All I Needed to Know, I Learned from my C-64
June 2, 2008

I love computers. I have ever since I saw the Commodore-64 in junior high. There was a thrill of discovery for everything we did. I never knew what I would find on one of those 5 1/4" diskettes.

My dad got into computers back in the day of full room, punch card, ridiculous tubes and all. The thought of a tiny little computer at home which could hold a whole 64 KB of memory (and had no hard drive!) was irresistible to him. He and his buddies swapped computer programs, eventually cracking or writing tools for each other to use to beat the copyrights on the few programs they actually purchased.

As a result, we NEVER had the directions to any of the programs we had -- and there was no W3 to go look things up on just yet. So for me, everything about computers involved discovery. Not only did I usually not know what was on a disk, but how to play the game or use the word processor was a process of explorations. I still remember a game called Bugaboo that we never did really figure out beyond making the little guy hop. When I first played the game, I did my usual: hit every key once until I found out the controls for that game. You died a lot trying to brute force your way through the controls of a game like that, but that was all right. It was part of the adventure. And adventure is rarely as much fun with a clear map as without.

Of course, using that method to figure out the word processor was a lot more tedious and involved figuring out how to access the help menu and then lots of tedious handwriting of directions. Then the directions were typed into the computer and then printed out so the whole family could use them. It was kind of a wacky process.

Flash forward to today when I've got a little flash USB drive that holds 64 Megs of info. 64 MBs of info. That little C-64 seems pretty silly to me now. It couldn't do a whole lot. And what it could do it took forever to do.

But I learned to open up a program and start digging around in it. I learned a little bit about how computers think. That little machine was one of the best teachers I ever had.

I think of my students over the nine years that I taught. I moved from teaching in a "traditional" classroom (desk chairs, a podium and chalkboards) to teaching in a net-worked computer classroom. I was the only instructor at Notre Dame to move my writing class into the computer classroom. Why'd I do it?

I watched first-year students struggle so much with their computers. They couldn't figure out how to do automated page numbers. I had one student who didn't know you could tell the word processor to double-space your paper. That student had been manually hitting return at the end of every line and another return to make the paper looked double-spaced. They knew they hit the save button, but they couldn't find the file unless they opened up Word and used the "Recent Files" list. Learning to use the university webmail program to attach a file gave some of them conniptions.

But the Dean of First Year Studies, who has very recently retired, I believe, insisted that "these kids grew up with computers, they don't need a computer class." Never mind the student, who at the height of the 3.5" floppy disk, tried to put his disk in upside down and backwards; never mind the student who picked up her mouse and placed it on the computer screen and wanted to know why the cursor wouldn't move; never mind the graduate student who couldn't find the "My Computer" icon on his plain and nearly empty desktop.

I felt sorry for my students, truth be told. So many of them struggled with their computers and their minimal computer skills. I'd spend a day showing them the basic ins and outs of Word - changing fonts, font size, color, centering, doing page numbers and indents. All sorts of basic word processing skills. I didn't even get into adding pictures or graphs or integrating with Excel. If we had enough time in a semester and they requested it, I'd even show them some rudimentary HTML.

But mostly, I wanted to teach them to play with their computers as much as I wanted them to play with their writing. I wanted them to explore both. I think those who did begin exploring really got something out of the class. Those who thought I was a jerk for trying to do stuff that "so obviously wasn't about writing," well, they didn't get much out of the class. I never stopped trying to reach those kids, though.

Think what we could accomplish if we could just explore and play a little bit more.

Thank goodness for that Commodore-64. Easily the best $500 my Dad ever spent on anything.

Posted by Red Monkey at June 2, 2008 5:21 AM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

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