Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Academic Computing

I used to work for an organization at Syracuse University called Academic Computing Services, and that colors my view of computers in all levels of education. We weren’t the School of Engineering, we weren’t the School of Computer Science, we weren’t even the School of Information Studies. Even though we were in charge of most of the computers on the campus, we didn’t teach any programming courses…at least not for credit. So what did we do?

We taught you how to use our computers in support of your education. What few programming workshops we taught were toward that end. We got you started with enough FORTRAN to get you through some really intense Math, Engineering, or Science projects. We taught you enough SPSS or SAS to be able to run the statistics you needed for that Political Science or Public Policy course. We might even teach you the APL you needed in order to get started as a “real” Computer Science student. But for the most part, our job was to support you in using our computers as a tool in whatever discipline you might be studying, be that Linguistics or Physics, Religion or Engineering.

And a lot of what we did involved teaching you to use our computers, our mainframe computers back then, for writing and formatting your papers. We helped a lot of doctoral students with their dissertations on what would now look like a very rudimentary word processing system, but a system that still beat making corrections on a typewriter. As time went on and we went through the PC revolution, we started teaching how to do your word processing, spreadsheets, and databases on those machines, as well as how to connect to our mainframes from them.

But the point remains that our focus was on the academic use of computing, and not programming for its own sake. And even calling it academic computing misses the point, because these were skills that could carry you through the rest of your life.

This is a focus that I believe a lot of us have lost in the world of elementary and secondary education. We seem to want every kid to be able to write the next Angry Birds, and don’t care about teaching them to use Java or C++ or whatever the new “language du jour” is to create the 1000 virtual marbles we need in order to take a better look at the question of whether or not it’s fair to worry about most of the black kids sitting together at lunch when most of the white kids do too. We want them all to be able to create great podcasts and videos to post online, and don’t care about teaching them the word processing skills that will get them through their four years of writing papers as a Nutrition major.

We are so concerned with being number one in Computer Technology that we have forgotten about Academic Computing. Indeed, in many places we have denigrated Academic Computing, considering it to be something lower than “Technology Education,” because it’s not as exciting or sexy. In some places we have even gone so far as to say that we don’t need to teach this, because it’s something they can pick up for themselves on YouTube.

We need to remember that not everyone is going to be a programmer or an engineer. We need to remember that we are also educating people who will become nurses, accountants, lawyers, actuaries, ministers, rabbis, writers, librarians, and who knows what all else. In fact, this will be the vast majority of the people we educate.

And we owe it to them to remember the concept of academic computing.

You may also want to read my previous posts We Still Need to Teach Computer Literacy and The Four Stupid Smart Girls and US.


  1. If you took Computer Applications, now updated to Digital Communications, at ESM High School you would get the course Mr. G is describing. It is essential for students and frankly fun to teach. I consider it a challenge to continually update the course to keep it relevant.

  2. I teach doctors to use clinical computer systems, and it would amaze you how poor their "academic computer skills" are. Scary sh*t, really.

  3. Perhaps ironically, this kind of unit is needed at SU more than ever now. People think they know how to use Excel...