Faculty Forum Papers
"COMPUTING AND OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY'S CURRICULUM"
Ad Hoc Instructional Computing Committee
COMPUTING AND OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY'S CURRICULUM
Abstract: Continual improvements in software along with
steep declines in cost have made computing an essential part of
many intellectual activities. Change has occurred so rapidly in
the field of computing that Oregon State's curriculum has not kept pace.
Section I: The Rising Importance of Computing
in Intellectual Activity
This report contains two sections. Section I describes
how our society is moving from the Industrial Age whose
inventions augmented our physical abilities to the
Information Age whose inventions assist our mental
processes. Because of the importance of recently
developed information processing tools, we fell
Oregon State should incorporate instruction about
the use of computers throughout the entire curriculum.
Section II emphasizes the need to develop a university-wide
plan to coordinate these curriculum changes. This section
suggests that Oregon State should: (1) require every
undergraduate student to take a lower-division computer
applications course, (2) increase the coverage of computing
methods in upper-division courses, and (3) improve the instructional
John Byrne's Inaugural Address as the 14th President of
Oregon State University began with the words. "Preparing
for the future is Oregon State University's business…Now the
world is experiencing rapid change. We live during a time of
turbulence between eras of relative stability -- a time for
innovation, a time of opportunity."
This section examines the opportunities created by the rapid
improvement of digital electronics, computing, and electronic
communications. These new technologies are moving our society
out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. As a
result we need to reassess Oregon State's methods of creating
and dispensing knowledge.
The Industrial Age was characterized by the construction of
mechanical machines for cutting, stamping, moving, and producing.
These machines made farmers and blue collar workers far more
productive. Oregon State was founded as the Industrial Age was
coming into full swing, and quite naturally, the furtherance
of the Industrial Age formed a large part of the institution's
original charter. Quoting again from John Byrne's Inaugural Address:
On July 2, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the first Morrill Act
which established that unique U.S. contribution to higher
education now known as the Land Grant University. A purpose
of the Morrill Act as stated in the parlance of the 19th
century was as follows: "The leading object shall be to
teach such branches of learning as are related to
agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to
promote the liberal and practical education of the
industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."
Now, more than one hundred years later, our economy
is driven by electronic instead of mechanical innovations.
The Information Age is characterized by the development of
electronic systems to help us think, communicate, manage,
and control. These new tools promise to make office workers,
managers, educators, architects, scientists, lawyers, and other
professionals far more productive. They also provide us with
entirely new challenges.
Table 1 compares the characteristics of the Industrial Age with
those of the Information Age -- the differences are dramatic.
These differences have implications for the future directions of
|Primarily mechanical tools that augmented our
||Primarily electronic tools that augmented our
|Slowly changing technology
||Rapid technical innovation
|Output rated in physical terms: units
sold, tons produced, etc.
||Output judged by intangibles: value added,
timeliness, accuracy, service, flexibility, usefulness.
|Rapid growth in domestic markets for goods
||A world economy with mature markets for most goods
|Simple tools designed for specific tasks
||Complex tools supporting numerous tasks
|Tools used on a stand-alone basis
||Tools form highly integrated and sophisticated networks
|Inventions built by entrepreneurs using custom tools
||Innovations occur in research environments providing
ample access to machine intelligence
Table 1 Characteristics of the Industrial Age and the Information Age
Evaluating inventions was easier during the Industrial Age. The
benefits were objective and physical: faster production, better
yields, lower costs, and so forth. Innovations in the Information Age
frequently produce intangible benefits. What is the value of more timely
information or a more thorough analysis? Such questions don't usually
yield dollars and cents answers, but neither do questions about the
value of a college education. What is the value of a more informed mind?
We cannot afford to ignore the developments occurring in computing, because
they provide mental tools that augment the thought processes of an educated
Few of the mechanical tools from the Industrial Age invaded classrooms
because they augmented our physical abilities without assisting our
mental processes. In contrast, Information Age tools are essential
to academic life, because they change the way professionals and
white-collar workers (known as knowledge workers) approach
everyday tasks. For example,
Writers find that word processing changes the way
thoughts are translated into words on paper, and editors find
that electronic publishing takes word processing one step
further and converts rough manuscripts into polished typeset documents.
Analysts find that spreadsheet programs open up new
ways to create mathematical models and forecasts.
Researchers find that electronic card catalogs
reduce the frustration associated with locating
appropriate books, journals, and other reference materials.
Database management systems and statistical
programs provide new ways to share and extract
information from large amounts of data.
Electronic mail and bulletin board systems
help distribute information far faster and at
less expense than conventional mail or classroom
handouts. Voice-store-and-forward systems change
the rules of the game of telephone tag in favor of everyone.
This list could go on and on, and each item would
describe another Information Age tool used to create
or disseminate knowledge. Now compare these tools with
Oregon State's mission, as presented in John Byrne's
It is Oregon State's responsibility to create new
knowledge to serve as the base for the economic
and social development of our society. It is Oregon
State's responsibility to make sure that knowledge
is put into the hands of those who can use it.
Section II: The Need for Curriculum
Oregon State's response to the growing importance
of computing has been haphazard. Some disciplines
have introduced application-oriented computer courses,
such as Ag251 Computer Applications in Agriculture,
Ba131 Introduction to Business Data Processing, and
Ls199c, Personal Computer Applications. Science and
Engineering have relied primarily on programming-oriented
computer courses. In the last two years the bulk of
instructional computing has shifted from the university's
central mainframe computer to newly established departmental
computer laboratories. This shift has been spearheaded by
individual colleges, including Business, Engineering,
Forestry, Liberal Arts, and Science. Some problems
with this decentralized approach to computing include:
The instructors of most upper-division courses
cannot assume that their students are competent
computer users with adequate access to computing
equipment. Many students have not even been exposed
to the basics of using a computer, such as how to
format a disk or operate a typical application program.
This makes it difficult to include computer-based
assignments in upper-division classes.
Many students graduate without an adequate
exposure to computer applications in their major field.
As the quality and variety of software has improved, it
has become much more important to know how to use and
select software than to know how to write programs. In
some colleges students are exposed to general-purpose
software, but are not given an opportunity to interact
with special-purpose programs designed specifically for
their major field. For example, this year's accounting
students will graduate without any hands-on experience
with a computerized accounting system.
The proliferation of small departmental computer
laboratories has led to inefficiencies in both supervision
and student access. Each lab requires lab monitors, and
many of the labs are located in buildings that are not
open in the evenings and on weekends. Because each course's
students are restricted to a particular lab, an assignment
in one course can swamp one lab while other labs remain
Some colleges have not acquired their own computer
facilities and consequently are provided with no access
to computing other than the obsolete central mainframe
computer with its inadequate software.
These problems are serious and should be solved.
Therefore, our committee recommends that Oregon State
should begin immediately to: (1) require every
undergraduate student to take a lower-division
computer applications course, (2) increase the
coverage of computing methods in upper-division courses, and (3)
improve the computer facilities available for instruction.
Step 1: Require all students to take a computer
Every entering student should be required to
complete a basic course in functional computer
competency or demonstrate comparible competency.
Courses that fulfill this requirement should be offered
at the freshman level to provide students with computer
skills and tools as soon as possible. This requirement
would allow every instructor of upper-division classes
to assume that their students have been exposed to a common
body of knowledge about the use of general-purpose software.
Several ways of delivering this instruction are possible.
One large enrollment class might be taught by the Computer
Science department, or courses might be offered by several
colleges with students allowed to select one course from the
cafeteria-style offerings. The focus of this course should
be on basic competency skills and applications, but designated
sections might emphasize particular applications, such as
statistical analysis, spreadsheet construction, or graphics,
in order to prepare students for their particular major.
Regardless of how this required course is offered, it
should cover all of the following topics:
A basic understanding of how computers work.
The basics of operating a microcomputer.
Major application software areas, including:
word processing, spreadsheets, data management,
statistical data analysis, and graphics.
Social issues in computing.
We do not see programming as an essential skill, although
a knowledge of programming is helpful in understanding how
software and hardware operate.
One argument against requiring a computer competency course
is the possibility that, in the future, freshman may arrive
on campus with adequate computer skills from high school coursework.
We don't believe this argument. Most students arrive on campus
with inadequate writing skills for college work even though they
have taken many years of high school English. There are good
reasons to believe the situation will remain similar for
computer skills. For example, most high school-level computer
courses emphasize programming over application software, teach
the syntax of a particular programming language instead
of teaching general software design methods, and show
students how to use particular application programs
rather than teaching them how to compare and select
programs. Even if these deficiencies in high school
curricula are eventually corrected, there will still
be a need for our students to take a college-level
course in the use of computers.
Step 2: Increase the Coverage of Computing in
A general computer literacy course is only the
first step toward the goal of integrating computing
into the entire curriculum. Once basic computer
skills have been acquired, each student must have
the opportunity to prepare for advances work in
their major. We expect that coursework for this
intermediate level will continue to evolve over
time and reflect the modern use of computers in
the various disciplines. We also expect advanced
computer-oriented courses to develop in many areas.
The complete program is thus a beginning course to
establish a least common denominator of basic skills,
intermediate level courses emphasizing skills of the
student's discipline, and advanced coursework in which
computing is thoroughly integrated.
For all of this to happen the curriculum improvements
must receive highly visible support from the administration.
Faculty must be encouraged to reevaluate course and curricular
goals in light of the rapid developments in computer technology.
They need time to contemplate the computer-inspired changes on
their discipline. This should be encouraged by providing some
faculty members with released time to create computer-based
classroom assignments and course materials. Finally, when
the faculty makes major curricular modifications, the
administration will need to implement the changes with
adjustments in staffing and teaching assignments.
Step 3: Improve the Computer Facilities Available for
Instruction computing is characterized by small,
individual projects that are well within the
capabilities of today's personal computers. It is an unusual
instructional computing assignment that requires or benefits
from the capabilities of a mainframe computer. Yet almost
all of the general university funds earmarked for computer
instruction -- currently almost half a million dollars a year --
are restricted so that they must be spent on the university's
obsolete Cyber computer. The software for the Cyber is difficult
to use and inadequate for the types of computing needed for
instruction. The Cyber is so inappropriate for instructional
computing that over $100,000 of the instructional computing fund
will remain unspent at the end of this school year due to lack of
demand. (Nonetheless, this money will be given to the computer
center to cover part of the shortfall in their budget.)
Clearly, the university needs to change its method of supporting
computing and update its computing equipment.
Another problem is the university's pay-as-you-go method
of charging for computer usage. In the days of punched
card computing, it may have been acceptable to charge for
each computing run. But now that computers are applied to
everyday intellectual activities, the need for computer services
is similar to the need for centrally supported telephone and
library systems. Users should not be charges each time a computer
is used. The current computer center funding policy has lead to a
profusion of inefficient and poorly utilized departmental computing
laboratories. Again, a university-level response is needed.
If each student is to acquire functional computing skills, it is
essential that the University establish computing laboratories
where these skills can be developed and used. Oregon State's
Program Improvement Request for the 1987-1989 biennium proposes
the establishment of two laboratories, each containing 50
personal computers and a sufficient supply of peripherals,
including low and high-resolution printers, graphics facilities,
and plotters. Software for student use would include both
general-purpose personal productivity tools (word processors,
spreadsheets, database mangers) and specialized software for use
in specific courses. We believe that Oregon State should implement
this part of the Program Improvement Request immediately, even if it
is not specifically funded by the legislature.
This Faculty Forum paper was prepared by an ad hoc Instructional
Curt Cook Sheila Cordray Ken Krane Frank Schaumburg David Sullivan
Computer Sci. Sociology Physics Civil Engineering Business
Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum
articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.