A curious crisis of computer science

February 8th, 2016 9:16 AM
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I frequently hear from programmers born earlier than 1980 that today's kids don't know how to code. Matt Hellinger gave a great talk on the subject at KansasFest 2013, which he followed up with a Juiced.GS article on the subject. Other outlets have opined similarly, such as Simon Bisson pointing to the skills and technology of the past to power today's Internet of Things, and John Martellaro proposing that a revamped iPad could be the ideal learning environment.

There's plenty of truth to what these pundits say. The Raspberry Pi, which is often seen as a modern yet affordable equivalent to the Apple II in terms of easy access to the underlying hardware and software, is a powerful alternative to today's closed environments. My own experiences would suggest that's the way to go: opening up my Apple II, plugging in expansion cards, booting into BASIC, and writing my own code is how I taught myself to fall in love with computers.

The Apple II's impact extends beyond these personal anecdotes, influencing careers and industries for a generation. "The peak in computer-science degrees, in 1985, came about four years after the introduction of IBM's first personal computer and during the heyday of the Apple II, which very likely led to increased interest in getting a computer-science degree," writes Jonah Newman for The Chronicle of Higher Education in "Is There a Crisis in Computer-Science Education?" Had I started with an OS X or Windows machine, I wouldn't know where to begin peeling away the pretty GUI surface and getting at the roots of the machine.

But how has interest in computer science developed since then, paralleling the rise in ubiquity of computers, smartphones, and other closed devices?

University of Washington in Seattle CS enrollment

"The chart above tells quite a story. That blue line — the one that looks like a hockey stick — shows how interest in computer science from freshmen at the University of Washington in Seattle has skyrocketed since 2010 compared with other engineering fields," writes Taylor Soper for GeekWire.

While that's a very small data set, a larger one suggests computer science enrollment is on the upswing. "After the 1985–1986 peak in CS majors, demand declined again through most of the 1990s, before increasing in the 2000s and dropping back down again in recent years… Even though there are proportionally fewer graduates now than there were in 1985, this may be a cyclical trend that's actually beginning to reverse," says Elizabeth Dye for Sparkroom in an analysis of The Chronicle of Higher Education's blog post. The job market plays a large role in that, with bubbles (such as the dot-com of 1997–2000) encouraging higher interest and enrollment in computer science.

The sooner kids have the opportunity not just to use computers, but to program them, the earlier they'll develop an interest in a career in computer science. From the Apple II to the Raspberry Pi, there are many opportunities for young programmers to have that experience working with low-level hardware and software. But the platform they have access to is just one variable in a complex equation, and their childhood is only one window in which they can develop these skills. When I started college as a computer science major in the mid-1990s, I had a classmate who had never written a program before, yet she'd chosen to major in CS; almost two decades later, she's still employed in that industry. The important thing may not be to give our children the same experiences we had, but to spark their curiosity. That quality, regardless of what field they pursue, will be of lifelong value.

(Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich)

Reflecting on my past & do-overs

October 12th, 2015 10:23 AM
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After a six-month hiatus, I recently resumed guest-appearing on the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast. As always, this multi-platform show leaves this Apple II-only guy little to contribute, but I'm happy to listen and pipe up when called upon — as in episode #106, when host Earl Evans asked: what do you wish you'd done differently in your history with computers, and is it too late to do so now?

I really had to think about that one! There are so many things I don't regret that stretch back so far: going to KansasFest every year since 1998; being editor of Juiced.GS for a decade; subscribing to Softdisk GS until the end. I made some mistakes in those years, often surrounding business transactions that went foul, but the loss of a few dollars or some minor hardware didn't ultimately have any significant, long-term repercussions.

In the grand scheme of things, the only regret I may have is not pursuing a minor in computer science. I'd started my undergraduate career as a CS major, but after two years, I switched to technical, scientific, and professional communications (TSPC), or what the school now calls professional writing (PW). The only career I felt qualified to pursue with that degree was one in tech writing, which I believed meant documentation. In fact, I nearly got a contract to write the manual for a cell phone, and later interviewed for a documentation position at Mozilla, neither of which in hindsight would've been that scintillating.

It wasn't until I got to Computerworld that I married my TSPC degree with my concentration in CS. As a Computerworld editor (and then as a freelancer), I wrote about enterprise IT and other technical subjects for an audience that was focused on CIOs and CTOs but which could include software developers, helpdesk technicians, and curious consumers.

Still, at some point in my career, not having any formal degree or certificate in computer science felt like an oversight — and while my undergraduate school's name carries weight in the local IT industry, having the words "Computer Science" on my actual degree would help solidify my strength and in that area.

But, as Earl pointed out, its absence didn't stop me from ending up at Computerworld — and I now have a portfolio that speaks for itself. Perhaps a minor wouldn't add much to my credentials. Even at the time I switched majors all those years ago, I was so disillusioned with CS that I never wanted to take another course; pursuing a minor might've been intolerable at the time.

So maybe I did make the right decision, after all.

Thanks for helping me come to peace with my past, Earl and RCR!

Kids can't wait

March 30th, 2015 8:44 AM
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Education? I'm a fan. I taught at the high school level for several years and have been a college instructor for twice that. Teaching kids not what to think, but how to think, is the best investment I know to make in our future.

Turns out Steve Jobs was of a similar mindset. In a 1995 interview with Daniel Morrow of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Jobs related his drive to ensure other kids had the same opportunities he did:

When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer… I fell in love with it. And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.

Jobs investigated what it would cost to donate a single Apple II computer to every K-12 school in the United States. The cost was prohibitive for such a fledging company, but made economical and affordable with various tax incentives and deductions. Jobs lobbied for even more flexibility, getting as far as landing the Computer Equipment Contribution Act of 1982 on the floor of the Senate, after sailing it through Congress. Alas, it never made it past that point. In the end, Jobs' outreach was limited to California, where each of over 9,000 schools benefitted from Apple's generosity.

Audrey Watters over at Hack Education has more details and links, including to InfoWorld's and Creative Computing's reports of that era. It's a fascinating look at the marketing and financial strategy by which Apple came to dominate the classroom.

Carmack's Apple II inspires son — and reddit

March 9th, 2015 11:29 AM
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As reported by the Cult of Mac, id co-founder John Carmack recently tweeted a photo of his son learning to program on an Apple IIc:

This looks like the same IIc that Carmack received as a Christmas gift in 2012:

The Apple II and education go hand-in-glove — this post is the site's 18th to be tagged "education". However, the two sentences of the Cult of Mac's story that struck me have little to do with education. First is this detail of Carmack's origin story: "As a kid at Shawnee Mission East public school (one of the first in his family's part of Kansas to get a computer lab), Carmack taught himself BASIC on an Apple II." Shawnee Mission is only 12 miles from Rockhurst University, home of KansasFest; might it be a homecoming to invite Carmack to be the event's keynote speaker, joining his former colleague John Romero among the speaker alumni?

That paragraph's next sentence is a wonderful example of unintended consequences: "Later on, [Carmack] bought an Apple IIGS to start his game-making career, as revealed in the fantastic book Masters of Doom." And it was that 2003 book book by David Kushner that inspired the 2005 founding of social news website reddit, as detailed by co-founder Alexis Ohanian:

… this book convinced me to consider starting a company. It just seemed like so much damn fun. Granted, we didn't end up starting a gaming company (well, I guess we had 'gamification' before that was a buzzword: karma, leaderboards, awards, etc) but the idea a few friends could get together in a house and start building something the world had never seen before — having a lot of fun in the process — got me hooked.

Would reddit and its AMAs exist without Carmack and Romero — and thus without the Apple II? Likely not!

Who knows what the next generation of programmers will create and inspire, thanks to the Apple II?

(Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich)

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977
The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87
The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

Teaching computer classes to seniors

February 24th, 2014 11:23 AM
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A year ago this month, the Gulf Coast News of Baldwin County, Alabama, reported how Anne Hinrichs, 74, got her start on the Apple II; now she's helping other seniors get their start with modern computing.:

As a typist in the 70s, she realized computers and word processing were the future of her profession. Anne bought an Apple II computer in 1977 right after she accepted a job typing for a court reporter.

"I took the computer apart and put it back together again so I would know the ins and outs of it," she said.

Anne's interest in computers grew quickly. It became a hobby that soon turned into a job. In addition to typing, she contracted with Olensky Brothers in Mobile, setting up computer systems in offices and teaching people how to use them.

As computer technology became more and more complex, Anne immersed herself in learning. Instead of reading novels, she read computer books. And she never gave up on something challenging, like learning computer languages.

Hinrichs may no longer be teaching on the Apple II, but she still has her original machine:

Anne Hinrichs

Photo by Jill Clair Gentry of the Gulf Coast Today staff.

Alas, her students are not learning on the Apple II, but it makes me wonder if certain demographics would cotton better to that platform, given that kids at the Joseph Sears School in Illinois are playing on retrocomputers. A common stereotype is that today's kids have a natural affinity for technology, since they have grown up alongside it. Is learning the Apple II therefore easier for them? Or is it more challenging, since they are accustomed to GUI interfaces and mobile devices, neither of which the 8-bit Apple II naturally accommodates? How easily do they transfer what they learn on the Apple II to a modern platform — or are these skills transferable at all?

Likewise, would seniors do best with older computers and then graduate to modern platforms, just as Hinrichs did? Or does it make more sense for them to jump right into today's machinery, with no background or context?

I've never had to teach computer literacy so don't know where I would begin. But whatever her platform of choice, I'm glad Hinrichs hasn't stopped!