Computers Arrive in Schools

In the 1970’s computers entered the consumer market, and hobbyists began purchasing computers. By 1981, personal computers could be purchased for less than $1000, and amateur enthusiasts (including children) were writing their own programs to satisfy their own interests and curiosities, but consumer computers were still marginalized and largely a hobby.

Joseph Deken, a statistician working at Stanford University who had received his first computer training in 1964 at Kansas State Teachers College, suggested that the coming decades would see individualized and decentralized teaching and learning that would be delivered through information technology. While not a computer utopian, Deken did advocate for using computers in schools because of the benefits for students. Deken opined “how much better to be free to roam about at will and speak the language with teachers as ‘natives’ to assist you” (1981, 247). From the perspective of the second decade of the 21st century, Deken’s reference to teachers as digital natives strikes many as odd; for years, the term “digital native” has been used to describe those who were born into a world with digital devices whereas “digital immigrant” has been used to describe those who are older than digital natives and who are trying to become competent with the natives’ tools. In 1981, teachers were more skilled than their students at using print, so it was natural to expect adults to always be more skilled users of the dominant information technology than students. Ours is undoubtedly the first culture to experience a technology skill inversion: younger generations are more experienced with and more confident with a dominant technology than older generations. The implications of this growing skill inversion for educators are considered in chapter three “Learners.”

Other high-profile writers were advocates for using computers in schools as well. Michael Crichton (the same novelist who would later write Jurassic Park) wrote Electronic Life in 1983; the book was his response to friends and acquaintances who were constantly seeking his advice on buying, setting up, and using their first computers. His book introduced readers to the vocabulary related to and ideas about computers that, he believed, would become familiar as computers became embedded in everyday life. Crichton saw computers as holding great potential for encouraging creativity, and he observed, “One of the great delights of any new technology is that it is for a while, free” (1983, 28). He continued, however, to describe how a group that he called computer Calvinists were—even early in the history of computing for the general public—already at work to ensure that computer use became standardized and that users learned and followed the rules. Crichton expressed his desires for computers in schools and throughout society with these words:

Personally, I hope that, for once in the 20th century, a technology stays free. Because the rules-makers always manage to kill the essence while tidying up the details. Dogma replaces direct experience, and ritual becomes reality (28). 

Unfortunately from Crichton’s perspective, the computer Calvinists appear to have exerted their influence over computers in schools.


Crichton蜉, Michael. 1983. Electronic Life : How to Think About Computers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Deken蜉, Joseph. 1981. The Electronic Cottage. New York: William Morrow and Company.