Software Priorities

Article excerpt

The early eighties saw a period of rapid change in computing and teachers lost control of how they used computers in their classrooms. Software companies produced computer tools that looked so good that we forgot about writing our own classroom materials and happily purchased software--that offered much more than we needed--from companies that had little knowledge of pedagogy. This article encourages you to budget time and money for a better balance between teaching how to use powerful computer tools and writing your own materials to meet the needs of your classes.

In the sixties, there was only one item on our school computer education budget: computer cards. The Computing Centre supplied all of the other computing materials, including huge quantities of tractor feed paper. The system software was supplied with the computer. The educational software was written and shared by teachers.

In the late seventies, we budgeted to buy microcomputers, floppy disks, printers and paper but there was still no thought of buying software. The writing of software was a leisure time activity and was seldom seen as "part of the job." We were enthusiasts and we shared what we wrote. The software was therefore free, easily copied and easily modified to meet the needs of different classes.

So how did we use computers? Taylor (1980) identified three modes of computer education where the computer functions as a tool, as a tutor, or as a tutee or student.

The most complicated tool I wrote helped me build school timetables. That can now be done using dedicated timetabling applications, database managers or spreadsheets, but these tools were not then available.

A computer was used in tutee mode when students wrote small problem solving programs using BASIC or APL. Later we preferred Pascal, Logo and eventually JavaScript because these languages encouraged good structure. We reasoned that if students understand a task (such as solving a quadratic equation) well enough to program a computer to consistently obtain the correct answer, then they have spent so much time working through all the possibilities that they have covered the topic thoroughly.

This type of computer use is now rare because programming using BASIC or Pascal got much harder, few teachers know how to program and because programming tends to hog machines which can be used for more important tasks such as essay writing, surfing the Net, sending e-mails or downloading games and music. However, if you encourage your students to program using JavaScript, they can do most of their work at home and their enthusiasm to build clever web pages provides strong motivation.

Another form of tutee activity centred on a use of micro-worlds such as the turtle-graphics part of Logo. The more complex features of Logo were seldom taught. We did not need to buy Logo because there were several free look-alikes that offered only turtle-graphics.

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Another popular micro-world was Rocky's Boots in which students had to build a virtual machine using logic gates--but by that time we had to pay for good software.

Taylor would classify the rest of our computer usage as tutor mode. There were many types of tuition software. Much of the better tuition software was presented as a game and the tests were called quizzes. Microcomputers allowed demonstrations of animated models. The Angle Park Computing Centre, Adelaide, specialised in simulations of scientific or mathematical topics, which could be built on a mathematical model.

I particularly liked drill and practice software because I found drilling students quite boring. Why perform dull repetitive tasks yourself when a computer can do it better? A computer can be programmed to concentrate on material that the individual student finds difficult, it gives immediate feedback and it is perceived as non-judgmental. …