An Educational Infrastructure For Microcomputers in Ontario
In 1981, the Ontario Ministry of Education set out to develop an infrastructure of microcomputers in the schools of the province. In doing so, it wanted to attain several goals simultaneously: provide state-of-the-art microcomputer facilities for schools; facilitate development of educational software consistent with the ministry's curriculum guidelines; reinforce the ministry's philosophy of education; and stimulate the Canadian computer and software development industries. But it had to work within two major constraints: local autonomy of boards of education and a procurement policy that's open to a wide variety of suppliers.
This article describes the development and current state of this initiative, identifying a number of points at which educational philosophy, policy or theory have affected the results.
In 1981, only three years after personal computers first appeared, the Ontario Ministry of Education sensed that microcomputers could be an important component of education, both as an object of study and as a tool for students and teachers. The ministry recognized that a very small proportion of teachers and other school personnel were already quite involved with microcomputers and that some schools were eagerly acquiring the first-generation machines. These acquisitions were uneven, with different boards of education opting for different brands and models, usually incompatible with each other. Educational software was in its infancy, and many hardware acquisitions were made without a clear provision for educational software or a plan for use.
From a provincial point of new, the situation in 1981 was mild chaos. The ministry wanted to encourage uses of microcomputers that supported its curriculum guidelines and was willing to underwrite the development of software for that purpose. The microcomputers in schools would need to be able to run the software, but the wide variety of microcomputers being purchased did not have a common software environment. Indeed, most micros had quite minimal characteristics compared with what the ministry thought would be necessary to provide lasting support for the type of computer applications it envisioned.
Additionally, the Ontario government felt that since computers were gaining popularity and were all from foreign suppliers, there was an opportunity to develop an indigenous educational microcomputer industry. It decided to promote the development of a Canadian Educational Microcomputer. It began with a study of the needs and desires of computer-using educators and proposed that a consortium of Canadian high-technology companies would design and build the resulting computer. The study was hastily conducted in the summer of 1981 and resulted in a "wish list" containing virtually every feature known to educators at this time. The consortium of companies tried to organize in 1982 but encountered hard economic times and difficulties in operating.
Meanwhile, the ministry refined the wish list into a set of specifications that it issued in March 1983: the "Functional Requirements for Microcomputers for Educational Use in Ontario Schools--Stage I." Simultaneously, it announced that one company, CEMCORP, had agreed to design and build the first microcomputer meeting these specifications. In return, the ministry agreed to guarantee purchases of $10 million of such a microcomputer if it met the specifications.
The Ministry of Education wished to stimulate the development of a microcomputing infrastructure in schools but did not want to interfere with local autonomy. Therefore, it did not actually require that schools follow its specifications when acquiring microcomputers. Instead, it established incentives by making purchase of microcomputers that met its specifications eligible for a special higher level of grant, called a "Recognized Extraordinary …