Electronic publishing overview

February 9th, 2015 11:36 AM
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Last month, I began my fourth semester teaching an undergraduate course in electronic publishing. I always start with an overview of computer history — not for "you kids don't know how good you have it" reasons, like when I taught high school students to use Visicalc, but because I consider it valuable for students to have a basic understanding of how the machinery and environment they'll be working came into being, and the decisions that were made decades ago that will affect their workflows and livelihoods.

We start with what might be considered ancient history, reviewing key figures in computing's history: Charles Babbage, Paul Baran, Tim Berners Lee. I suspected this might be the first semester in which the name Alan Turing might prove familiar. I was right: Benedict Cumberbatch's turn in that role had drawn my students to see The Imitation Game. We had a brief but fun discussion about how Turing's already dramatic tale had been further dramatized for the silver screen, before returning to the topic at hand: learning to count in binary.

As part of this lecture, I employ plenty of props from my Apple II, including a 5.25" floppy disk and floppy disk notcher. It's always interesting to see how the students respond to these artifacts. Spring 2014 was the first semester where none of my students had used a 5.25" floppy before. I figured I'd passed a tipping point: students born in 1992 didn't grow up with this media. So I was pleasantly surprised when this year's students recognized the disk fondly. And I, of course, got a kick out of wondering, "Can you believe that we used to ship software on these things?" holding up the Lawless Legends demo I received from Martin Haye at KansasFest 2014.

My favorite exercise of the evening involves publishing — which is their major, after all, not computer science. It's 2015 and you want to distribute software to your print magazine's subscribers. How can you do so? A link, a QR code, a Steam code, even a CD — these are all viable delivery mechanisms… and none of them were applicable in 1986. Sure, you could maybe include a 5.25" disk in your magazine — but who does that? Instead I hand out an issue of Nibble magazine and let the students peruse it, until it finally registers what they're looking at — at which point their eyes get big and they ask, "Did they actually print the entire program in the magazine and ask people to type it in??"

Okay… so maybe I do want my students to know how good they have it.

Generational hardware gap tres

September 3rd, 2012 12:43 PM
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Last month, the Commodore 64 turned 30 years old. Normally, that'd not be an appropriate topic for this Apple II blog; in fact, the wrong readers might take it as an opportunity to burn me in effigy, minus the effigy.

But the way in which Mat Allen chose to commemorate the occasion offers a cross-platform look at the way different generations interact with classic technology. Having seen this concept explored first in France and then in the USA, Allen invited several young Brits to play with his C64, to demonstrate that the game system of his youth was as entertaining and relevant today.


The video focuses primarily on the loading times, which is so obsolete an experience as to almost have faded from memory; I'm not surprised Allen's audience wandered away. Still, I wish he'd run a second experiment where the game was already loaded, so that the kids could provide feedback based more on interacting with the software instead of the hardware.

It was cute to hear the students couch their words to be as delicate as possible; referring to the C64's rudimentary graphics, one child commented, "For them, it must've been pretty incredible."

Apple's return to education

January 23rd, 2012 1:51 PM
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Last week, Apple announced iBooks textbooks and iBooks author, two iPad applications designed to redefine education.

Although I still favor physical literature for leisure reading, the elimination of physical textbooks in favor of e-books has been a long time coming, as outlined in this 2009 column by Mike Elgan who proposed that "education reform should begin by burning all the textbooks." And Apple may be just the company to get the ball rolling. Some pundits are seeing this move as a return to Apple's origin: the iPhone and iPad, which have been aimed at consumers and the enterprise, overlooked that "schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II", writes Ryan Faas for Computerworld.

Others are less optimistic, saying that Apple's methodology is fundamentally flawed by being based on false assumptions and failing to address long-standing issues. Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, remembers hearing these same promises in the days of the Apple II and cites a nine-year-old study that questions the value of technology in education (in contrast to a recent pilot program by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.

Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, says that no matter how elegant the software, the problem of hardware remains the same as it has the past three decades: "There was an Apple II in my third-grade classroom. We used it to play Oregon Trail. Then it died. Therein lies the problem with iPads in high school: devices break."

iPads are expensive, and they do break. And it may be true that Apple is simply trading one set of problems (the expense, weight, and outdatedness of textbooks) for another. But much of Apple's early success was found in the education market; "Education has always been a big part of Apple's DNA," said Eddy Cue, senior VP of Internet software and services, in the above video. Millions of today's adults may not be able to tell you exactly what they learned by playing Oregon Trail, but they remember the experience and the introduction it gave them to the computers that demand familiarity from today's workforce. Don't today's students deserve the same opportunities with today's tools that my generation had with the Apple II?

Generational hardware gap deux

December 19th, 2011 7:36 PM
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Remember those modern kids confronted with ancient technology? They were, for the most part, baffled by archaic storage media and entertainment devices. It was an amusing demonstration of the changes in interfaces and expectations across the generations.

Here's another example of the clash between new and old. Four American kids, all siblings, are given three devices from their mother's attic: a tape deck, a Commodore Plus/4, and an Atari 2600.

It's great fun to see the girl's delight at getting the Commodore to work. Today's computers may be more elegant and inviting, but there's a far greater sense of accomplishment at mastering the rudimentary commands of yesterday's machines.

By contrast, it's challenging to believe the young man couldn't figure out how to fire in a game that has one button, it's not surprising that he and his brother would find the Atari games challenging. In 2009, I brought a 22-year-old to the American Classic Arcade Museum at Funspot. Bred into being a multitasker by today's complex and staccato media, she was confused by the simplicity of the coin-ops of the 1980s. Surely there was more to it than that?

I'm glad there are retro enthusiasts out there who are not only holding onto their tech but are willing to share it with their kids. May we always remember the way things were — the better to appreciate the way things are!

(Hat tip to ComputeHer, 8 Bit Weapon)

A generational hardware gap

January 10th, 2011 12:10 PM
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Anyone who has been using computers for a few decades has the questionable pleasure of reflecting on how far technology has come. We remember the massive leap forward 3.5" floppy disks represented over the old, which makes us appreciate the volume and affordability of modern storage all the more.

Newcomers to technology don't have that historical context — but rather than berate them for not knowing how good they have it, Montreal journalist Jean-Christophe Laurence brought them face-to-face with hardware older than they are. He presented several kids with such equipment as a Nintendo Game Boy, an LP record, several floppy disks, and more. With nary a hint as to their purpose, the children were tasked with determining the nature of the enigmatic tech. He recorded the results, which are presented in French with English subtitles:

It's a creative scenario, as it doesn't try to impress upon the students how different this stuff is from what they know: when they guessed an LP was like a CD, nobody said "Yes, but it holds this much less data, and has this much slower access times." It's more a matter of function and design than of better or worse, which is likely to be more educational and thus make them better appreciate (and familiar with) what's come before. (Maybe they'll learn the other by being taught programming on retrocomputers.)

It's also similar to what older generations have to do when confronted with new technology. We've heard those old chestnuts of newbies mistaking a CD-ROM tray for a cup holder, or a mouse for a foot pedal or a TV remote. Those mistakes happen because users are familiar with cup holders and channel changers, so they bring those analogues to their new experiences. It's impressive how spot-on many of the above children's guesses are, especially when they have to use modern metaphors to make their guesses. Although it's useful to have a frame of reference by which to learn new skills, as they demonstrated when confronted with a 3.5" floppy, it's also occasionally necessary to abandon old ideas to grasp new ones.

What do you think? Should these kids have been able to identify these objects? Would you have been able to?

(Hat tip to Genevieve Koski)