Tech in Teaching: How Technology in the 70s Transformed America’s Classrooms

There was a time, not so long ago, when gearing up for school meant a new pencil case or perhaps a snappy new Trapper Keeper. Today, school kids have access to technology their slide rule-wielding predecessors couldn't have possibly dreamed of. Welcome to Tech in Teaching, a recurring series inspired by the HP Pavilion dm4 BeatsTM Edition. Over the next few months I'll be interviewing public school teachers about how technological developments have affected the education process over the years.

A few days ago, I spoke with Joe McDonough, a 40-year teaching vet. Joe spent the majority of his tenure teaching math to high schoolers in suburban Long Island and has pretty much seen it all, from ditto machines to room-sized mainframe computers.

First off, tell our readers about yourself. Why'd you get into teaching in the first place?

When I was about to graduate from college, I was unsure about a career path. I had job offers from 3 different companies to work in computer programming. The economy was booming in the late 60s, but the thought of 9 to 5, 50 weeks a year, jacket and tie, in an office job just did not appeal to me.

President Kennedy's call for service offered the chance to travel overseas (I had never lived away from home). So, I applied to the Peace Corps. When they offered me a program in Nepal, I accepted, even though I had to check an atlas to find out where it was.

Tell us about your first teaching assignment. What was your classroom like?

Namsaling School (in Nepal) was two small buildings on a hillside. Each grade had a separate room of benches and tables and a small chalkboard. There was no electricity in the school — just the light from the open, glassless windows. When it rained, the sheet metal roof sounded like a drum solo.

I was the only American in my village. I learned a lot more than I ever taught, and I found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

What sort of equipment were you using then?

When I started teaching back in the states there was almost no technology. We used the ditto machines in the department office, and mimeo machines in the main office for bigger jobs. 8mm film projectors and photo slide projectors were the audio-visual choices for the classroom.

The first technology to arrive was a hand-held calculator. They were big and clunky, used batteries, and only used the basic functions of adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing and square roots. We were amazed, but because of the cost, few people rushed out to buy one. Besides, we were used to doing arithmetic by hand.

When did you start using computers in your classroom?

Well, I first started using computers in college. There was a computer building with a huge IBM mainframe computer that was room-size. We wrote programs, which were then typed onto long index cards using a hole-punch machine. The "holes" were read as lines of programming. Your stacks of cards were rubber-banded and left in a box to be "run" by the computer. You returned the next day to see if the program you wrote was run successfully.

The first time I taught with computers was in the 70s. There were small "big frame" computers used in the school's main office for programming purposes. Small desktop computers were slow to arrive. It was not very obvious how they could be used to teach the high school basic courses. Additionally, there was no software available to use the desktop computers, so they often sat unused in the back of the classroom.

Explain how technology changed during your tenure.

Gradually. Software was written, curriculum programs were developed, and teachers accepted change and technical "progress." But, mostly, computers were used for remedial drills. A student would read a question, write out a solution with paper and pencil, and type the answer onto the computer's screen.

It was a form of individualized instruction, albeit, an impersonal interaction between student and machine. In the beginning, the introduction of technology was a contradiction: monumental change at a glacial pace.

Do you think kids today are different — or learn differently — because they have access to new technology?

After 40 years of teaching I have come to some conclusions about what a math teacher is supposed to be doing in the classroom. Math has its own language. I want my students to learn how to read math, write math, and speak math. Insofar as technology helps understanding and advances the goal of reading, writing, and speaking mathematics well, then, mission accomplished!

The next edition of Tech in Teaching will feature an anonymous New York City public school teacher (remember the days when kids couldn't Google their instructors?) as he discusses teaching in the era of social networking.

Head here for more information on the ultimate advancement in classroom technology, the Pavilion dm4 BeatsTM Edition, HP's incredibly light laptop — engineered specifically to deliver the best-sounding, richest audio of any PC on the planet.