ERIC Identifier: ED380280
Publication Date: 1995-02-00
Author: Brosnan, Patricia A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Learning about Tasks Computers Can Perform. ERIC Digest.
Imagine a world where everything is computerized. There would be little need
for printed materials--newspapers would be read on home computers. There would
be little need for currency--personal credit cards would be used everywhere
instead of cash. Cellular and fiber-optic technology would make corded
telephones obsolete. Beepers would have both telephone and television
capabilities. Cars would be equipped with computerized road maps that would plot
courses to avoid up-to-the-minute construction barriers and provide on-screen
zoom-in and zoom-out directional features. All bills would be paid, stocks and
bonds bought and sold, and travel reservations made directly from home
But we do not have to imagine this world--we are living in it. These and many
other technological advances are already available in business, industry,
science, and the military. Computerized technology is everywhere--at the market,
the gas station, the dentist's office, and even in homes with VCRs, camcorders,
microwaves, telephones, alarm systems, and coffeemakers.
Limited budgets dampen the speed at which expensive technology can be
acquired in schools. Now, slowly but surely, these advances are appearing in the
educational arena. Students are no longer restricted to writing paper-and-pencil
essays. They can create multimedia presentations using computers to combine
text, graphs, charts, digital images, photographs, slides, real-time video, and
sound. No longer do class projects have to be static--they can be dynamic,
through the use of technology.
Students today are in the midst of an explosion of academic information that
is there for the asking. Through computer technology, students can assume more
responsibility for their own learning. They can explore areas of interest and
discover more about a topic on their own in a way that seems more fun than a
regular class discussion. They are learning to negotiate the information highway
as surely as their parents learned to negotiate the interstates.
When traffic is as heavy and moving as fast as it is with computers these
days, getting onto that highway can be a bit daunting to say the least.
Understanding what your vehicle is capable of and what it is designed to do
makes it easier to identify a safe point of entry, headed in the direction you
want to go.
Knowing what different kinds of computer equipment can do is the first step
in choosing the computer that is right for you. The following discussion
describes a developmental progression of computer capabilities. This information
may be especially helpful to readers just getting started with computers.
THE BASIC THREE
People purchase computers for a variety of
reasons including, but not limited to, looking for a more efficient way of
handling routine tasks, keeping up with technological advances, or for business,
educational, or personal purposes. Computer users typically learn word
processing, or computerized typing, first. Certainly at some point, everyone has
been through the challenging process of constructing professional or school
reports using an old-fashioned typewriter and has felt the frustration of having
to re-type whole pages to correct errors in spelling, formatting, or typing.
Word processing allows all sorts of routine and non-routine typing without that
frustration. Users can rearrange paragraphs and re-word sentences without
re-typing the entire document. They can have the computer correct spelling and
grammatical errors and suggest better words to use, from an electronic
In schools, teachers who encourage students to use word processing find that
their students are willing to do more writing and editing than ever before, and
they demonstrate a renewed enthusiasm towards writing. In fact, students are so
eager to write on computers, some educators are using word processing to teach
Word processing can be used to produce any of the written documents that
would normally be typed or printed--letters, reports, news bulletins, books--but
word processing is much more powerful. For example, the user can write a general
letter and then personalize it for dozens of different recipients. Typeface can
be selected from a variety of styles, sizes, and fonts--and changed at will
throughout the document. Words or phrases can be centered, italicized,
boldfaced, or underlined. Text can be printed in columns, sideways on a page, or
within a boxed area. Tables can be set up, properly sized and spaced, with a few
keystrokes. Documents can be strung together electronically with all pages
numbered consecutively, and a table of contents can be generated automatically.
What fun it is to produce materials that look as though they were printed
After word processing, the second most popular kind of computer software is a
spreadsheet, or computerized accounting program. Repetitive computational tasks
such as keeping track of a savings or checking account, managing a personal or
business budget, or preparing income tax returns can be handled with ease using
a spreadsheet. The user enters numbers systematically into a ready-made
table--the spreadsheet--and then specifies all sorts of different calculations
to be done using the data. The spreadsheet program automatically re-computes
results if entries in the table are changed and will produce charts and graphs
to assist in data interpretation and forecasting.
The automatic computation feature makes a spreadsheet especially useful in
making important financial decisions related to savings, pensions, mortgages,
and other long-term investments. By changing the amount of money invested, the
rate of return, or the length of time involved, the user can figure out how long
it will take to save for college expenses or to buy a home or car, whether it
pays to refinance a mortgage, or at what age it is financially feasible to
retire. Spreadsheets are also good for exploring other kinds of mathematical
relationships, such as population growth, radiation decay, and the spread of
infectious diseases, under various assumed conditions.
A third major type of computer software is a database program, or electronic
filing and sorting system. A database program is designed to organize a large
amount of information so it can be easily sorted, searched, and cross-indexed.
Suppose, for example, a student retrieves information from the library on the
population, area, and form of government for a large number of countries. Using
a database, the student can sort the countries alphabetically, by size, or by
type of government.
Or, suppose a company has a mailing list of hundreds of people, with the
name, address, birthdate, occupation, credit cards, and magazine subscriptions
for each of them entered in a database. The company can then send different
advertisements targeted to different categories of people, with personalized
letters and mailing labels all generated automatically by computer.
Imagine entering an entire file cabinet of information into a database. No
longer is there a need to alphabetize volumes of pages or search through
individual folders by hand. The computer can do these tasks in seconds. Some
offices have reduced the need for file cabinets by replacing them with a box of
TIME FOR A BREAK...
After completing a major computing
project, it may be time to relax, recover, or rejoice. Computer games are not as
trivial as one might think. For it can be games that motivate children (and
adults) to learn more about computers, while also learning to use the keyboard
and mouse, thus enhancing their eye-hand coordination and reasoning skills, all
at the same time. Games can also be challenging and fun, of course!
MORE ADVANCED USES
Once the basics of computer tasks are
learned, the computer user may become more venturesome and decide to explore
more of the ever-increasing power of the computer. Placing designs or pictures
in a word-processed document is the next natural step in computer literacy
development. To do this, a graphics or drawing program is needed. These programs
are generally designed to allow the user to draw any figure, adjust its size or
shape, change its shading or position, and then add text, color, or other
drawings. The user can save the completed graphic on a disk, get a print-out, or
insert that drawing in another document. The most efficient way to do this is
Multi-tasking means performing more than one job at a time. On a computer,
users can work with more than one software program at a time and transfer
information between programs. Transferring information from one software package
to another is just like cutting a picture out of a magazine and pasting it into
a report for school. In computing, the same steps are followed
electronically--cutting and pasting. Multi-tasking can also be used to print one
document while the user is busy working on another one.
As computer users gain confidence and experience, they want to share
information with other users. These users may be working on different kinds of
computers, using different software, in locations that are many miles apart.
Playing telephone tag is frustrating, leaving phone messages is limiting, and
visiting someone in person can be too expensive and time consuming.
Telecommunications capability solves the problem. Most users begin their
telecommunications experience through e-mail, or electronic mail. This system of
communication allows the user to deliver a message of any length instantaneously
to another computer user who can then retrieve and respond to the message at any
Telecommunication requires a modem, a telephone line, and software that
allows the user to access the modem. Adding a modem and telecommunications
software to a computer system opens the door to a whole new world of information
acquisition. Like a telephone, a modem provides access to places all over the
world. The difference is that telephones connect people, modems connect
computers. A modem can bring the computerized card catalog of the local library
to the home computer screen in a matter of seconds. Through electronic networks
such as Internet, a modem can provide direct, worldwide access to airline
reservation systems, stock market trading, shopping, news and weather
broadcasts, and much, much more.
TECHNOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS IN EDUCATION
Some schools are
now using a combination of compact disk, computer, and video technology referred
to as interactive video. Programming allows teachers to enter questions or
directions into the video to create an interactive activity that is customized
for their students and their curriculum.
Good examples of the kind of advanced software that could eventually make a
significant difference in the classroom are hypertext and hypermedia. These
terms refer to an important breakthrough in making computers more compatible
with human thinking. Hypermedia provide access to text, graphics, images, and
sound on CD-ROMs without requiring users to specify in advance the order of
access. Improved graphics, animation, sound, and real-time video can make
subjects of study come alive. Students will no longer have to dissect real
frogs--they can simulate the dissection on computer. They can experience an
earthquake, volcano, or tornado through the use of interactive video; they can
conduct chemistry experiments in labs without the fear of harmful chemicals or
explosions; and they can explore heretofore unimaginable 4th- and
5th-dimensional mathematics through the power of the computer.
Virtual reality is the latest technology that makes creative use of
simulations in computerized video technology. Virtual reality may be likened to
surround-sound and surround-video whereby a 3-dimensional environment creates a
mental illusion that simulates the realities of physical sensations such as
those encountered in flying a plane or driving around a curve.
On-line multimedia libraries provide information for class research projects.
Increased access to resource centers all over the world can broaden students'
appreciation of different cultures.
Distance learning can take any student to any location to learn any
subject--or can bring other people into the classroom from near or far. Experts
in any discipline, master teachers, and even community leaders and politicians
could become available to inquiring classes. Telecommunications allow students
forced to remain at home due to illness or weather to connect with the teacher
or school program to make up for lost time. Distance learning can also provide
coursework and programs to students in isolated populations who are underserved
in certain subjects.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
With these and many other
technological advances occurring simultaneously, it sometimes seems as though
keeping up with everything is an impossible task. But, because of the durability
and upgrading potential of most computer equipment, obsolescence does not set in
as quickly as one might think. It is important, when purchasing equipment and
software, to select items that go beyond immediate need to provide room for
growth and capabilities for upgrading.
And this is just the beginning! Personal and educational uses of computer
technology are limited only by one's imagination. Time is of the essence.
Computers are not a fad--they enhance our lives and our efficiency too much to
ever disappear. Technological advancement is a dynamic entity and will only
continue to grow. The best way to understand computers is to get busy and use
SUGESSTED RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
The following items are
only a sample of the hundreds of books, magazines, and videotapes available at
Computer Shopper: The Computer Magazine for Direct Buyers. (1995). New York:
Ziff-Davis Publishing. $4.95/monthly.
Pearson, O. R. (1993). Consumer Reports Books: Personal computer buying
guide. Yonkers, NY: Consumer's Union.
Currid, C. & Company. (1994). Software: What's hot! What's not! Rocklin,
CA: Prima Publishing. $16.95.
Engst, A. C., Low, C. S., & Simon, M. A. (1994). Internet starter kit.
New York: Hayden Books. $29.95.
1995 video game buyer's guide. Lombard, IL: Sendai Publishing Group. $5.99.
Learning computer ABCs. New York: Morris Media. $.95(!) A 5-tape set on
Learning DOS, Windows, MS Word and Excel is available for $19.95.
MacAcademy: The video training series. Ormond Beach, FL: Florida Marketing
International. About $40 per tape.