The Evolution of Educational Computer Software

By Cosmann, Richard | Education, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Evolution of Educational Computer Software


Cosmann, Richard, Education


The Historical context

The third great revolution - computers and high technology (the first being agriculture and the second the industrial revolution) - has already fundamentally altered life for the better, at least for people in the post-industrialized world. This dramatic shift, as complex and challenging as it is, is really only an elaboration of the Babylonian-developed abacus (The New Encyclopedia Britanica, 1992). The abacus, in use for several millennia, automated arithmetic calculation. That the development of the abacus into its electronic counterpart took one or two millennia points out the sea change of scientific and technical innovation that was needed for such growth.

Educational Software for Mainframe Computers

Computer software that is designed for educational purposes, and that is run on personal computers, is only a recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, it promises such a revolution in teaching that educators are just beginning to grasp its significance. Mainframe computers appear to be on the way out - and with mainframes their top-heavy, complex and expensive applications (Marsh II, 1993). As the mainframe use proliferated (during the 1960's and 1970's), educational software developed for it took the form of large, octopus-like organisms, that were accessible only from dumb terminals that offered little or no flexibility. Vaskevitch (1993) also notes "how primitive and limited the terminal interface" for mainframes was.

"Plato"

Plato (programmed logic for automatic teaching operation) was created in the 1960's. White and Hubbard (1988) report that in its original heyday, Plato provided 7000 hours of instruction in 150 subjects in a nationwide school network. Plato at first was programmed to run on mainframes, but later evolved to a personal computer program. Due to its high cost and the need for computer support personnel, however, Plato was not widely used in classrooms across the U.S.

Another development of the 1960's was Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC). In their software, students got immediate answers to their entries before they could proceed to higher levels. Moreover, CCC's software kept records on the performance of each student (White and Hubbard, 1988).

Logo

A programming language called Logo was ushered in during the 1960's. Pfaffenberger (1993) writes that it "provides an environment in which children can develop their reasoning and problem-solving skills." It has been used to teach programming to children. White and Hubbard further state that it is heavily used in "elementary school computing programs." Logo supports graphics and a feature called "turtle".

Coursewriter

Another product of the 1960's - programmed learning - in its earliest version made a rigid presentation of subject material. It emphasized skills, not critical thinking. As it was modified later, it incorporated interactive and multimedia features. Finally, IBM then offered a programming language called Coursewriter. This software permitted teachers to write course outlines, hand-outs and tests on mainframe computers. Coursewriter (in later versions II and III) developed into an authoring language for computer-assisted instruction, as reported by Reeves (1986). The term "authoring language" is described later in this piece, where it is referred to as: "hypermedia authoring software".

Factors Limiting Use of Educational Software on Mainframes

Among the factors working against the school use of mainframe computers were: 1. exorbitant cost; 2. the limited number of software; 3. educational software was still difficult to translate into lesson plans and class use; and 4. teachers had little experience using such software (White and Hubbard, 1988).

Educational Software Designed for Personal Computers

The advent of personal computers in the 1980's made school use of software more practicable, affordable and beneficial. Computer assisted instruction (CAI), computer managed instruction (CMI) and computer-based education (CBE) emerged as methods of computer use in schools (White and Hubbard, 1988).

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