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Computer Literacy, Computer Skills, and Computer Use

in Schools and Small Businesses.

From the personal experiences of
Duane Bristow
July 27, 1997

People have many misconceptions about the uses and misuses of computers in business and in schools. Although many people are now using computers in their daily lives, both at home and on the job, many small businesses and most schools are not using them efficiently and, in many cases, are misusing computers and related technology. Although computer systems, if properly implemented, can be very useful in increasing efficiency, they can decrease efficiency just as much when improperly used.

I define efficiency as use of a computer system to accomplish well defined goals with less expense than before in terms of time and money. If use of computer systems either prevent reaching goals or make reaching goals more expensive or more time consuming than before, then I consider that misuse of computers. The fundamental point that is often overlooked or under emphasized is that use of computers is not itself a goal but that computers are tools to be used to accomplish objectives usually unrelated to the computer itself.

Computerizing Small Businesses

I have been setting up small business computer systems in my rural area of Kentucky for eighteen years. This has included systems analysis, hardware acquisition, custom programming, and training employees, most of whom had never touched or even seen a computer before. I had the first computer in the area. I don't mean personal computer. I mean computer of any kind. When I started computer consulting no bank or hospital or business of any kind in the area had a computer except for a couple of IBM 5110s which had been purchased by a local gas company for gas billing. Those were floppy disk drive systems that cost $20,000 each. The company had paid a firm in Lexington, Kentucky something like $40,000 to develop gas billing software for them but they told me later, when I computerized their operation, that the previous system never did work right because it wouldn't keep gas and equipment inventory information for them. Also, it was set up so that the receivables were tied to the location of the gas meter which meant that, if one person moved away from a location and someone else moved in, the person moving in inherited any unpaid gas bills from the customer leaving.

I have computerized nearly 200 small businesses and trained probably 300 to 500 people to use these systems. Some of my customers have been using my computer systems continuously for up to fourteen years. At one time my area of south central Kentucky probably had more businesses computerized for the size of the community than any in the state and probably than most in the nation. Now, of course, computers are common in small businesses here and elsewhere, although I have installed and do maintain most of the local business computer systems.

Most computer systems have been in the past and are still being used by small businesses for various accounting and database purposes to keep up with money and customers and to a lesser extent for word processing.

Computer Classes

At one time, when no college offered any computer classes I put on classes for local people because so many people asked me for these. These classes met for two hours one night a week for ten weeks. The purpose of the class was to give students, mostly local business employees, some basic familiarity with the hardware and operation of a computer system by discussing information storage and programming so that the students would learn what types of uses a computer could have in business. They were then in a better position to make decisions about computerizing and knew some of the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.

After I had been offering these classes for about three years a local college decided that they should be offering computer classes. When they had trouble finding anyone capable of teaching such a class they contacted me and asked me if I would offer the class I had been teaching for them. That way my students could get college credit and they could also furnish more students. I had been charging my students $5.00 per lesson or $50.00 total for the ten week course. That way I got paid $1,000 for teaching 20 students and it was relatively inexpensive for each student. The college said they would charge each student $300 and they would pay me $300 for teaching the course for ten weeks. I told them where they could go.

They eventually found someone to teach their course and began offering it locally so I quit offering a course myself. I found out later that rather than teaching bookkeeping and accounts receivable uses and the uses and limitations of computers, the college was teaching students how to use a spreadsheet program and how to set up spreadsheets. So far as I know very few people in this area have ever used spreadsheet programs on a computer. That may be because their primary needs are in bookkeeping and I set up dedicated bookkeeping systems for most of the businesses in the area.

Computer Operators

After I had been at this business for a few years people began talking about "Computer Literacy" and "Computer Skills". I never understood these terms. Businessmen, when they discussed computer systems with me, would ask me if they would need to hire a computer operator for their new system. I always told them that if they had an employee who knew how to do the job they wanted done manually, that I would teach that employee or those employees how to operate the computer in twenty minutes and how to use it for their business application in two to four hours with a few follow up training visits. To me "Computer Literacy" meant how to turn a computer on and how to read and select from a menu. That I could teach in twenty minutes. The only thing I could think of to call "Computer Skills" would be knowledge of touch typing if the computer was to be used for word processing. Otherwise, the skills needed were a basic knowledge of the accounting and bookkeeping needs of the business. These were not computer skills though but business skills. These installations were always successful when the business did have employees who understood the needs of the business. Success was not assured if this was not the case.

I also discovered that the easiest employees to train were those who had not had any classes on using computers. Usually those employees who were hired because they had taken a local computer course at either the high school or college level did not know anything about business. They were taught in the classes, for example, that if they had problems with a computer they simply had to reset the computer to start over. Any time they didn't understand how to do something they would reset the computer losing any data they had been entering and making a hash of computer index files. It would sometimes take me hours to repair the databases. They usually were also not taught what computers do, but how to use specific commercial computer programs, usually spreadsheets and word processors. They seemed to be lost when they had to use applications that they had not been taught in school.

Employees who had taken accounting courses at the local vocational school were sometimes better if the accounting system was already set up and running. However, I discovered that if the business did not have an existing accounting system, they were incapable of developing one. I had one business owner who set up a new business and hired a graduate of a State University with a Degree in Accounting. She also was incapable of setting up an accounting system. She eventually cost him several tens of thousands of dollars due to improper bookkeeping and eloped with one of his customers.

See Some Thoughts on the Development of Personal Computers.

Computers in the Schools

In the mid 1980s a local teacher decided to offer a course on computer literacy at the high school. Basically he showed a bunch of high school students how to play games on computers. Later IBM donated some castoff PC Juniors to the primary grades with a program they had developed called Write to Read. I think they developed that system and donated those computers to get tax writeoffs for computers they couldn't sell. Later when Texas Instruments found that they couldn't sell their computers they reduced the price of the remaining units from a couple of thousand dollars to about $50. At that point a few local teachers bought some of those and put them into their classrooms. They lasted a year or so until the hardware failed and since the company no longer supported those computers, they were junked. A couple of teachers at the High School had a computer in their classrooms and there were maybe one or two other computers in use in the entire school district before about 1990 or 1991.

By the time my younger son was in the 7th grade in 1990 we had encyclopedias and other reference books on CD ROM and had been using online services for research for years at our home. My son was assigned an essay about some famous person to write that year. He just found the entry on the CD ROM and printed it out directly on our printer complete with copyright notices and everything and turned it in to his teacher. I told him he couldn't do that because it was plagiarism and that he would get an F. The teacher gave him an A because she was so impressed that he could find information on a computer and print it. No one had ever done anything like that in our school system before. He told me he didn't even read the essay before he turned it in.

When the Kentucky Education Reform Act passed the Kentucky General Assembly in 1991 or thereabouts, it provided for a "technology coordinator" for each school system. By that time the local high school had a room with several computers and a teacher who was teaching spreadsheets and word processing. The school superintendent asked me to advise him on how best to implement the push to get technology into the schools. I interviewed most of the people in the school system who were already using computers in some way. I then told him that computers would have three functions in the schools.

  1. The Administrative Function - Each school should have a computer system set up to keep school and student records, account for school money etc. Also to the extent it was feasible teachers who were interested should have computers available to keep class records and lesson plans.
  2. Computers as objects of Instruction - A class in computer programming and in the basics of the hardware could be offered in the high school. However, I said that I felt there would probably be too little interest and too few students with an aptitude for this to make it feasible.
  3. Computers as mediums of Instruction - Computers should be set up in the library of each school with access to reference materials on CD ROM and at least one of these computers in each library should have on-line access to the Internet. Possibly notebook computers could be available to be checked out by students to give students without home computers access to complete computer assignments at home. All computers would have word processing software available with the librarian available to teach the students to use the software. In addition teachers who came up with good and innovative ways to use computers to enhance the subject they were teaching should have computers and appropriate programs available in the classroom. I told him that the only use I could see for what they were calling "computer labs" would be to teach touch typing by computer, but since that was a function of the nearby vocational school and was not taught at the High School that use would not apply. I also mentioned the use of other technology such as video cameras in the schools. We discussed the concept that computerizing a school was not a one shot deal but that plans should be made for phasing computer use in and replacing computers at least every three to five years.
The teachers soon informed the Superintendent that I did not know what I was talking about and that the thing to do was to buy a bunch of computers and put them in a large room, (computer lab). They did this and when my son got to High School they would take one hour in his English class once a week when the whole class would go to the computer lab to type their English assignments on the computers. A teacher's aide was in charge of the computer lab. Her function seemed to be to see that the students did not try to do anything other than word processing on the computers. They were fanatic about the rule that diskettes could not be brought into the computer room from outside or taken out of the computer room. They didn't want any kids bringing viruses in. Printers were available only on the network. Sometimes they weren't working or other people were keeping them so busy that there wasn't time to print out their work. As a result my son would sometimes type his English assignments on our computer system at home and sneak the printout into the computer lab. His teacher could tell he had done this though because the print quality was so much better than that from the computer lab. Once or twice she reminded him that he wasn't allowed to bring work he had done at home to school because he was supposed to learn about computers in the computer lab. She didn't seriously try to enforce this though.

Later on they got a program called "Knowledge Master" which was a trivia quiz type program and was supposed to give the Academic Team extra practice for academic tournaments. Students were allowed to go into the computer lab during any free time they had to use that program.

It is my understanding that some school systems are now cutting back on purchases of lab equipment, shop classes, field trips, etc. to have money to buy more computers. As they say about television on TVLAND, "It's 34% better than real life." The point is that schools are now using computers as an end in themselves rather than as a tool to facilitate learning other subjects.

The Internet

I put this site on the Internet in July 1995. The local county had become part of a Rural Empowerment Zone in late 1994 and federal money and employer benefits were available to attract much needed employers to the area. In late 1995 I talked to a few local community leaders, officials from the Empowerment Zone lead agency, Kentucky Highlands, and members of the local Chamber of Commerce about the desirability of promoting the local area and it's business advantages on the Internet. Probably partly because local Internet access was not available, they said they could see no benefit from that. I offered to make a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce about the Internet and how it could be used but they seemed to think there would be no use in that because the Internet wouldn't catch on for several years.

By late summer of 1996 three or four local people had begun using the Internet through America On Line. Because of that and because of some changes in the local leadership of the Chamber of Commerce they did invite me to make a presentation at one of their meetings to acquaint them with the Internet. I made such a presentation at that time. It included a computer set up with Internet access in which we visited state promotional web sites, other sites promoting local areas, and a web site about a school in Japan. I also handed out a number of printouts of sample web pages and copies of these notes. It was well received and seemed to generate interest that night. Within a couple of months an ISP began offering local Internet access. However, I heard no more about any interest in advertising the Empowerment Zone or promoting the local area on the Internet. In the Spring of 1997, I guess the local leaders did decide that some promotion was needed because they put a billboard up at the county line identifying Clinton County as an Empowerment Zone area. Within a few months they had erected one or two more similiar billboards at other places on the county line. Then lately someone told me that a state agency had suggested to someone locally that the county seat could have a page on a state web site and they were considering the idea.

Two years ago, when I first suggested the idea, a search of the Internet for cities in Kentucky yielded Web pages for only two cities, Louisville and one of its suburbs. I thought, at that time, that if a search yielded those two plus Albany, Kentucky that would be a big plus for the local area and make it look very forward thinking. When I could get no local interest in the idea I just put the promotional page on my web site and let it go at that. I had originally envisioned and talked to people about a site with lots of high quality pictures of the area, economic descriptions, and maybe a contest sponsored by local businesses giving away monthly vacations at local lakes to web site visitors drawn at random. I still think that such a site put on the WWW at that time and well publicized on the Internet would have been quite a boon to the area.


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Last revised July 27, 1997.

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