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Faculty Forum Papers



Ad Hoc Instructional Computing Committee

May 1986


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.

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 computer facilities.
Section I: The Rising Importance of Computing in Intellectual Activity

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 higher education.

Industrial Age

Information Age

Primarily mechanical tools that augmented our physical capabilities Primarily electronic tools that augmented our mental capabilities
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 mind.

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 Inaugural Address:

    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 Changes

    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 temporarily unused.

  • 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 applications course

    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 Upper-Division Courses

    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

    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 Computing Committee.
    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.