Computers Column

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When the Federal Bureau of Investigation disclosed that it was investigating the apparent illegal penetration of computer databases by a group of young people, attention focused on the Milwaukee high school that two of the young people had attended.

Six or seven people ranging in age from 15 to 25, who belong to a group of computer enthusiasts called the 4-1-4's (after the telephone area code), used a microcomputer and a telephone "modem" to gain access to the information stored in about a dozen mainframe computers, including that of a nuclear-weapons laboratory.

The computer enthusiasts said they had no trouble getting past the passwords that most engineers build into computers to protect information.

Two of the people involved in the operation are former students at Washington High School, an urban school renowned for its program in computers. The program, which involves more than one-third of the school's 1,500 students, is designed to prepare them for careers in data processing or computer applications in other fields.

School officials cite their use of mainframe computers and their close contact with local businesses as the factors that make the Washington program unusual.

Most computer-using schools have bought microcomputers in recent years for use in "computer literacy" instruction, said Joseph W. Kmoch, the systems manager of the school's computer center. "Kids with only microcomputers don't have the perspective at all about the mainframe computer" that they will later need in college or in a data-processing job, he said.

Mr. Kmoch expressed regret that former Washington students were involved in the illegal computer use. Such abuses became prevalent with the advent of the microcomputer, he said, because the desktop machine can serve as a terminal for larger machines. Even the "throwaway" computers costing less than $100 can be linked to a powerful mainframe, he noted.

Washington High School officials probably will make instruction on the ethics of computer use more formal, Mr. Kmoch said. So far, he said, officials have merely "made it a point to be SOB's" to students caught misusing the technology.

Every person with access to a touch-tone telephone also has access to a computerized task-master for arithmetic, reading, and spelling.

The Computer Curriculum Corporation, a software firm in Palo Alto, Calif., this summer started offering "Dial-a-Drill" programs. Students can use a mainframe computer's drill programs by calling the program's telephone number; they answer questions posed by the computer by pressing the phone keys.

In addition to telling the student in "digitized" speech whether he or she answers questions correctly, the computer will analyze the student's performance and gear questions to his or her ability. Parents receive regular progress reports.

The drills are intended to supplement classroom activity for students in grades 1 through 8, said a spokesman for the software firm. Geometry, statistics, sets, probability, functions, and graphing are among the mathematics topics covered by the drills.

The mainframe programs soon will be placed in other states so that parents can avoid having to make long-distance telephone calls to California, the spokesman said. The mainframe computer can handle 12 calls at a time, he said, so with proper scheduling of the 6-to-10-minute sessions a computer can handle hundreds of students per day.

For a sample drill, call (415) 856-3631.

Computers may be increasing interest in mathematics, according to a recent survey by the Illinois Board of Education.

Enrollment in mathematics classes increased by more than 4 percent between 1977 and 1982--the same period in which microcomputers were being introduced on a large scale for everyday business and research uses. The statistics, drawn from the state board's "Census of Secondary School Course Offerings and Enrollments," were adjusted to account for an overall drop in enrollment.

Not only do many computer courses require students to have taken some mathematics, said Sally Pancrazio, manager of research and statistics for the state board of education, but many mathematics instructors teach computer courses. The number of schools offering hybrid mathematics-computer courses doubled during the period.

The first results of the "Writing to Read" program, sponsored by International Business Machines Corp., are out. (See Education Week, Dec. 22, 1982.)

Wake County-Raleigh kindergarten and 1st-grade students who particpated in the program--which uses computers and electric typewriters to teach students how to use the main sounds of the English language--scored better on tests than other students.

Kindergarten students in the "Writing to Read" program scored at the 88th percentile on the California Achievement Test, while other students scored at the 78th percentile. First-grade students in the program scored at the 89th percentile; other students scored in the 69th percentile.

New York soon will become the sixth state to consider legislation that would address complaints by workers who say that using computer terminals is not only occasionally irritating, but also a potential health hazard.

Under the bill sponsored by New York State Sen. Olga A. Mendez, companies would be required to offer their workers periodic eye examinations, work stations with proper lighting and adjustable chairs, a flexible rest policy, and an offer of alternative employment for pregnant workers.

A group of experts assembled by the National Research Council concluded that using computers might be an "annoyance," but was not a public-health problem. But the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is continuing its study of possible computer risks.

Other states that have considered or passed legislation that addresses the computer in the office include Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois, Oregon, and Connecticut.

Notes: The Educational Products Information Exchange has issued a set of recommendations for "preventive maintenance" of computer equipment. ... Educators await the introduction of the "Adam." Industry observers say the $600 Coleco Industries machine will have most of the capabilities of computers that cost around $2,000--including word-processing, which many educators see as the area of greatest potential for computers.--ce

Vol. 02, Issue 41

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