When Computers Started School

Historians of technology trace the beginnings of computers from the analytic machine of Charles Babbage in the 19th century. The history of electronic digital computing is usually measured from the creation of Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the computer built to handle the massive computations necessary for military applications (including for the Manhattan Project that designed the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan) during World War II. After the war, computers were slowly introduced to information-rich industries including those related to military production, insurance companies, and airlines. In the years immediately after World War II, annual sales of computers could be counted with single digits. After its slow start, however, the computer industry grew rapidly with both industry push and market pull driving sales and expanding capacity. As the market expanded, more money became available to support research and development by computer companies and research and development led to advances that expanded computing into new industries including those with smaller budgets than were available to the initial computer customers.

By the early 1960’s the price of mainframe computers had decreased to the point where sales to educational markets were possible. At about the same time the potential of using computers in schools was recognized, but some cynics have suggested that the educational applications of computing were invented so that sales could be made to that market. Regardless of what goals motivated early advocates of introducing computers to schools, computers did begin arriving in schools within decades of their invention. Don Bushnell, writing in a monograph for the Department of Audiovisual Instruction for the National Education Association in 1963, predicted “the digital computer and its peripheral equipment will support most of the subsystems in the total school complex” (cited in Bushnell 1964, 56). 

Bushnell predicted computer-rich classrooms would be places in which a standardized curriculum would be delivered to all students via computer terminals; students’ learning would be measured based on their being able to provide correct answers to questions posed by the computers (the correctness of answers being judged according to those answers stored in the computer). This picture of highly-standardized computer-mediated curriculum and instruction was promoted as a very efficient method of teaching. Similar predictions about improved efficiency and productivity were made for other businesses and industries that adopted computers. These predictions were being made even when computers were still largely operated by technicians and computers were programmed by physically reconfiguring the circuits. The development of the general purpose computer that sat on a desktop and came with a graphical user interface so that it could be operated by almost anyone to perform almost any desired function was still decades in the future. In the education envisioned by Bushnell, students and teachers would interact with information, but the devices would still remain unseen by and untouched by students and teachers.


Bushnell, Don. 1964. “Computers in Education.” In The Revolution in the Schools, edited by Ronald Goss and Judith Murphy, 56-72. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc.