Taming the Wild Number Crunchers

Ignorance of computers in the ’80s will render people as functionally illiterate as ignorance of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Computers were hailed in the ’60s as a revolutionary force in education. And as the ’80s get underway, it appears that computers are finally fulfilling their promise: the long-awaited revolution has arrived.

To illustrate:

  • An author of popular textbooks observed that the first six years of math study are devoted to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. “If we introduce into first grade calculators that automatically perform those functions,” he asked a national meeting of educators, “what will the children do for six years?” In response, an MIT professor gave children a computer. They soon were solving complex problems in physics, geometry and physiology and writing computer-based poetry and music.
  • A professor at an Ivy League university taught an engineering course several years ago by dealing with one concept a week, assigning problems and forcing students to devote hours to computation. As a semester began, the professor distributed enough material to occupy his students for months. One student employed a computer and turned in the enter semester’s assignments at the second class.
  • About 75 per cent of Notre Dame’s undergraduates log on to a computer in at least one course by the time they graduate (the national average is 40 per cent). And in any given semester about half the undergraduates use a computer in course work, and that does not count electronic hand calculators or digital wristwatches.

Such examples presage a computer boom that will alter how students learn from elementary to graduate schools.

“The scope of a student’s knowledge corresponds to the level of technology to which he has access,” says a National Science Foundation administrator. “ A student who graduates without being exposed to computers has had an incomplete education.”

“Ignorance of computers in the 1980s will render people as functionally illiterate as ignorance of reading, writing and arithmetic,” writes Donald Michael in his book, The Unprepared Society. And Ron Winslow, writing in The New York Times, cautions: “If ‘Why can’t Johnny read and write?’ was the education story of the 1970s, then the story of the 1980s might well be ‘Why can’t Johnny use a computer?’”

The first IBM instructional system was installed 14 years ago in Brentwood Elementary School in East Palo Alto, Calif., but the spread of computers into education has been spotty. At first, technology was expensive, teaching acceptance was slow, and the difficulty of producing quality programs for educational purposes was underestimated.

But recent technological advances have brought increased capability for less money. One source estimates the cost of equipment is reduced by 35 per cent each year. Computing capacity that cost $20 million 15 years ago costs $1,000 now and may cost $100 soon.

Brian R. Walsh, director of Notre Dame’s computing center, estimates the center’s costs have gone up 5.6 per cent annually since 1970 (reaching $1.7 million this year). But the center’s computing power is 40 times greater than it was a decade ago. When an IBM 370/168 was leased in 1978, upgrading capability for the fifth time since the center opened in 1963, it increased processing speed by 300 per cent for less than a 10 per cent increase in cost.

And a growing number of educators are writing quality computer programs. Initially, most computer education packages failed to satisfy academicians. Today, many educators are developing their own programs.

A Notre Dame group, which has developed its own computer language, is a nationally recognized leader in computer-assisted instruction. Its materials, developed for economics, history and English courses, have been packaged and distributed to almost 200 colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, England, Germany and Australia. The departments of economics and electrical engineering have developed a new teaching and research simulation language used in about 130 colleges and universities in six countries.

In 1980, Notre Dame was a leader in introducing computers into higher education.

Educators at Notre Dame train students to use computers not only to prepare them for coming technology but also to enhance other aspects of education.

Freshman engineers at Notre Dame use computers in their introduction to basic engineering. Many, along with physics majors, will become adept at computer technology by actually building microprocessors.

Starting next fall, sophomore business majors will be required to take a course in computer usage.

And this year, for the first time, students in arts and letters are offered a double major in computer applications designed to an individual’s field of study. Notre Dame is one of the first schools to formally integrate computers into the liberal arts curriculum as a tool of learning rather than as an end in itself.

A report proposing that curriculum innovation explains the value and impact of computers on education: “Some areas of modern scholarship cannot be appreciated or criticized unless a student has attained a level of technological expertise. Thus, the acquisition of computer-based skills is a means of experiencing areas of knowledge within the social sciences and humanities. While not all students in all areas must acquire these skills, some avenues within the social sciences and humanities are closed to students unless such training is offered.”

Students have access to computers at almost any time of the day or night. At least 64 minicomputers are placed throughout campus in addition to 140 terminals which tie into the University’s central computer. The computing center is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A student simply keys in his identification number and the computer is at his command.

The University also belongs to several computer networks. Its computer is connected with others in 246 cities, some overseas. And Notre Dame subscribes to commercial search services providing information via computer. The service can provide information as esoteric as a list of all doctoral dissertations written since the Civil War about Indiana plant life.

But computers can do much more than store and retrieve information or act as a cataloging agent. A computer can be used as a giant calculator, a “number cruncher,” that gathers data, performs clerical tasks, solves 150 simultaneous equations, and extrapolates trends. It thus can free students from elementary tasks to explore higher levels of knowledge.

One of the computer’s most widespread uses is in course review, now being used at Notre Dame in such disciplines as history, English, economics, biology, business and philosophy. These programs are series of multiple choice questions normally grouped in relation to a textbook chapter. When a student selects an answer, the computer tells him whether or not he is correct, and why. Faculty have found about 30 per cent of students purposely select incorrect answers to better understand the ideas involved.

The method has several advantages: It familiarizes a student with course material, evaluates his performance, pinpoints his weaknesses and allows him to work at his own pace. It provides a printout for further study or discussion with an instructor. And its novelty stimulates students to use computer programs more often than they might use a workbook.

“But the main benefit of computers to undergraduate instruction is in modeling, simulating real world situations,” says Notre Dame economics professor, William I. Davisson. “It forces a student to focus on everything he knows on a central point. And once a student puts one model together, he can easily get a handle on other models. They learn how to deal with complex systems, which is what they will face in their careers.”

In simulation or modeling the real world is translated into mathematical formulas with the computer performing the calculations. Students are given an overview of a complex, interacting system and an opportunity to manipulate the parts in order to better understand the whole. Such a perspective is impossible without a computer.

“One great advantage here,” says Davisson, “is that students are unaware they are doing any math. Students may be doing a program in political science or philosophy without knowing the computer is solving differential equations.”

For example, a theology major, taking the biology course Plants and Human Affairs, uses a computer to test his ideas on how best to feed the world’s hungry. A computer program simulates the “real world” of population growth, weather changes, food production and other factors affecting the earth’s food supply. By tapping on a keyboard the student changes the values of the pieces and is shown how the factors interact and the repercussions his decisions might have in 50 or 100 years.

Other programs enable a student to run a bank or make political decisions which may result in the extinction of certain plant or animal life. Other students might become the government’s chief policymaker, battling inflation, unemployment and energy shortages by tinkering with wage-price freezes and tax incentives.

But the computer holds the trump card. Reflecting real life, in which the future is rarely predictable, the program contains a random variable, the element of surprise, which changes the outcome even if all other values remain the same.

“Simulation enables students to do things they couldn’t do otherwise,” says Frank Bonello, an economics professor. “And it allows students to think, to apply their knowledge to solving problems, to become policymakers with the computer giving the results of their decisions.”

While course review and simulation games are the two principal uses of computers in undergraduate education, their potential is as limitless as the imagination. Educators increasingly view the computer not as a threatening technological invader but as an educational tool as indispensable as pencil and paper.

Ted Crovello, chairman of Notre Dame’s biology department, teaches the only course in the country devoted to computers in bioeducation. Says he: “The selective use of computers in bioeducation can enhance teaching quality, both in terms of the amount a student learns and in the insights and experience of problem solving that he gains. Computers also may allow a department to use its resources of faculty time and laboratory space more effectively.

“When photography was first invented, many thought it spelled the end to creativity in art,” Crovello continues. “So too with computers: At first they seemed to threaten creativity. But our experience has been that their selective use provides students and faculty another avenue of creativity, an exciting new medium in which to expand it.

“A computer is just an extension of the mind, just as power tools are extensions of the body. And just as the industrial revolution both liberated and enhanced the human body, so will the computer revolution liberate and enhance the mind.”

Kerry Temple, the editor of this magazine, was a contributing writer in 1980.