The "3 Rs" are being joined by a "C." To prepare students for a world in which an estimated 70 percent of jobs will be computer-related, teachers are stressing reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic and computing.
"But the big problem," says computer scientist Rachelle Heller, "is that parents and teachers were all born B.C. -- before computers -- and kids were all born A.C. -- after computers."
"Many teachers and parents are feeling a little intimidated by the fact that kids have a computer competency they don't share," adds fellow University of Maryland computer science instructor Dianne Martin. "Unlike today's college students who may need a computer course to graduate, most adults finished school without having access to a computer."
This split between "B.C. adults" and "A.C. kids" has given the generation gap a technological twist. As a recent Atari magazine advertisement puts it: "Are the kids getting a jump on the grown-ups? We may in a few years see . . . a generation of men and women shut off from a fundamental part of their children's lives."
To ease adults' electronic anxiety, "There's a major push underway," says Heller, "for universal computer literacy," or "everything you need to know about computers to live in our information-based society. What you need to know depends on who you are and what you do."
Teachers, says Martin, "need to feel comfortable with the computer in their classrooms so they can use it as an effective teaching tool and feel they have control of the situation. With computers in education we're seeing a new teaching relationship being established, where teacher and pupil become partners in the learning process.
"And the kids teach each other. One of the best ways to learn with computers is for two people to work together."
As mothers of school-age children, Heller and Martin are familiar with the discomfort experienced by computer-illiterate teachers. Martin is a former teacher who left the classroom in 1966 for a job with IBM. Heller, who holds a degree in chemistry, got her first job in computers after repeated rejections from companies who said they didn't hire women chemists. "When I looked for a programming job," she says, "I got one in half an hour."
The two women, both 39, met while earning their master's degrees in computer science -- and later teaching -- at the University of Maryland. Both had been asked by their children's teachers to give computer presentations at their schools and were interested in the application of computers to education.
After a trip to the 1980 National Educational Computing Conference in Virginia, "We decided teachers needed a computer-literacy primer," says Martin, "and decided to write one." Published this year, Bits 'n Bytes About Computing (Computer Science Press, 174 pages, $17.95) provides computer basics geared to teachers at all levels and is being revised for a more general audience.
In the Washington area, say Heller and Martin, about 60 percent of students have some access to computers. The goal in Montgomery County is that within four years, every high school student will have access to 120 minutes of computer time per week, every junior high student for 90 minutes and every elementary student for 50 minutes.
"That's a good model," says Heller. "But the leader is Minnesota, where they've mandated computer training for teachers."
Along with the booming use of computers has come a change in what it means to be computer literate. "In the past," says Martin, "having an awareness and appreciation for computers was sufficient for computer literacy. But now we're living in a society where, by the time you get to the office, you've come in contact with at least 50 computerized effects. So you need a functional knowledge of computers."
The National Science Foundation, they say, considers a person computer-literate if he or she knows:
1. How a computer works. (Reminder: It has five functional parts -- the input to enter information, the memory which stores information, the central processing unit which causes all the other parts to do their job, the arithmetic and logical unit which gets the work done and the output unit where the work is displayed.)
2. The step-by-step technique for problem-solving. While the ability to write a program isn't necessary, "You should have a basic understanding," says Heller, "of how it's done."
3. Social implications of computer use. "Equity is a big issue," says Martin. "People with access to computer power have a great edge over those who don't. There's a place in California called Computertown U.S.A. where the public has free access to computers through the libraries. Residents can even check out a kid to help them use it."
4. Computer applications. "There is hardly an area in our lives that is not affected in some way by computers."
The key to computer literacy, says Heller, "is demystifying the machine. A computer is simply a problem-solving tool that causes you to think in a very different way. Adults need to realize they must approach problems in an organized, logical fashion."
Children take to computers more easily than adults, claims Martin, "because they're naturally curious and they don't have the same baggage adults do. Adults have a lot of subconscious negative attitudes about computers. They may remember a science-fiction story about a computer that killed people, or they may have had their checking account balance messed up by one, or they may fear a computer will take over their job."
Most adults, says Heller, "tend to think in terms of right and wrong rather than of process. If they get an error message, they may get upset or feel foolish and quit. But with computers it's okay not to be right the first time. You have to de-bug and refine. The emphasis is on problem-solving rather than getting the right answer."
Computer companies are courting the technologically timid, they note, by making new machines more "user-friendly." "Instead of having commands labeled 'abort' -- which can be hard for an adult to deal with," says Heller, "they're using less loaded words that you don't have to be a programmer to understand."
Often adults need time and practice to be comfortable with computers. "Some," Heller admits, "will never be comfortable. But others will get hooked."