Information Age Education
   Issue Number 10
January, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter. Its goal is to help improve education.

“Boosting mankind's collective capability for coping with complex, urgent problems on a global scale ... that's been my pursuit all these years!" (Douglas Engelbart; American computer scientist; 1925–.)

The previous issue of this newsletter provided some information about Alan Kay, an ICT in education pioneer. This issue provides information about another such pioneer, Douglas Engelbart. [See] He is best known for inventing the mouse.

Looking Back

HistoryThe first electronic digital computers were developed starting in the late 1930s, and first became commercially available in the early 1950s. Douglas Engelbart was a navy radar technician 1944–1946. In 1955 he earned a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkley. Thus, his background and early career were solidly entrenched in both the practice and theory of analog and digital electronics.

In 1957, Engelbart began work at the Stanford Research Institute. There, in 1959, he founded and directed a lab named the Augmentation Research Center. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

“At SRI International, Engelbart was the primary force behind the design and development of the On-Line System, or NLS [oN-Line System]. He and his team at the Augmentation Research Center developed computer-interface elements such as bit-mapped screens, groupware, hypertext and precursors to the graphical user interface. …

“In 1967, Engelbart applied for, and in 1970 he received a patent for the wooden shell with two metal wheels (computer mouse U.S. Patent 3,541,541), describing it in the patent application as an "X-Y position indicator for a display system". Engelbart later revealed that it was nicknamed the "mouse" because the tail came out the end. His group also called the on-screen cursor a "bug," but this term was not widely adopted.

Looking at More Current Times

CurrentEngelbart’s early work contributed significantly to the development of interactive online computing, the Internet, and the discipline of human-machine interface. Nowadays, we take bit-mapped graphics, networks, the Internet, and various aspects of human-machine interface—such as the mouse and touch screens—for granted. Our children grow up with these facilities, and they learn to use them with little or not formal education or training in school.

This is a very important idea. Any tool embodies some of the knowledge and skill of its inventors and designers. One person or a small group of people can develop a tool or an area of technology that greatly changes the world. In some cases, it takes considerable education or training for a person to learn to make effective use of a new tool. In other cases, the tool and some of its uses are sufficiently “transparent” that a person can learn by imitating others, or discover uses without the aid of a teacher.

For an example, consider reading and writing versus the telephone. It takes a long time to learn to read and write at a level that meets contemporary standards. However, young children learn to make effective use of a telephone. You may have noticed that our schools do not have courses on the “rapid two thumb method” of text messaging on a cell phone.

Computer graphics provides an interesting example that lies someplace between the two example given above. Very young children can learn to use simple graphics tools that are built into various toys or that are designed for young children to use on a computer (such as Kid Pix). But, the professional level of digital graphics routinely used in the graphics arts and entertainment industries take a long time to master and tend to require a high level of creative artistic ability.

     Looking into the Future

    The FutureYear by year, computer systems are getting better. Many of their uses require very little formal education. A GPS system provides an excellent example. It no longer takes “higher” math and learning to use complex instruments to be able to find out where you are and how to get to where you want to go.

    The human-machine interface problem is being worked on by a lot of very smart, well educated, and well-trained people. Voice output from a computer is commonplace, and voice input is becoming more and more useful. Direct stimulation of nerves (including neurons) by computer systems is no longer uncommon, and direct control of computers by one’s thoughts is making progress. And, think about how a user provides input to a computer when using a Wii game.

    Moreover, an increasing part of the totality of human knowledge is being codified in a form to aid in its retrieval and use. Both people and machines are involved in retrieving and using knowledge stored in computer systems. The computer systems are gradually getting smarter in helping people to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Much of this effort is directed toward providing computer systems that people can learn to use without the benefit of formal coursework on using a particular computer tool.

    However, reading, writing, creativity, and higher-order thinking and problem solving are still indispensible. For most people, this means that many years of formal schooling—along with continued learning after one leaves school—are still indispensible.

    About Information Age Education, Inc.

    Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at,  and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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