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Published: Thursday, February 1, 1996


Page: 7A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

A great deal of attention is being given to providing computers for school children, to prepare them for the high-tech future. The darling of the education industry, this little techno-

orphan has grown up.

Sophisticated software makes the PC understandable to the armada of teachers who have received little training, many of whom had already rejected the PC's clumsy user-hostile predecessors. New computers pop on with bright smiles of icons and animations - no simple, boring prompt like ``READY.'' The mouse is chased across the pad and sets a paw down on the application of choice. Click and you're there: word processor, spreadsheet, games.

The one choice not emphasized on the menu - the item that used to be the only choice in the old days - is almost gone. And that loss, I think, is a tragedy. The thing that is most needed and would be most useful to students is often missing, de-emphasized or at least not taught.

In the early days of what used to be called microcomputers, the machine came with only a programming language, BASIC. The Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code was created at Dartmouth to provide a way to enter programming steps in a language somewhere between the nitty-gritty machine code and the English language. When the machine was turned on, it ``booted up'' by running a short, built-in program that told it how to load BASIC. It then presented the user with a prompt that indicated it needed human insight to proceed.

Upon consulting the programming manual (no better in those days than what you get now), you would attempt some trivial immediate command such as PRINT ``Hello''.


Hallelujah, it works! Sadly, nothing more advanced would work for you for quite some time. Welcome to programming.

As you clambered up the learning curve you received little or no Help - that hot button would be a decade away. You were quickly reduced to a blithering idiot, staring at the code long after you should be asleep. Your vocabulary was reduced to the simple phrase, ``What's it doing?''

All the while, not obvious to you, you actually were developing an incredible and fundamental skill: logic. The computer is relentless in demanding correct programming: It will do what you say, not what you want. You found that even the simplest program would never work when first written - bugs would be there, and de-bugging aids were still a gleam in Bill Gates' eye.

Even entering programs from listings published in magazines would not be successful. It would be a while before publishers would learn to include an actual printout, no matter how awful it looked; typesetting always introduced errors. And it became the user's job to find them. If you think finding your error is difficult, try finding somebody else's! But again - it provided more lessons in making something work.

You did solve those problems and went on to enjoy the challenge of writing programs to do everything from the frivolous to the serious, from games to check balancing. You might even have written that recipe-filing program you promised your wife as a justification for the computer's purchase. You learned to make things move on the screen and created a few crude video games. Not exactly Nintendo, but not bad.

You might have learned along with your spouse or children. There were no experts then, anyway. Dads and daughters stared blankly at the same screen. ``What's it doing?''

This is what is missing! Computers have evolved from tools for learning to pre-programmed application containers. Nobody has to - or is encouraged to - learn programming. Programmers themselves have left the fold by advocating replacements for BASIC, like C, that are almost undecipherable to old programmers, much less to the novice. And C is not in the box when you unpack the PC or Mac. Microsoft throws in a sort of brain-dead version of QuickBASIC, buried beneath the icons - you have to look for it. Apple gives you no language at all.

This is not just a loss for children. Most adults could use the lessons of logic involved in learning simple programming. ``What's it doing?''

With 4-year-old twins, my wife and I are finally getting ready to buy a new computer. Of course, we'll get some games and some instructional programs. But we'll also get BASIC and, for the kids, a kid-friendly programming language like Logo.

Then, I think we'll be READY.
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