Computing power at every student's fingertips could revolutionise technology

Computer software which would radically change teaching methods is being developed at top flight US universities.

By Mary Fallon
Electronics Times

February 13, 1986

Classroom software for calculations or writing is being updated and future software will include a heavy dose of animation and be capable of complex simulations of real world problems.

If one proposal at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is carried out, students could practice French by strolling Paris streets in search of an apartment, without budging from a computer at their dormitory.

Computer manufacturers predict that by l987, MIT's experiment, called Project Athena, and a similar Project Andrew at Carnegie-Mellon University, will have heavily influenced the design of advanced computer workstations for the commercial market.

A new class of software and the falling price of workstations are expected to increase the demand for computers by colleges. Universities are anticipating the day when powerful workstations, which now cost around $20,000 will be cheap enough for college students to afford. In ten years, some educators say most major colleges will require students to buy an advanced workstation for daily studies.

Manufacturers which today share the $4 billion university computer market drool at the prospect of a growing market. Each year 2.5 million freshmen enter US colleges, according to government statistics.

Companies intend to sway students' purchasing decisions in the hope of continuing to influence them in future years when they buy business computers. IBM and Digital Equipment have donated millions of dollars in equipment and personnel to university software projects to remain in touch with developments.

Steve Jobs, co founder of Apple Computer and now running his own company, Next, is a regular visitor to campuses where these projects are under way. Other computer makers, including Sun Microsystems of Mountain View, work closely with colleges to ensure their future products suit the needs of universities.

Universities have a wish list. They want the next generation of computer workstations to be powerful but cost only $3000. Their dream computer is called a 3M machine because it would have the following features:

1 million instructions per second (mips), which is many times faster than today's personal computer;

l Mbyte of memory - double storage of the Macintosh 5l2Kbyte computer; and lm pixels - a screen resolution that is at least twice as sharp as the Macintosh.

The technology of the 3M machine exists in expensive, powerful minicomputers, such as DEC's MicroVax II, but the MicroVax II's $20,000 price tag is six times more than universities want to pay for a 3M computer.

"We don't expect manufacturers to meet the $3000 price in l986, but certainly the price will hit $6000 to $7000," said James Morris, director of Carnegie-Mellon's Information Technology Centre in Pittsburgh where Project Andrew is based.

Universities are gearing their software projects toward powerful computers for two reasons: they expect prices for workstations to drop steadily, and the reason that the easier a programme is to use, the more computing power it takes to run it.

"We didn't want to beat our brains out squeezing software into small machines when we think the big, cheaper machines are around the corner," said Morris, a former research scientist for Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre.

"Every major computer manufacturer in the next two to three years will have a machine that fulfils our needs," said John Crecine, Carnegie's senior vice president for academic affairs.

Bud Corrigan of Apple Computer, who is responsible for selling to universities, said that by September 1987: "It is totally within the realm of possibility that several manufacturers - including Apple will have a 3M machine at the price universities are requesting.

Apple's machine, a more powerful version of its Macintosh system, could be introduced as early as l987.

Wayne Rosing, Sun Microsystem's vice president of engineering predicts that by autumn l987 3M computers will flood universities and make that market "ultimately bigger than the personal computer market."

Jack McCredie, who directs DEC's external research programme, oversees his company's work at MIT. Digital has donated $25m worth of computers and staff hours to MIT's Project Athena, simply to get a head start on new ideas for workstations and software. "Lead time on ideas is the whole game," McCredie said.

The work going on at MIT "will have tremendous impact on the way we produce computers in the future", he said. "I don't think massive growth of the university market is the focus for us. How to build a better product for the commercial market - that's where the money is at."

In fact, given the stringent budgets of most colleges and most students, advanced workstations would probably trickle into campuses in the next ten years, rather than flood the market all at once, according to Carnegie's Crecine.

Les Comeau, who oversees IBM's $25m work at MIT and its $20m project at Carnegie-Mellon, declined to speculate on how much of the work being carried out at universities would find its way to the business market. While universities hope the business market shares their desire for a 3M machine, no one is sure whether the markets will have the same needs.

Comeau believes that the university projects "will have a tremendous impact on education."

As with any computer, the value of the 3M machine will be its software.

Project Athena and the $50m Project Andrew, focus on inventive software that will allow hundreds of workstations to be connected to a network so they can communicate and share information.

Leading the way for other colleges, MIT and Carnegie-Mellon are at the early stages - preparing to string cable for networks ready for the day when computers are commonplace in every dormitory and college classroom.

The other, and perhaps more important, thrust by the universities is the creation of application software - programs that could change the way teachers teach and students learn.

Universities are beginning to coordinate their efforts so they collectively write 'portable' software - programs that run on any 3M workstation regardless of which company makes it. Many hope one result of the projects at MIT, Carnegie-Mellon and other colleges will be a standard means by which workstations can hook into a network and run programs.

If universities create these networking and operating systems standards, along with their own applications software, manufacturers will have to fight for customers on the basis of price. "It is a brilliant strategy on the universities' part," Rosing said.

The prototypes under development are early test models - there has not been enough time to create a real commercial product, according to Morris. "There are a lot of rough edges in Project Andrew," he said. "There's potential. It depends on someone, hopefully IBM, sole backer of Andrew, to pick it up and make it commercial.

In an ageing, wooden building once occupied by the US Army, Janet Murray, a lecturer at MIT's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, plots the course for new computer software which could alter the way students learn to speak foreign languages.

Murray is one of the MIT faculty members who are dreaming up software under Project Athena, a $70m, five year project to write college curriculum software.

"What Project Athena did for us humanists is open up a world class toy shop we can exploit," Murray said. "What we've got here - artificial intelligence technology, large computer memories and interactive audio/video - is a new medium for structuring education in a new way." One programme for teaching French - now in the design stage - would display a typical Paris newspaper's classified advertisements and then visually move the students through the city. At each apartment block, a concierge would come to the door and speak with the student, who would have to respond appropriately to secure a flat.

Conversation, rather than the standard drill and practice common in today's language software, "would expose a student to many native speakers in a cultural environment, instead of the teacher being the only person the student hears speaking French", Murray said.

The software already used by universities does not offer this level of sophistication. The programs tend to be geared to tasks such as calculations or letter writing.

"What we're trying to do at Project Athena is going beyond what's available now, to get at the essence of what learning is all about and what it could be with a computer, rather than some narrow definition of what it is not," said William Hogue, assistant to the director of MIT's Project Athena.

Hogue anticipates that future software, because it will rely heavily on artificial intelligent technology, will be "intuitive". When a student has worked with the software for a while, the program would recognise the student's learning patterns and modify itself.

Crecine strongly believes that the software under development is vital if a 'revolution' in computer aided education is to occur. He is lobbying universities to cooperate in software development so that they can influence manufacturers and text book publishers.

"We want to make computing such an essential tool in all areas of the university, not just in engineering and science, but in liberal arts and fine arts, that it will seem as naturally important as libraries," he said.

Computing power at every student's fingertips could drastically change education.

But the revolution will be slow. Most schools, always short of cash, are expected to lag far behind the commercial market in turning today's experimental software into tomorrow's homework assignment.


(c) 1986 Miller Freeman