computing studies.
  • Active membership of the Vocational Training Council’s Micro­electronic Technology Advisory Committee (METAL) and its EDP Working Party. The latter has sponsored some significant research work in the field and recently commissioned the first DACUM conference, as described later in this article. As a direct result of the society’s initiatives, a new body, the Information Technology Training Committee, is being set up, replacing METAC and having greater industry representation. This committee will also have a more direct influence on courses, syllabi and policies.
  • As to continuing education and professional development for its own members and for the wider computer industry, the society has always placed great emphasis on such activities. A New Zealand Computer Conference has been organised by branches of the society every two years since 1968, with special seminars and workshops on various subjects being featured when appropriate. In 1983 the position of Director of Continuing Education was established to improve the co­ordination and presentation of events and the society is now running a comprehensive continuing education programme.
  • The society is in the process of establishing a membership level based on examination and experience. With this move the society is obliged to take an even closer interest in the courses available throughout the country with a view to accrediting appropriate ones for membership advancement purposes. Courses will cover all aspects of the profession including programming, systems analysis, operations, industrial pro­gramming and hardware service engineering. This should be a two-way process, with educators co-operating with the society to design syllabi which meet the perceived requirements of the computer industry.

Commitment is a word that appears frequently in studies and recommendations in the area of computers and education, often sought but seldom given. The Consultative Committee on Computers in Schools, after recommending that the government should take steps to implement a comprehensive policy of computer education without delay, appealed for a major commitment to teacher training in any such policy. And of course it recommended a major financial commitment to support the introduction and sustain the continued operation of a total programme of computer education and use in schools. Ministers of education seem to have taken these calls seriously but the final act of commitment has been missing. Perhaps this is changing. The present minister has announced his government’s commitments both to developing programmes for the provision of computer awareness in primary schools and to ensuring that every state secondary school is provided with adequate computer facilities and support. He has outlined a programme of development which will, amongst other steps, develop computer courses in all teachers’ colleges. The outcome of the programme is intended to be a nationwide policy for the use of computers in primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

The education system must move to accommodate the rate of change accompanying (and sometimes brought about by) the introduction and use of the computer. The long-awaited plan of action must start with the teachers’ colleges and In-Service Training for the teachers themselves.

Schools, both secondary and primary, must press for the formulation of a co-ordinated plan for the introduction and use of information technology in education. A start has been made with secondary schools, but it is no more than a start. Schools are going to be invited to submit proposals towards a national policy, but the challenge is not merely to catch up with today’s technology but to prepare for tomorrow’s. It is to be hoped therefore that the promised programme of research is spread as widely as possible, to include those with a knowledge of longer-term global trends in information technology, as well as an appreciation of their significance to education in this country.

Adult education must also be attended to as a matter of urgency. There seems to be an almost insatiable demand for short courses, ranging in level from the basic introduction of hardware concepts and capabilities, to specialised application courses in topics such as word processing, spread-sheets, databases and busi­ness applications. What courses there are have often been established in an unsatsifactory ad hoc manner by people with widely differing levels of knowledge and experience.

The power and potential of information technology — the combination of computer and communications technologies — are being increasingly realised. Access to files of information of all kinds, and the need to be able to use them, suggests in turn the need to concentrate on the study of information itself: searching, ordering, selecting, recognising pattern or structure. These techniques are fundamental, more important than the knowledge of computer languages themselves. Once the various educational requirements are recognised there remains the problem of how best to provide the equipment.

There are many reasons why New Zealand should focus on — and commit itself to — the production of computer-based educational resources. As noted in a later chapter there is the potential for a whole new industry here, including the provision of computer software tools to assist teachers in preparing their own programs, the recording of information databases, the designing and publication of ‘courseware’ and the development of techniques for using the whole range of electronic hardware, such as video disk-based devices and other specialised equipment. Such resources will be of value not only within New Zealand, meeting our needs without spending overseas, but also outside the country, suggesting both trading opportunities and assistance to our Pacific Island neighbours. The recently formed Wellington Region Learning Industry Development Association is an example of the growing recognition of the potential in this area.

There is no doubt at all that the computer industry will keep growing in many directions for the foreseeable future. Growing vigorously alongside it, the information industry will continue to open up new horizons in access to information for all walks of life. The general directions and concerns already noted above will continue to apply: in other words, more of the same. However, some developments now taking place point in quite new directions of growth or change. Four such ‘signposts’ are presented here. They are:

Helping to decide what to teach our up and coming computer practitioners.

The use of computers in teaching our primary schoolchildren.

Moving from computer professionals to information professionals.

Helping the work-force to adjust to the changes being brought about by the new technology.

To conclude this chapter let us look at each of these signposts and consider its implications for the future.

The problem with so much of the research into computer education needs is that it is either based on information from the wrong people or is out of date by the time it is published, or both. The DACUM (Developing a Curriculum) process overcomes these objections. The core of DACUM is the Conference. A typical DACUM Conference involves about a dozen representatives of the occupation under study, with one or two facilitators. Participants are carefully chosen to represent a practising cross-section of the workforce. They participate in a brainstorming session lasting three days, at the end of which they have produced a skill profile chart, which is subsequently validated by a number of people in the field to ensure that it represents current needs. This is in turn used as the basis for developing appropriate education and training courses and reviewing existing ones. Since the whole process can be completed in a few weeks, this signals a real breakthrough for educators and therefore for the future.

The first DACUM on a computer occupation in this country has just taken place. The spotlight was on programmers, and the participants covered the full range: large and small installations, commercial and scientific applications, COBOL, Fourth Generation Languages and all. The chart of skills they came up with and their associated priorities would raise some eyebrows, but it is here and now, and that is the aim. The validation stage is about to take place, giving some 120 practitioners an opportunity to comment from their different perspectives. The final report will then be available, within three months of the DACUM Conference. It should yield the most authoritative information yet obtained on the detailed skill requirements of an occupation within the computer industry. Let us hope that the education system takes up the challenge! More DACUMs in the computer area are planned, so that perhaps we may now look forward to a time when the industry, having been consulted throughout the process, is satisfied with the relevance and responsiveness of the various branches of the education system.

The long-term and educationally most significant factor in primary schools, is the growing awareness among teachers of the tremendous potential of the computer to improve the quality of children’s learning and, indeed, to provide children with quite new sorts of creative, decision-making and problem-solving experiences. The areas of greatest potential educational gain at present are simulations, word-processing and programming.

A simulation can involve a group of children in a situation imitative of some aspect of real life, in which the children will ‘succeed’ only by making ‘wise’ decisions, based in large part on their developing understanding of the simulation’s underlying logical structure. A well-designed simulation can engage children in a high quality co-operative thinking and discussing exercise.

A word-processor can motivate some children at least to increase the quantity and quality of their written expression. In addition, through writing more and through editing, children can improve their reading skills.

Programming, in its widest sense, is an area with great potential for enhancement of a child’s learning. In the context of computing at the primary school level, it is perhaps most useful to consider children to be engaged in ‘programming’ whenever they are ‘teaching’ the computer to do something — whether it be to play a tune, draw a picture, move a robot, ‘talk’, or perform some ‘difficult’ calculation, such as finding the sum of all whole numbers up to any specified number. It is in programming that children have the greatest control over the computer and over their own learning, the highest level of creative experience at the computer, and the most fun.

There are now languages which have been developed to meet this particular need, a good example being LOGO, which was specificially designed for the purpose by Seymour Papert and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although a sophisticated, general-purpose programming language, LOGO has an introductory Turtle-graphics sub-language which is understandable even by very young children, but which can let them experience all the essential power and elegance of the wider language as they mature. Another approach is that adopted at the Wellington Polytechnic for the NZ Technical Aids Trust where the children are presented with material which they can react to and use as a basis for practicing their creativity. Both introduce children to a rich environment where they can explore numbers, words, shapes and patterns. More than that, they are provided with unique experiences in setting themselves challenging, interesting tasks and carrying out these tasks to their own satisfaction. This involves the children — necessarily — in logical thinking and — inevitably — in learning from their ‘mistakes’: educational goals not otherwise easily achieved.

The computer has tremendous potential to add positive, qualitatively new dimensions in teaching our primary school-children, both for the gifted, the average and those with learning difficulties. Not only does the computer, as noted above, allow children to proceed at their own pace but also it has two admirable attributes, infinite patience and the complete absence, when programmed correctly, of any judgemental attitude. We have only just begun what should be an exciting adventure in educational exploration. So far the enthusiasts have forged ahead despite all the difficulties — such as lack of financial support and a shortage of high-quality educational software. This has been a healthy, grass-roots movement, but it is time for teachers and schools to be given greater guidance, support and encouragement.

Turning from primary education to the future needs of the industry We remember, as Tom Stonier has pointed out, that an ‘information society’ has an ‘information economy’. This means that information becomes an item of real value. Those who can acquire it, store it, retrieve it, improve it and so on, will have an advantage over their competitors. People who can do these things better than others will therefore be crucial in obtaining and maintaining advantages in the market place for a whole range of goods.

In the future therefore we will need not just ‘computer professionals’ (people who understand the technology), but also ‘information professionals’. These people have been given all sorts of titles — ‘information professionals’, ‘knowledge engineers’, even ‘applied philosophers’! Their task will be to analyse what information needs to be kept, what form it should be kept in, how it can be accessed, how its accuracy can be checked, and so on.

Though they will undoubtedly need skills in computer technology they will also need a range of other skills: general skills in formal subjects (logic, linguistics, statistics, etc); systems design skills; professional skills; a knowledge of the activities of the user and so on. There is indeed a challenge here to our higher education system. Topics taught in subjects such as Philosophy, Psychology and Education are suddenly being found to be highly relevant to tomorrow’s needs. To span the gap between these subjects and more traditional ones for computing professionals (e.g. computer science and mathematics) poses a real challenge. We require not only students with interests and abilities in both areas, but enlightened administrations who will allow programmes of study that cross many traditional boundaries.

Finally, turning to the introduction of the computer into the work place, we find another well known author, Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock pointing to the particular problems caused when technological innovation has to be absorbed in a period of time shorter than one generation. No-one expects today’s school-leavers, (if they get jobs!) to stay in one career until they retire. Many jobs that were coming into existence 20 years ago have now all but disappeared (e.g. job control clerks and keypunch operators). As a society we have not come to terms with this yet. We still think that the education we receive when young will set us up for a lifetime of work.

The introduction of paid education leave into industrial awards would be a positive step towards coping with this situation. Very few workers in New Zealand have, at the time of writing, any expectation of paid education leave but it is likely to become commonplace as its wide-ranging value to the community is recognised.

There is much debate over the question of whether new technology increases or decreases job skills. The answer depends on how much training and education the operators receive. A person who is told nothing except which keys to press has become deskilled and will probably do the job poorly as a result. A person who has received some general education and training should be more able to understand the meaning of what they are doing and therefore be able to use initiative. This not only improves their morale, but will also improve the overall quality of their work. Paid education leave is essential in a modern egalitarian society such as ours. It is essential both for people and for the economy. But before it can be implemented effectively there must be, available throughout the country, courses in new technology that are relevant and useful to working people.

Many other trends could be identified and the corresponding educational problems highlighted. The most important point is that the urgent need to address and solve the problems is now recognised and the necessary resources must now be made available. Perhaps then the story of the second quarter century of computers in Education in New Zealand will be one of vision, commitment and achievement.


The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance given by CE Beardon, G Gehrke and J Turner, in the writing of this article.


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