Saturday, April 5, 2008

Computer literacy 1.0

Early computers were expensive and complex, so it took special vision to see they would one day be widely used. John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College held the conviction that understanding computers and their applications and limitations was an essential part of a liberal education.

During 1962, they and their students implemented several simple programming languages on the LGP-30, an early, expensive, desk sized, personal computer, and, by 1963, they had made the decision that all Dartmouth students would be taught computing.

Following a design policy that "In all cases where there is a choice between simplicity and efficiency, simplicity is chosen," they built the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) and invented BASIC as a language for teaching programming. (The quote is from Kurtz' chapter in The History of Programming Languages). They also opened the first campus computer lab, shown above.

The project was sponsored by the US National Science Foundation, and in their 1967 final report to the sponsor they wrote:

Four years ago Dartmouth College reached the conclusion that learning to use a high-speed computer should be an essential part of liberal education. Four years ago this was merely a dream, and considered impractical by many experts. Today it is a reality...The average college graduate of today is almost sure to need a computer in his work twenty years from now. Therefore, we must prepare him today to use this most powerful of tools ... Even more significant is the need for changing the attitude of the typical intelligent person towards computers. ...It is vitally important that the leaders of government, industry and education should know both the potential and limitations of the use of computers, and to be aware of the respective roles of Man and machine in the partnership.
Dartmouth did not offer an independent computer literacy course at first, but integrated it into existing courses throughout the curriculum. Textbooks and full computer literacy courses followed. (Jeremy Bernstein, a prominent physicist and New Yorker author, published an excellent introduction to computers for the layperson at the same time -- it holds up 40 years later).

As the above quote shows, Kemeny and Kurtz realized computing skills were needed for work and computing concepts were needed to be an effective citizen. Early computer literacy courses recognized this, combining a skill portion -- an introduction to procedural or algorithmic problem solving using BASIC programming -- with computing concepts. In first generation computer literacy courses, those concepts included topics like hardware and software, encoding of numeric and text data, applications, and the history and social implications of computers.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz:

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