CHAPTER 25 – Handing on the Torch of Civilisation III: The InfoTech Teacher
Why, oh why, did I lay such a huge rod on my back in introducing Information Technology into St John’s College?
My obsession in the late 1980s, with the Amiga computer was one reason. The slow death-like grip of teaching 15 years of the growing Marxist propaganda in history and social studies was another.
There was a hint of promise in the future of computing: the excitement of computer graphics and of multimedia educational programming. In those early days there was still the promise that home and school computing by Apple, Atari and Amiga would successfully challenge the dominant business world of PCs and MS-DOS. I saw myself the local leader of the Amiga dream – to bring creative computing into my school. Furthermore, there was the early promise that young people might take up the challenge of the budding technological revolution and learn the joys of computer programming. In computer programming one entered the digital world at a fundamental level. Careers could be carved out in those early years. There was a huge demand for computer entrepreneurs. And students might be inspired to take advantage of this promise.
During the 1980s, not only St John’s College, but also New Zealand, had no information technology curriculum. Computers drifted into schools by the efforts of enthusiasts on the staff. Bernie Hay, R.I.P., the then Deputy Principal and Graphics and Design teacher, introduced a set of a dozen Apple IIs into our college. So there we were: a stand-off between us – Apple versus Commodore – both with a large range of educational software. But both of us could see no real use for the dominant PC/MS-DOS office computer in the classroom: text-based, command-line driven, no graphics, no educational software…
Eventually I was called upon to introduce computers to the office staff, not the classroom. Bernie absolutely refused to touch MS-DOS PC machines and office databases – looking back now, rightly so!. So, here I was, the amateur enthusiast, being drawn into the world of office computing. Next came setting up and maintenance of the library computer. When the cheap Asian PC clones arrived it was impossible to argue a case for the expensive Apple Macs or the now dying Amiga. Soon, I was finally given the authority to establish a computing room and computer studies classes, relinquishing my responsibility in history for another: Head of InfoTech.
Over the next 12 years the computer facilities and budget grew: from old, second-hand office equipment running Windows 3 to a new refurbished suite connected to a set of servers running a network of classroom computers throughout the school. I invented a term course of computer studies for junior students: spreadsheets and word processing with an introduction to programming in QuickBasic, and later Visual Basic. Students loved being able to alter the code of an adventure game, make their own graphics for the rooms and objects, and see the results of a little Basic programming.
And it was with the help of some keen junior students that the whole school network and maintenance developed. Bright, responsible, keen, young, MS-DOS experts, all of 12 to 13 years old, knew more about computers than their parents. They set up the computers, debugged Windows, built the first networks, developed security systems for the library and the classrooms. This small growing team, over seven years, immersed themselves in the running of the computer systems and network over that crucial period when the PC clone was overtaking most classrooms in the world.
But that core of young experts dried up! With Windows 95 and later, young boys no longer had to learn MS-DOS to hack their computers at home. Command line programming died and with it the supply of that logical expertise which grew within it. The need for the programming skills of logic and mathematical imagination also died. By the end of the 1990s, there was nothing left of the dream – computing skills meant no more that learning to use applications. The new national senior computing curriculum offered absolutely minimal scope for fulfilling the needs of students wishing to take advantage of the digital revolution: senior computing morphed into job skills training for the lowest ability students. I even offered a Unitec (Taafe) course in Pascal programming to senior students, but none, other than the less able, enrolled, all of whom thought that anything to do with computers meant playing games as an easy course option!
So, by end of my teaching career, the computing dream had ended both at home and at school.