by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, July 1997


I am absolutely thrilled to announce that the educational use of computers is finally maturing. Though the old adage about taking three steps forward and two steps back frequently applies, progress is being made.

Originally, school administrators (and probably most of the general public) thought that the proper way to teach children how to use computers was to teach programming languages. Students from high school (including me) all the way down to kindergarten were taught how to write programs. This (with the addition of a few games) was the working definition of computer literacy.
This parallels the earliest use of IBM PCs and their predecessors in business. Business users (or at least most business users), however, rapidly caught on to the fact that programming is a specialty best left to highly-trained and experienced (and one hopes, competent) professionals. Because of the growing availability of reliable (okay, make that "reasonably" reliable) commercial software packages, most business owners and managers didn’t even need to employ programmers.
They recognized the computer as a business tool. They realized that the only required expertise was in application programs like word processors, spreadsheets, accounting systems, and specialty software needed for a particular type of business (vertical market software).
The only programming skill with a guaranteed payoff in day-to-day use was being able to write simple macros for word processors, spreadsheets, and the like. Additional expertise in programming may occasionally be handy for those with a particular aptitude for it, but there is the obvious risk of going beyond one’s level of expertise when amateurs dabble in areas outside their chosen field. There is an even greater risk of being distracted away from your main duties while trying to fiddle with this fascinating technology. (Just ask someone who has dabbled in desktop publishing and found themselves tweaking their publication for hours at a time to get it "just right" while neglecting their normal job. Or, these days, someone who spends all of their time browsing the Internet without noticing that they’ve blown the entire day without getting any serious work done.)
Schools are finally realizing that computers are tools. They are reserving programming classes for those with a particular aptitude and interest in a career in computing or a related field. The computers are being used as tools to enhance the learning experience in various subjects.
You can see a parallel if you compare driver education classes with auto shop classes. The driver education classes are universally applicable to any student who wants to use a car. They don’t have to know the gory details of how to build or repair one. Auto shop class, however, is reserved for students who want or need to learn these details.
Drill-oriented games are used for basic math, spelling, reading for interpretation, and typing. For these repetitive tasks, no human teacher can be as patient (or as entertaining) as a computer. Children can now enjoy what used to be a painful rote-learning task.
More sophisticated mathematical concepts can be illustrated by various graphing tools in addition to simple question and answer games. Seeing a graphic representation of a mathematical function is far more intuitive than just dealing with the raw formulas, especially with the computer doing the busywork of actually drawing the graphs.
Various publishing and drawing programs are used to teach artistic and design concepts. My own favorites, however, are the music programs. They range from simplistic little note-players to sophisticated musical notation trainers. What human being can instantly transpose keys - and print the results - in a matter of seconds?
There is a huge variety of educational reference material available. Besides the obvious encyclopedias, there are products covering just about any scientific or artistic subject you can think of. Chemistry; biology (without killing animals, no less); geology; geography; history; great works of art - it’s all there.
On top of the educational requirements within schools, you also have to consider the business of running the schools. Word processing, general accounting, payroll, class scheduling, and document and image management systems are examples of the applications in use.
Because of this combination of a businesslike attitude toward educational needs and the increasing dependence on computers to run the school, school administrators now have to consider many of the reliability and performance issues that are common in the business world.
They are changing over to external devices on the server so they can easily switch to another computer that I call a workstation/secondary server if the main server fails. They are using mirroring (duplicate disks), duplexing (duplicate disks and controllers), and even RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) systems to preserve their disk data. Duplexing and RAID also increase the speed of the system.
To handle the extra traffic generated by whole rooms full of multimedia-equipped computers accessing shared CD systems, they are splitting the network using multi-port network cards in the server to spread network traffic among multiple segments. Segments dedicated to the standard low-demand tasks involved with running the school can use standard 10Base-T concentrators (Token Ring is going out of favor), but those segments leading to classrooms full of multimedia workstations are set up with switched Ethernet concentrators with duplexed (that is two-way simultaneous signaling) 100Base-T uplinks to the file server.
Shared CD towers and occasionally even CD changers are used to avoid both the financial and management burden of purchasing dozens of copies of software. License-management software is used to keep things legal.
In larger systems, management software and even cable testing instruments are being used to keep the network running.
Internet access is becoming common. The standard technique of simply blocking access to inappropriate sites or whole categories of sites (such as "") has proven inadequate due the ever-changing site names found on the Internet. (I have seen it reported that a Web site design firm temporarily turned a business Web site into a free X-rated picture repository as a way to test the ability of the system to tolerate a high number of hits!) A more thorough method is to add the ability to report on every location visited and the duration of each visit (to avoid penalizing for accidentally stumbling onto a site) by each student (and maybe even the teachers). If students know that Big Brother is watching, the threat of loss of computer privileges followed up by appropriate disciplinary action is usually enough to keep them away from inappropriate Web sites.
Between all of this Internet access and the more immediate access to floppy disk drives, industrial-strength virus protection at both the server and the individual workstations is a necessity.
Finally, bizarre, proprietary computers and no-name clones are getting rarer in the educational environments as administrators realize the cost of installing and maintaining those machines. An organization that is at least partially dependent on random contributions and/or special circumstance discounts can’t afford to buy computers that have a low standard of compatibility.
School computer systems are resembling business computer systems more and more over time. While these complicated systems require additional planning and a structured outlook on design, schools are benefitting from these faster, increasingly reliable, and eminently more useful systems.

�1997, Wayne M. Krakau