A Little #edtech History: Computers Arrive on Desktops

In the 1970’s computers entered the consumer market, and hobbyists began purchasing computers. By 1982, 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. In that year, 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. Deken (1982) opined “how much better to be free to roam about at will and speak the language with teachers as ‘natives’ to assist you” (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 many 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 that decade, teachers were more skilled than their students at using print which was the dominant information technology, so it was natural to expect adults to always be more skilled than students. Ours is undoubtedly the first culture to experience a technology skill inversion: younger generations are more experienced with a dominant technology than older generations.

While not a computer utopian, Deken did advocate for using computers in schools because of the advantages students were expected to gain. 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 they started using first computers, and 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. He 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” (Crichton 1983, 28).

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

In 1994, Seymour Papert, the mathematician from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was a pioneer in using computer programming to teach mathematics to young children, suggested that the history of computers in schools could be deconstructed into three phases. First, there was a brief time when innovative educators had computers in their classrooms and engaged students with them (one gets the sense that information technologies in those classrooms were free in the manner Crichton hoped). Second, there was a period during which computers were centralized in “computer labs” and specialists assumed responsibility for teaching computer classes; computing became a subject matter. This was similar to the centralized computing and data predicted by Bushnell, but was less democratic than Bushnell had predicted, because computer classes were primarily filled with rich white males. Papert argued that the early innovators had been right with their approach, and he encouraged educators to initiate the third phase of educational computing which would find them returning to the innovative curriculum and practices that characterized the initial endeavors with computers in classrooms. When I recount Papert’s vision to teachers today, I usually conclude that most educators and educational communities are still trying to find their way back to our beginnings and complete Papert’s third phase, and many agree with me.


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

Deken, Joseph. 1982. The Electronic Cottage. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Papert, Seymour. 1994. The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.