A Brief History of Computers in Schools

The first school computers were mainframe computers. As with all mainframe installations, the computer was physically located away from the end users, so teachers and students never saw or touched the case containing the processor. These machines were used for instruction in the simplest terms: Students were presented with information, and then they were presented with questions to check their understanding of the information. Feedback was given and instructional decisions were made based on their responses (Bushnell, 1963). In this first version of computer-based education, teaching was by the computer.

The second phase began when desktop computers arrived on the consumer market in the mid to late 1970’s, and those devices replaced mainframes as the computers of choice in schools (as well as in businesses and organizations in most other industries). Desktop computers were less expensive and easier to manage than mainframe computers; and even in small numbers, they provided educationally relevant capacity. In the 1980’s a fortunate teacher might have one or two Apple IIc computers in her classroom. Next to the computer, students would find a plastic box, which contained application disks and those were inserted into the disk drive before the computer was powered on. The application was loaded from the disk as the computer booted, and it was the only application that could be used without rebooting the computer; multitasking required multiple machines. Managing computers in that classroom was largely a matter of plugging them in, labeling disks to know which application each contained, knowing how to use the applications, and how to store data on diskettes, which were similar to those used to load applications. With computers physically located in classrooms, students began creating digital information primarily in the form of simple programs and word processing files. They also began exploring; virtual wagon trains crossing North America in the 19th century and virtual pursuits of hypothetical criminals across the globe were popular desktop adventures.

In the early 1990’s, the World Wide Web opened the Internet to commercial and consumer users, the “dot com bubble” filled and burst, and school technology planners began the third phase of school ICT planning as they started connecting schools and users to the Internet. By the end of the 20th century, school leaders (along with the first generation of information technology experts to work in schools) had connected almost every classroom in the United States to the Internet. This work was supported by funds from the federal government and the Universal Service Program (commonly called e-rate); such funding continues, although the at a much-reduced level of funding.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, students in the United States, and other industrialized nations, attend schools in which computers abound. The machines may be desktop, laptop, tablet, or handheld models that are owned by and maintained by the school, or the devices may be owned by students and brought to school for educational (or distracting) purposes. Almost all of these computers are connected to a network managed by school employees. School networks include filters and other hardware and software to protect users and devices, but many of the mobile devices that students bring are connected to the Internet through the telecommunications networks, so they by-pass the school’s network and its protections.