What Computers Do

Perhaps the most impressive capacities of computers are those related to information manipulation and analysis. Computers can remember with precision and longevity, and computers can follow algorithms at billions of steps per second.

The keyboard strokes that become digital displays that humans recognize as words and sentences are actually a series of digital signals. Those signals are stored as magnetic signals or optical signals on disks or electrically in memory. As long as the physical media are safe and the file is not otherwise compromised, the messages can be saved with precision indefinitely. If an appropriate system to read the files is available, the file can be recreated as well. It is not unusual for computer users to find disks misplaced for years and to open the files exactly as they were created years previously. 

Related to the capacity to remember is the capacity to copy; once a digital file is recalled from memory it can be copied with a few clicks. The copy of a digital file is identical to the original, so the fidelity of digital information is not degraded as copies are made and as copies of copies are made. Further, copies can be made with a marginal cost that approaches zero; once a computer system is purchased and powered and it contains sufficient space to store the file, saving copies of files adds nothing to the expense of the system.

The effectively infinite memory of computers can be applied for many tasks in education. A virtual classroom can provide an archive of a student’s experience. Students enrolled in Advanced Biology (for example) can access curriculum materials and assignments that were part of Introductory Biology to review as necessary. The details of homework assignments can be accessed online indefinitely (at least until students or their parents realize missing work is threatening to result in a student having a failing grade on a report card).

Computers follow rules with precision and speed; computer processor speeds are generally measured in gigahertz which are billions of operations per second. As a result, computers have amazing capacity to perform tasks that can be broken into clear steps can be expressed as algorithms. Most of the mathematics included in school curriculum is built upon problems and procedures that are algorithms. Processors performing billions of calculations per second can draw and update graphs in fractions of a second and they can perform complex statistical analyses of large data sets in similarly brief periods. Using technology to manipulate information, teachers can open interesting new ideas to students that were previously unapproachable because of the complexity of the calculations. Fractals (for example) are complex and beautiful patterns that have wide applications to many problems. Using computers, students can manipulate and explore fractals in a manner that is not possible without the devices.

In addition to performing mathematics, the capacity of computers to perform billions of steps per second can be applied to other educationally valuable tasks. For example simulations of scientific and medical phenomena and even games requiring complex strategies allow students to explore complex and even dangerous activities from safety. In addition, sophisticated games and business simulations give students experiences and allow them to explore strategies that are not otherwise possible. 

The vast amounts of information available on networked systems are useless without efficient search and sort functions. The capacity of computers to perform algorithms quickly and precisely is used to identify documents that contain relevant text and to filter large databases so students and teachers can easily navigate digital information.