Computerized Education

Some years ago, while writing an economics textbook, I came up with some ways of using a computer to help teach certain economic concepts. My publisher arranged to make my programs available to students who used my book. As part of our promotional efforts, I attended a number of American Economic Association meetings, spending much of my time demonstrating the software to interested professors.

As a result of demonstrating the programs, talking to the professors, and looking at the software other publishers were demonstrating, I reached two conclusions. The first was that most economics professors believed that most educational software was useless. The second was that they were right. The reason most of the software was useless was that it used a computer to do things that could be done almost as well--sometimes better--by a book.

Typically such software--variously labelled as computer tutorial, programmed instruction, or computer workbook--consisted of screens of text and figures explaining economic ideas. The computer was used to move students from one such screen to another on the basis of their answers to questions about the material, in the process telling them whether or not their answer was right.

Asking students questions and telling them if their answer is correct can be done quite easily on paper. Making the order of the presentation depend on the student is not much harder--it is, for instance, routinely done in "plot it yourself" children's books, where at various crucial point the reader is asked to choose alternative a, b, or c and jump to a new page according to which he chose.

So far as I could tell, the basic theory of such software was that computers were sexy, high tech objects, and students would be so excited to get their fingers on them that they would be willing to study with care and interest the same material--in blurry letters on a computer screen--that would put them to sleep if printed in a textbook. It is not a very plausible theory. Computers, after all, were also large, heavy, expensive devices, hard to read in bed (this was before modern laptops), and with resolution greatly inferior to print on paper.

What was wrong with such software was nicely summed up in the question that professors would ask me when I started talking about my programs: "how many chapters of your book do you have on disk?" The answer, of course, was "none." The chapters of my book were where they belonged, between its covers. The software was an attempt to teach particular concepts in ways that could not be done by either a book or a teacher.

My point so far is not that computers cannot be useful for teaching--on the contrary, I believe they can--but that they usually are not. They are a new tool, very different from the tools with which we are familiar, and we have not yet developed the body of ideas and skills necessary to use them. At present, each useful new program requires a new clever idea.

Such programs do get written. One very simple example is the program my son used to to help learn how to type. It was a video game. At the center of the screen was a spaceship with a wizard sitting on it. He was being attacked by missiles, each labelled by a letter. If you hit the corresponding key on the keyboard, the wizard threw a lightning bolt and destroyed the missile. The sequence of letters was designed to first teach the student to use single keys on the home row, then sequences on the home row, then keys elsewhere on the keyboard.

It was not a terribly good video game; my son would probably have preferred space invaders or the like. But it was good enough to convert typing drills from a deadly dull chore to a mildly entertaining game--with the result that I was able to persuade him to spend half an hour a day learning to type.

Another example is an old Apple II game called Robot Wars--one that I have sometimes described as the world's only computer game. Playing the game consisted of writing a program. The program, written in a simplified assembly language, controlled an imaginary robot. One register recorded his X position, another his Y position, another his X velocity, and so on. Put new numbers in the velocity registers and the robot accelerated or decelerated accordingly. In a similar way, the program controlled the direction in which the robot's gun turret was pointed, sent out radar bleeps, recorded the echo sent back by a potential target (and its range), fired the gun at other robots, and reported any damage suffered from attacks by other robots.

Once you had programmed your robot and your friend had programmed his, it was time for battle. The two of you sat back and watched your robots fight it out on the computer screen, each following the instructions built into his program. If your robot stopped every other second to check his damage register in order to see if he had been hit, the result was to slow him down--with possibly lethal results. On the other hand, if you had programmed him never to check his damage register, he would simply stand there while the other robot, having located him, gradually blew him to bits.

Thus the success of the robot depended on the skill of the programmer. The better designed the program, the faster and smarter the robot. After losing a few rounds of battle, you could stop fighting and rewrite your program, trying to eliminate whatever flaws you had observed on the battlefield. The inventors of the game had made learning assembly language programming--the acquisition of a difficult and sophisticated intellectual skill--into, literally, child's play.

Programs like these represent a small fraction of current educational software--but the fraction that matters. Over time, there will be more. Ingenious people will figure out how to use computers to make more and more of the business of learning into an interesting game. That is, after all, what learning is supposed to be--as I can easily check by watching my five month old daughter learning to control her hands and feet, or her fourteen year old brother conquering ever more astronomical levels in Super Mario Brothers.

Ten years from now, if I am right, a substantial fraction of what children now learn in the first twelve years of school will be available on disks suitable for your home computer. It will be fun and it will be cheap. The effects on our educational system should be interesting.

(A Macintosh program apparently based on Robot War is Robowar, available as shareware. My son's typing program was Master Type.)

Published in Liberty Magazine, reprinted by permission