Ed-Tech Policy

Some Are Seeing Computer ‘Magic’ In a New, But Costly, Software Tool

By Peter West — March 29, 1989 12 min read

Indian Hill, Ohio--With the click of a switch, Joseph F. Hofmeis,12lter “thumbs through” an electronic term paper--complete with text, graphs, sound effects, and a set of animated maps.

The paper, written by the computer teacher’s son Craig for a 9th-grade history class at the Cincinnati Country Day School here, has helped radically redefine how computers are used at the school.

Craig’s account of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps was shaped according to his mental associations. He created a computer graph, for example, showing the peak flood stages of the rivers the warrior had to cross, and linked that graph with a map of the terrain. He inserted those illustrations into the part of his text describing the physicalp9,12ldifficulties of the topography; in passages about Hannibal’s elephants, Craig inserted the sounds of trumpeting.

Readers of Craig’s paper, by clicking the computer’s remote switch--called a “mouse"--can see instantly how the writer linked ideas and images. But they, too, are free to go through the paper’s contents in whatever way they wish, freed from the linear logic that underlies most computer software.

The paper was created using HyperCard, a relatively new, “user friendly” computer-software language that allows even those with little technical savvy to create programs with a powerful capacity for cross-referencing and for merging different media.

Having seen that capacity put to use, Mr. Hofmeister has joined those who say that HyperCard and similar software packages are destined to give students and teachers the power to use computers far more imaginatively for learning.

“We’re trying to change more than just technology,” he says of the school’s efforts as a test site for HyperCard’s school applications. ''We’re trying to change education.”

Developed by Apple Computer Inc. for use on its Macintosh line of computers, HyperCard is now being joined in the marketplace by similar products.

They represent, says James A. Mecklenburger, director of the National School Boards Association’s Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, a “major trend in the development of computers that people need to pay attention to.”

Apple itself calls the innovation possibly “one of the most magical and utilitarian tools ever brought to computerdom.”

But others warn that making the magic readily available to classrooms may take time and money.

As most schools struggle to replace aging equipment or simply provide enough computers for instruction, they note, HyperCard and its clones will present them with the need for much more sophisticated hardware--computers with a large memory bank and a big pricetag.

Such multimedia instruction is currently being exploited by only a handful of schools. But the concept looms large in the corporate planning of both Apple and the International Business Machines Corporation, two of the major players in the school-computer market.

Their executives suggest that linking videocassette recorders, laserdisk players, and other electronic teaching aids by computer may indeed be the wave of the future in learning.

HyperCard, released in August of 1987, was the first computer language able to give relatively unsophisticated computer users the ability to manipulate a variety of materials with ease.

It does so with “stacks” of “cards” that, in concept at least, resemble conventional index cards in a file box. The cards may contain sound, text, pictures, or other forms of information adjustable by the user. And they can be arranged and rearranged in the stacks to suit the user’s needs.

The cards also contain “buttons” that allow users to “navigate” quickly through a stack from card to card.

In a promotional brochure, Apple describes HyperCard as a “personal toolkit for managing information.” It provides, the brochure says, “a much faster way to establish a relationship between ideas, facts, theories, and thoughts.”

“Our feeling,” says Paul J. Jurata, Apple’s K-12 multimedia systems manager, “is that the whole idea of a personal authoring environment is a trend that people across the industry are interested in.”

Jim Dezell, the general manager of i.b.m. Educational Systems, told the annual conference of the National Association of Secondary School Principals last month that text-based instructional systems would yield to these “multimedia learning systems” in the classrooms of the 1990’s.

“Just as the printing press dramatically enhanced the uses of the written word,” he said, “multimedia learning systems will dramatically alter our interface to knowledge--and, I believe, lead to a new age of education.”

The development of HyperCard and LinkWay--i.b.m.'s similar package, developed for use in its ms-dos microcomputers--is significant, observers say, precisely because it promises to speed teachers’ adoption of multimedia lessons.

“There have been relatively few applications of technology that have made it possible for common, ordinary folks to grab hold of the machine and run with it,” Mr. Mecklenburger notes. “This whole concept is an important step in the taming of computers for kids and teachers.”

Although HyperCard was not developed primarily for the precollegiate market, Bill Atkinson, its creator, has predicted that “educators will pick it up right away.”

Other experts point out that, although HyperCard, LinkWay, and similar products may represent a new direction in computer languages, they are not based on entirely new concepts in educational computing.

Both basic, or Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, the language used to program most microcomputers, and pascal, a language widely taught in schools, allow computer users to write their own programs.

And logo, developed by Seymour Papert, a researcher at the Massacusetts Institute of Technology, has long allowed younger children to create graphic elements on computer screens.

But educators who are familiar with previous “authoring languages” and have used HyperCard or LinkWay say the new software tools open computer programming to a much wider audience. They are far less rigid, these experts say, and they use terms and instructions that are written in simple English.

“A Macintosh with HyperCard is a new kind of invitation to discover what a computer can do,” says David Grady, who has evaluated both HyperCard and LinkWay in his capacity as editor and publisher of “The Grady Report: Personal Computers In American Education.”

John Sculley, Apple’s chief executive officer, notes in an introduction to The Complete HyperCard Handbook, that the importance of the innovation is that, with it, “virtually anyone can become a software author.”

For Mr. Hofmeister, that promise has been borne out by the changes that have taken place over the last year in various areas of the curriculum at his Cincinnati school.

It was almost by accident, teachers here say, that the 700-student suburban private school became one of the first in the nation to test the limits of the new technology.

Because use of the Macintosh is far more prevalent in postsecondary institutions, Apple did not intend to tar8get schools as a HyperCard market.

But the Hannibal paper, and subsequent experiments it touched off among Cincinnati Country Day teachers, caught the company’s eye.

The school has since been designated by Apple as its first “Hyperschool,” joining with “about a dozen” secondary schools nationally to form what Apple calls an “informal consortium” working on “integrating Hypercard and the use of multimedia into their curriculum.”

Mr. Jurata says that Apple “seeds” these schools with Macintosh computers and other equipment to facilitate their progress.

The school’s reputation in HyperCard use has attracted visitors from all over the United Sates--enough to fill eight pages in the guest registry.

But changes wrought in the classroom have been far more important than the national attention, according to Mr. Hofmeister.

The adoption of HyperCard, he says, has changed the emphasis in many classes from a “transmission model” of education--in which students sit through traditional lectures “take notes, then spit their notes back"--to a “student centered” learning environment.

Nancy Fogelson, a history teacher at the school, first began to experiment with HyperCard in her classes after the student paper and was soon joined by a counterpart in the English department. “It was her enthusiasm that really caught people’s eye,” Mr. Hofmeister claims.

Skeptical about the value of “drill-and-practice” computer programs, Ms. Fogelson says HyperCard gave her new insights into the computer and offered students an exciting new tool to stimulate learning.

Now, she says, “I get much more enthusiasm about history and much more productivity. It’s exciting because the kids can make their own discoveries.”

Because students are guided by their own mental associations as they imprint the information on their cards, Mr. Hofmeister says, “there is a universal feeling here that they understanding that stuff better than other material.”

“The kinds of connections made are really individual, which is the kind of process people go through when they write a book,” explains William Briggeman, chairman of the school’s English Department.

Mr. Briggeman was among the first teachers to experiment with HyperCard’s multimedia capacity, creating an annotated version of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men.”

He highlighted words in the poem as “buttons,” or connections to related cards, which allowed students to call up lengthy footnotes that explained references in the original work. The footnotes themselves also contained buttons that enabled students to “branch” almost indefinitely into the program, to receive historical, biographical, and other insights into the poem.

Another HyperCard project on Dante’s “Inferno,” prepared by seniors last fall, carried the interdisciplinary aspect further, Mr. Briggeman says, giving students the chance to study not only the poem itself, but also Renaissance history and politics.

“Students sense a sort of liberation about what they can do” with Hyperel10lCard, the English teacher maintains.

What is happening at Cincinnati Country Day School exemplifies the best of what HyperCard can mean to students and teachers, claims Mr. Jurata of Apple.

“It’s an environment that teaches not just what the right answer is,” he says, “but how to access information and synthesize it.”

But Ms. Fogelson warns that it is not a “magic bullet” and that “the argument that HyperCard will work with every kid is overblown.”

Though ibm’s LinkWay has only been available commercially since early last year, it, too, has elicited praise in some educational circles.

James A. Wilsford, superintendent of the Orangeburg, S.C., school system, is encouraging that district’s language-arts teachers to create interactive assignments with LinkWay that promote a give-and-take between teachers and students.

“I’ve been working on this kind of curriculum for 20 years,” he says, “but without the computer it was hard to bring about.”

The cross-referencing capacity of this type of software also allows teachers and administrators to create flexible databases for compiling lesson plans and keeping daily records in electronic gradebooks, users say.

“They’re inventing their own uses for LinkWay,” notes Kerry Johnson, director of information services and educational technology for the Sacramento (Calif.) Unified School District. “Because nobody told them ‘you aren’t supposed to do that.”’

But there is no agreement on whether all teachers will embrace the new technology represented by HyperCard and LinkWay.

“The dream of everyone becoming a programmer--and having the time and the inclination to become a programmer--is kind of far out,” says Philip Miller, director of product development for Scholastic Software.

Mr. Jurata, the Apple spokesman, concludes that even though some teachers are willing to develop their own courseware, “we are not advocating that, because we don’t believe that most teachers have the time and the interest to sit down and author their own materials.”

But John Rader, executive director of the Mobius Corporation, an Alexandria, Va., software developer that uses LinkWay to produce some programs, argues that district-level curriculum specialists, who now create lesson plans with conventional materials, may seize upon the newer products to improve educational computing districtwide.

But the biggest barrier to the widespread use of multimedia teaching4tools, many insist, may be Apple’s dominance of the precollegiate computer market--and the nation’s aging school-computer base.

The preponderance of microcomputers in U.S. classrooms are Apple II machines, which are incapable of satisfying the voracious demand for computer memory that such complex products as HyperCard require.

Although the Macintosh is designed to support HyperCard--Apple distributes it free of charge with any of the Macintosh product line--such machines are far more expensive than Apple II’s.

Mr. Wilsford and other LinkWay users argue that, because it can be used on the less expensive i.b.m. Model 25 computer--at about a third of the cost of a Macintosh--the i.b.m. software is a more cost-effective option for schools. “It’s the right product at the right price,” he says.

According to Mr. Johnson of the Sacramento district, “the purpose of HyperCard is to sell Macs, so Apple is creating a whole bunch of hype about HyperCard,” even though LinkWay offers many of the same advantages to educators at less cost.

Mr. Miller says that Scholastic hopes to develop a HyperCard product that will open the multimedia market for the Apple II line.

“Right now, we’d characterize them as research and development efforts,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is push the Apple IIe as far as it can go.”

But Robert A. Gray, an associate professor of audiovisual communications at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, writing on the educational potential of HyperCard in the January/February issue of Tech Trends magazine, says that the small number of Macintosh computers in classrooms will mean that HyperCard will have to make its first inroads in the precollegiate market among media specialists, administrators, and others who need to manipulate large amounts of data.

While experts disagree over what HyperCard and similar products may eventually mean for schools, most agree on one essential fact: that the new approach to computing will change the way computers are used.

“There’s no question in my mind that this is going to be a way human beings will like to access data,” comments Mr. Grady.

Others suggest that commercial development of HyperCard stacks--and possibly LinkWay products--will put the power of multimedia directly into teachers’ hands.

To Mr. Johnson, the Cincinnati model may present other options. “Maybe it’ll be used by kids, rather than teachers,” he says.

Says Mr. Miller, expressing the sense of expectant uncertainty in the field: “I think we’ve yet to see it all shake out.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Some Are Seeing Computer ‘Magic’ In a New, But Costly, Software Tool


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