Learning About Computers — What Is Important?

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The Superintendent of my High School asked the question “When it comes to computers, what should we be teaching?” It was thirty some ago … and he was talking to the foremost computer scientist in the area. In those days there were many different computer platforms. IBM, Apple, Radio Shack, and Commodore, they were all major players. No one was too sure about the future of computing. There was very little standardization. My friend the computer scientist was pretty wise when he answered “Teach them to be flexible in their understanding.” It was good advise then and it is still very true.

It has been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Consider the changes that have taken place in the last few years … Microsoft’s dominates desktop computing, but Apple still enjoys a large part of the market (We will consider Linux Later). The rise of the Internet and companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook, are creating whole new technologies. Even the nature of computing is changing, my cell phone is a computer, my computer is a fax machine, my television is the size if a window, and I still haven’t figured out all its features. At one time the keyboard was the main way to control your computer, then there were mice and trackballs — now it is the finger(s) on a touch screen, voice control, once entirely science fiction, is now a reality. At one time a person had to have some intense training to use a computer effectively — now computers can be used by children. Where computers seem simpler to use, the fact is that they are becoming more and more complicated.

I mentioned that I would talk a little about Linux, and in this discussion it does warrant a paragraph of its own. As a matter of fact it is the changes in Linux that inspired much of this article. Several years ago Microsoft introduced its “ribbon” to control Microsoft Office Suite programs. My reaction was “I know the menus (I am was/am an expert with MS Word) why should I change?” I wasn’t thinking in terms of flexibility at the time. My idea was to switch to Linux. At first the change was rather painless, many Linux application menus are standardized to be similar to Microsoft. Late last year Linux changed. It wasn’t a ribbon, it was a whole new screen design … buttons. Not little icon buttons that can be re-arranged at will and are made for a familiar, friendly point and click mouse. No! These are great big buttons that are set on the screen, hard to rearrange and are a pain to use. These buttons are designed for the modern touch screen user interfaces. To give Linux developers their do — they are working very hard to keep the older (easier to use) icon system updated. It probably will be supported far into the future (unlike Microsoft’s ribbon change that gave the user no option, use the new system or don’t upgrade).

Thirty years ago, or today, whatever you teach, whoever you teach — the most important single issue in computer science is having flexibility. How quickly one picks up on the new technology is one of the keys to success.

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