Computer Chronicles Revisited 62 — Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, Information Laboratory, Voyage of the Mimi, and the Factory

The fourth season of Computer Chronicles premiered in September 1986 with a two-part look at educational software. In this first episode, the focus was on software used by educators in the schools. The next episode focused on educational software for the home.

George Morrow joined Stewart Cheifet as co-host for both episodes. Also joining the two hosts for the introduction: a frog sitting in a small terrarium (and no doubt enjoying the hot studio lights). Cheifet said that when he studied biology in high school, they had to kill and dissect frogs like this one. Now you could use software to do the same thing. Cheifet demonstrated Operation Frog, a frog dissection simulator running on an Apple IIc. Chiefet noted that some critics argued this type of software was no substitute for the “real thing.” Morrow disagreed. He said the software was a marvelous tool as a supplement, i.e., to do run-throughs and use as a reference tool.

And Now for the Apple Propaganda Portion of Our Program

Wendy Woods presented her first remote report, which might be more accurately described as a short promotional video for Apple and its “Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow” (ACOT) program. The segment included B-roll footage of third-grade students at the Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, California. This was one of the schools participating in ACOT, an Apple-funded “research project” that Woods said “could transform the role of computers in classrooms.”

Woods said Apple provided enough hardware–Apple II computers–to give each student in the “study” a computer at both school and at home. Woods said in the classroom, the students spent part of their day learning about how computers work and how to use them. They also practiced math drills using game-like exercises.

But Woods said the “similarity with the usual school computer lab ends there.” The object of the ACOT program was to make computers a part of everyday school activities–another tool that was always present like a pencil or a blackboard. By integrating computers seamlessly into the daily routine, the project’s directors hoped to “profit” from the individual dialogue between student and machine–and interaction that put the focus of learning on the student. The kids moved directly into more powerful applications like word processing as a first step towards “self-motivated work.”

Woods said the “long-range” Cupertino project was one of seven demonstration sites around the country, which included both rural and city schools from third to ninth grades. Because of the project’s “unprecedented” approach, teachers would depend on trial-and-practice to decide how to incorporate the computer hardware into the curriculum. Finally, the school hoped to discover how to bridge the gap between the blackboard and the keyboard.

Educational Software a Growing Market, But Not Quite “Paying All the Bills”

Barbara Caligiuri and C. Mark Battey joined Cheifet and Morrow for the first of two round table segments in the studio. Caligiuri was the special projects coordinator with the Cupertino Union School District. Battey was a product manager with the publisher Addison-Wesley.

Cheifet opened by asking Caligiuri if the industry was investing adequate resources into educational software. Caligiuri said yes, although the perspective was changing considerably. She noted the State of California and other educational networks had been asking a lot of questions about software and were paying more attention to developing better software to meet their curriculum needs. Resources were always scarce but as the software improved people would spend more money.

Morrow asked Caligiuri if her district received a lot of support from the tech companies in the Cupertino area. Caligiuri said to a certain extent they were. But she added the educational software market for the schools was not as big or appealing as the market for educational software in the home.

Cheifet turned to Battey and asked how important the educational software market was to a publisher like Addison-Wesley. Battey said it was a very important market. He explained that Addison-Wesley was a “full-scale educational materials publisher,” and they approached software in that realm, i.e., how did it fit in with textbooks, video, and other technologies.

Cheifet followed-up, asking if there were a lot of schools interested in buying educational software. Battey said it was a growing market although it wasn’t “paying all the bills today.” Addison-Wesley was still primarily a textbook publisher.

Morrow asked about the process of selecting and editing software for publication and how it compared to, say, the traditional book market. Battey said he thought it was improving. Addison-Wesley didn’t treat software any differently in terms of the editorial process. All of the materials that came through the company went through the same detailed review process as books.

Cheifet asked Battey to demonstrate one of Addison-Wesley’s software products, Information Laboratory: Life Science. Battey said it was a “knowledge base” that let students practice critical thinking and problem solving while learning more about life science. For example, Battey selected information about the “Animal Kingdom” from the program’s main menu. The program then displayed what looked like a stack of index cards with a card titled “Animal Behavior” on top. On the left was basic text–and sometimes graphics–about the card’s topic. On the right there was a list of keywords and cross-references related to the topic. Cheifet asked what the target audience was for the product. Battey said it was designed for the middle school level, grades 7 thru 9.

Cheifet asked if this software was designed for students to use alone or along with a teacher and a textbook. Battey said Addison-Wesley provided teacher support materials including teacher guides and a series of “search sheets” that a teacher could give to students. But students could also conduct their own “unstructured” searching.

Morrow asked if there was enough room on floppy disks to present the information. Battey quipped they had squeezed as much in there as they could. Morrow asked about the possibility of CD-ROM. Battey said he expected this type of software would soon transition to CD-ROM given that you could get better graphics and more information onto a disc.

Cheifet next asked Caligiuri to demonstrate a piece of software used in her elementary school, Reader Rabbit from The Learning Company. (Reader Rabbit was previously featured in the 1985 Chirstmas Buyer’s Guide episode as one of Paul Schindler’s recommendations, so I’m not going to repeat anything with respect to how the program works here.) Caligiuri said they primarily used the program to help students who already knew some of the alphabet to improve their word skills. Cheifet asked what grade level Reader Rabbit was used with. Caligiuri said kindergarten or first grade, although it could also be used as a remedial program in second or third grade.

Following Caligiuri’s demonstration, Morrow asked her how you could tell whether or not the software had done its job. Caligiuri said one sign of student success was they started looking for more complicated games. You could also set Reader Rabbit to run faster and provide an additional challenge. Morrow suggested using a control group–giving one student a “placebo” and another the real software–to establish whether the software was useful. (George being George, he noted this software wasn’t cheap!) Caligiuri noted there was an “excitement factor” that went along with the child being able to get instant reinforcement from the software.

Shop Students Introduced to Computer-Aided Design

Wendy Woods returned for her second report, this time focusing on a shop class at Burlingame High School in San Mateo County. Woods said that anyone who has taken shop class can remember the process of drafting. But Burlingame was one of the few high schools now offering computer-aided drafting to students. By 1990, it’s estimated that there would be 2.1 million jobs in the computer-aided drafting field. And Burlingame’s students would be among the few prepared coming out of high school.

Phil DeRosa, a drafting instructor at Burlingame, said there was a “revolution” going on within the industry and right now the need for operators was growing. This was still a new technology, but DeRosa said that as the demand grew schools would need to find a way to supply the students.

Woods said Burlingame students still had to master the basics of drafting using pencil, paper, and a slide rule before graduating to the computer. But then the computer–which included a digitizer pad for drawing–allowed the student to create, modify, erase, and make a hard copy of their illustrations faster and easier than by hand. Although Burlingame’s classrooms relied on Apple and IBM computers, Woods said that once students graduated they might go on to work on far more sophisticated systems.

The Socio-Economic Divide in School Computer Usage

For the final segment in the studio, Dr. Michelle “Mickey” Miller and Donna Hower joined Cheifet and Morrow. Miller was an assistant principal at the Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco. Hower was a computer specialist at Crocker Middle School in Hillsborough, California.

Cheifet asked Miller how her school–which was located in a city and had a high minority student population–fared with computers versus the schools located in Silicon Valley. Miller said her school had two computer labs. One lab consisted of Tandy TRS-80 machines that were purchased using federal funding. This lab specifically targeted students with low test scores. When Miller arrived at Burbank three years earlier, she realized that 20 percent of the students couldn’t use this lab because their test scores were too high. Paradoxically, computer-assisted teaching helped raise test scores, but that meant more and more students couldn’t access computers due to federal restrictions. So she started writing grants to set up an Apple II computer lab that more students could use.

Morrow asked if the students were becoming more computer literate. Miller said no, computer-assisted instruction didn’t really make you more computer literate. The computers were mostly used for “drill and practice” instruction. But it helped for the computer to give “one-to-one” feedback to the student.

Cheifet then asked Miller to demonstrate a program she used with her students, Voyage of the Mimi. Miller explained that Mimi was a “multimedia computer package.” She demonstrated one part of the program, an ecology lesson that taught students about survival. Just to step outside of the recap for a moment, The Voyage of the Mimi started out as a 13-episode television series produced by Bank Street College of Education. The series portrayed a group of scientists traveling on a research boat called the Mimi. Each episode focused on a particular scientific principle. The Voyage software was meant to be used in conjunction with the series.

For example, the ecology lesson that Miller demonstrated tied in to the ninth episode of the television series, where the cast was shipwrecked on a desert island for 12 months. In the software, Miller said the students had to identify what the crew would eat by reconstructing the island’s food chain. For example, the student could select a bear as a source of food. The program then helped the student understand what animals and plants the bear needed to eat, and so forth.

Cheifet turned to Hower, who taught in a wealthier school district in Hillsborough. How was her school using computers? Hower noted her school had its first computer lab back in 1977, which included TRS-80 computers. In a reverse of Miller’s situation, Hower said her school got funding for its computer lab due to the high number of “gifted” children. Since then, the school had organized a second, Apple II-based lab, based on grant funding. Currently, there were 15 computers in the Apple lab, 17 in the TRS-80 lab, and another 8 or 9 computers in individual classrooms. She said the English teachers used computers for word processing and creative writing. The social science teachers also used computers for term papers.

Cheifet returned to Miller’s Mimi demo. At this stage in the “shipwrecked” program, the player had to assign tasks, such as hunting and fishing, to various members of the stranded scientist team. The player then had to move the various characters around the island to carry out their assignments.

Echoing one of Morrow’s questions from the previous studio segment, Cheifet asked Miller how she went about evaluating software like Mimi to determine what to buy and if it was any good. Miller said there was a tech center for the city that recommended software to the school district. She noted that Mimi came highly recommended, although it was “very expensive.”

Hower then presented the final demo for the episode, a program called The Factory. Hower explained this was a problem-solving program that taught a student to break down a problem into pieces and organize them to create a “product.” Essentially, The Factory showed you a finished image and the user needed to identify the steps to recreate that image using “machines.” Cheifet asked where this type of program was used in the curriculum. Hower said it was used specifically in mathematics. She also used it in a dedicated problem-solving class.

Cheifet asked both guests if every student needed a computer at home. Miller said no. Hower said 70 percent of her students had computers at home. Miller said only 1 percent of her students did.

Compaq Beat IBM to 386 Release

Stewart Cheifet presented this episode’s “Random Access” segment, which was recorded in September 1986.

  • Compaq officially unveiled its new 386 Deskpro computer using the Intel 386 CPU. The new Deskpro would come in two models, the Model 40 and Model 130. (The numbers indicated the hard drive size in MB.) Compaq said its new machine would run most software 2 to 3 times faster than an IBM PC-AT. Cheifet noted the 386 Deskpro ran at 16 MHz, could execute approximately 2 million instructions per second, and came with 1 MB of RAM. Compaq claimed the Deskpro was compatible with most existing IBM PC software. The company also planned to release a Xenix-based operating system for the Deskpro in early 1987.
  • IBM had still not announced its own plans for a 386 computer. Cheifet said there were rumors IBM had a machine ready to go but canceled a planned announcement at the last minute.
  • At the first-ever Desktop Publishing Conference, more than a dozen vendors introduced new programs targeting MS-DOS machines as opposed to the Macintosh.
  • At the Computer Futures Conference in New York, analysts offered conflicting views of the industry’s immediate future. Cheifet said many analysts at the conference believed there was “little hope for a rebound” from the computer industry’s slump. McGraw Hill, however, said second quarter (1986) figures showed the industry was “slowly breaking out of the slump.” Standard & Poor’s, however, predicted a “prolonged electronics recession” and expected to continue downgrading the debt rating of leading tech companies.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed Word Finder (Writing Consultants, Inc., $80), a RAM-resident thesaurus program that contained 220,000 synonyms and worked with most word processing programs for the MS-DOS platform.
  • Tandy reported delays in its new 1000 EX computer due to problems with FCC certification. The Tandy 1000 SX received its certification earlier in the month. (The EX finally came to market in December 1986.)
  • A Senate subcommittee approved a proposed electronic privacy act. Republican Sen. Wiliam Cohen of Maine also introduced a bill to regulate computer matches by the federal government.
  • Retired Adm. Bobby Inman, a former deputy director of the CIA, resigned as chairman and CEO of Texas-based Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC). Cheifet said Inman wanted to focus more on the “manufacturing and marketing side of the industry.”
  • Apple was trying to track down the source of recent product leaks. (Some things never change!)
  • A British company announced a new 386-based computer running MS-DOS with 4 MB of RAM and a 70 MB hard disk for under $4,500. It turned out to be a hoax. (To put this in context, that Compaq Deskpro 386 mentioned earlier cost $6,500 and came with 1 MB of RAM and a 40 MB hard drive standard.)

Building Long-Term Brand Awareness Through Copious Use of Tax Credits

The Apple II was the real star of this episode. All of the programs demonstrated on-air ran on an Apple IIc. And as Wendy Woods’ first segment made clear, Apple was heavily invested in the educational market during the 1980s.

This was part of Apple’s long-term strategy dating back to the company’s early days. In 1980, Jobs conceded to the New York Times that computers were still primarily sold to hobbyists and professionals and that a “truly mass market for personal computers would not emerge until the end of the decade.” And one way to build that mass market was to introduce personal computers into the elementary schools.

Even before Apple went public in 1980, Jobs and the Apple team focused on educational sales. In 1978, Apple won a contract to supply 500 Apple II computers to the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium (MECC). That may not sound like much, but the Apple II had only been introduced in 1977 and competed against the Commodore PET and the Tandy TRS-80, both of which were produced by more established companies. (Apple only sold about 8,200 computers altogether in 1977-1978, during which time Tandy sold 250,000 units through its Radio Shack stores.)

As the Apple II gained acceptance in the business market during the early 1980s, Jobs led a concerted lobbying effort to alter federal and state tax laws in order to make it financially palatable for Apple to “donate” more computers to public schools. In 1983, the company launched a program it dubbed “Kids Can’t Wait.” Our old friend Ken Uston wrote about this campaign for the October 1983 issue of Creative Computing:

The primary objective of the program is to place an Apple IIe computer system in each of the roughly 9250 eligible elementary and secondary schools in California. (Schools with fewer than 100 students do not qualify for the program.)

Apple tried earlier, in vain, to originate a similar program on a national level. Apple’s chairman, 28-year old Steve Jobs, ran into U.S. Congressman Fortney “Pete” Stark on an airplane flight. The two found themselves discussing student computer literacy and tax exemptions for companies donating computers to schools.

As a result of this encounter, Stark introduced a bill in 1982 in the House of Representatives providing for substantial tax credits for contributing companies. The bill allowed tax deductions based on fair market value, rather than cost, which could not exceed 200% of the cost to donors. Apple representatives calculate that, based on the maximum 46% federal corporate tax rate, the contributing companies would end up paying about 8% of the cost of donated equipment.

The federal proposal died in the Senate during the 1982 post-election session. But Jobs found more success in Sacramento, where the California legislature approved an 18-month tax credit of 25 percent for companies that donated computer equipment to public schools. Apple then agreed to donate one free Apple IIe system to 9,250 California public schools. According to Uston’s math, if every school accepted the free IIe, Apple would get a tax credit of about $4 million after donating $5.2 million in products.

Giving free computers to schools was also a key part of the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) program discussed by Wendy Woods during the episode. ACOT was billed as a “research study” designed to examine the impact of computers on teaching and learning. Apple launched ACOT in 1985 at five different schools throughout the United States. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, then conducted a series of “evaluation studies” of the sites between 1987 and 1990.

Of course, Apple took full advantage of ACOT for propaganda purposes. In a full-page ad for the 1988 AppleFest show in Boston, a faux news article touted the “success” of ACOT while being vague about the specifics:

ACOT administrators don’t speak in terms of test scores, but rather in the long-term impact this program has on students who will mature through several grade levels of constant computer access and use.

Local ACOT teachers, however, enthusiastically point to the immediate effects of the program. Many report that students are writing better, more creatively and more often. Math and reading skills have also improved dramatically.

When the UCLA researchers published their final report on ACOT in 1993, the findings were inconclusive. The authors noted that ACOT was “implemented in a relatively small number of classrooms, often only one at a particular grade level,” and local schools often made year-to-year changes that effectively rendered it impossible to make meaningful comparisons in student performance. But in general, the authors said that ACOT students “had at least maintained their performance levels on standard measures of educational achievement in basic skills and had sustained positive attitudes.”

As for the teachers, they were “reasonably satisfied with their students’ progress” yet many of them “were not convinced that computer use helps students stay on task, or that students cheat less when using instructional software than when working in a workbook.”

Apple continued the ACOT program until 1995. The company was happy enough with the results–or at least the PR value–to launch a successor, ACOT2, in 2008, which focused on pushing Internet and mobile devices into the schools.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of September 12, 1986.
  • This was the first episode of the fourth season of Computer Chronicles. Leading Edge Hardware Products, a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of PC clones and peripherals, was the new presenting sponsor. McGraw Hill, the publisher of Byte, also continued its sponsorship.
  • The only format change to the program between seasons was the elimination of the end-of-episode commentary originally provided by Paul Schindler and later by George Morrow.
  • Barbara Caligiuri retired from teaching in the Cupertino Union School District in 1993.
  • C. Mark Battey remained with Addison-Wesley until 1990. He spent the 1990s as managing director of Essex Environmental. Battey entered politics in the early 2000s, working on venture capitalist Steve Westly’s successful 2002 campaign for California State Controller. Battey served as Westly’s chief deputy from 2002 to 2003. Battey then had a brief stint as a trustee of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fired Battey and two other trustees after they refused to back his plan for privatizing the system. In 2012, Battey and his wife started Miarmar Farms in San Mateo County, which they continue to run today.
  • Mickey Miller remained with Luther Burbank Middle School until 1989, when she became the principal of Potrero Hill Middle School in Los Angeles County.
  • Donna Hower continued to teach in the Hillsborough schools until her retirement in 2010 after 34 years with the district.
  • In 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Bobby Inman to serve as Secretary of Defense. Inman later withdrew from consideration after blowing up at a New York Times columnist who criticized his record. Coincidentally, a couple years later Clinton named Maine Sen. William Cohen as defense secretary.
  • The Voyage of the Mimi game for the Apple II was published by the software division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, which as I discussed in a previous post was at one point a subsidiary of CBS. In an unrelated note, the Voyage of the Mimi television series featured a young Ben Affleck in one of his first acting roles.
  • The Factory was originally developed by Human Engineered Software, which as I previously discussed should not be confused with Human Edge Software.