Lecture 14. Computing in Canada Part 3:
microcomputers in schools
Informal and unedited notes, not for distribution. (c) Z. Stachniak, 2011-2012.
Note 1: in cases I were unable to ﬁnd the primary source of an image or de-
termine whether or not an image is copyrighted, I have speciﬁed the source as
”unknown”. I will provide full information about images and/or obtain reproduc-
tion rights when such information is available to me.
Note 2: most of the information provided in this lecture has been derived from .
The use of microcomputers in preschool, elementary, and secondary edu-
cation in the 1970s and 1980s is a vast and complex subject. It spans all
types of educational activities and initiatives such as computer literacy pro-
grams, computer assisted instruction, training of teachers, distance learning,
or creation and evaluation of educational hardware and software (including
educational computer games). In this lecture I shall provide only a brief his-
torical overview of the impact of the microcomputer industry on education
at the primary and high school levels.
1 The history of computer education can be traced to the ﬁrst days of modern
computing. In the late 1940s, Edmund Berkeley, a great enthusiast of com-
puting and computer education, conceived his ﬁrst small computing device
and named it Simon (we discussed Simon in Lecture 6).
Fig. 1. Berkeley’s Simon computer. Source: Charles Babbage Institute. Photograph: (c)
the Regents of the University of Minnesota.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Berkeley designed a number of popular educational
computer toys such as the Brainiac, Tyniac, or Geniac. His work inspired
many others to work on bringing the understanding of computers and their
role in a modern society to schools and homes. In the 1960s, many innovative
computer toys made of plastic, cardboard, and other materials were oﬀered
2 Fig. 2. A boy assembling Berkeley’s Brainiac educational computer. Source: Charles Bab-
bage Institute. Photograph: (c) the Regents of the University of Minnesota.
3 Computer classrooms
Computer laboratories at schools were already discussed in the 1960s. How-
ever, the main obstacle to the implementation of such computer equipped
classrooms was the high cost of minicomputers and their peripherals. At
best, a school was equipped with a single minicomputer or just with a ter-
minal connected (via a modem) to a minicomputer shared by many schools
in the area.
In February 1986, Alan Pollock posted an article in Netweaver (the elec-
tronic newsletter of the Electronic Networking Association, 1985–1991). In
his article Pollock recollects:
From time immemorial it seems, The Protestant School Board of
Greater Montreal (P.S.B.G.M.) has used a Hewlett-Packard HP-
2000F minicomputer to teach programming in Montreal’s high
schools. Equipped with a terminal and a modem, each district
school communicated with this one computer which was located
at the P.S.B.G.M.’s central oﬃce. The system worked well; stu-
dents actually learned to program.
Fig. 3. A HP-2000F minicomputer. Source: www.smecc.org/mcccd - arizona.htm
4 According to Bob Kavanagh, another early computer activity in a Canadian
high school took place between 1973 and 1977 in Saskatchewan.
I can recall ... the Evan Hardy Collegiate Computer Users’ Group.
Their teacher was Ernie Meili (not sure of spelling). There were
about a half dozen students, all male as far as I can recall...
They came to campus [of the University of Saskatchewan] on
Saturday mornings, and Ernie would give them ideas about pro-
grams they could write for our PDP-11/20 minicomputer in the
minicomputer lab. My job was to let them in, provide technical
assistance and generally support their interests in programming.
They wrote programs in BASIC, one student at time, as they had
to ﬁrst write the program through the (only) terminal attached
to the computer, get it punched out in paper tape, feed it back
in and hope it worked. We spent Saturday mornings doing this
for a few months. It had to be Saturdays as the minicomputer
was used by UofS students the rest of the week. [Bob Kavanagh,
private communication, 2011]
The HP-2000F (introduced by Hewlett Packard in 1974) and the PDP-11/20
(introduced by Digital Equipment Corp. in 1970) were expensive minicom-
puters. There were more aﬀordable minis for the educational market, such as
Digital Equipment Corporation’s EduSystems based on the company’s best-
seller PDP-8 computer, but, in the end, these were microcomputers and not
commercial minis that integrated computer technology with teachers’ work-
ing environment and, most importantly, made computer education a part of
For instance, the Evan Hardy Collegiate Computer Users’ Group mentioned
above switched to its own Apple II computers as soon as the school bought
a few of these microcomputers in 1977.
5 Enter microcomputers
The Canadian MCM/70 was the earliest PC destined for classrooms. The
MCM/70 in Education promotional document prepared by Micro Computer
Machines in 1973 on the occasion of the unveiling of its personal microcomputer–
the MCM/70–proclaimed a new era in computer education. A small MCM/70
was to bring
to the world of education a technological solution to the problem
of introducing economical interactive computer systems.
According to MCM’s vision, inexpensive school laboratories equipped with
MCM/70 computers could be created to
provide each student in a computer equipped classroom with his
own individualized interactive computer.
Fig. 4. A fragment of MCM’s MCM/70 in Education promotional brochure, MCM 1974.
Source: York University Computer Museum
6 One of the main and persisting diﬃculties in bringing microcomputers to
schools was not the lack of inexpensive hardware and software but of qual-
iﬁed teachers. This was somehow balanced by a great enthusiasm of some
teachers who, as Berkeley, were fascinated by the computer technology and
were dedicated to the introduction of computer education into classrooms.
Initially, computer education was an optional subject and, when taught,
teachers emphasized computer programming considered by many an essen-
tial skill in the development of a modern individual. But that was soon to
change. In 1981, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (founded
in 1920 with thousands of members across US and Canada) adopted the po-
sition that gave computer literacy a more profound place in contemporary
Mathematics programs must take full advantage of the power
of computers at all grade levels. Students and teachers should
obtain a working knowledge of how one interacts with comput-
ers and uses their capacities. Computer literacy is an essential
outcome of contemporary education. [The National Council of
Teachers of Mathematics report, 1981.]
By the mid-1980s, it was recognized that while not everyone would need
to learn how to program a computer (any more than everyone has to be
a mechanic or an engineer in the petroleum industry to drive a car), it is
essential for everyone to be familiar with computer use and applications.
7 Early North American computer education market was dominated by com-
puters from Apple Computer (the Apple ][s). A few other microcomputer
manufacturers had a sizable share of the education market: the Texas Instru-
ment’s TI-994/A, Atari’s 400 and 800 computers, the Radio Shack TRS-80,
and Commodore’s PETs, VIC-20, and C-64 were also popular choices for a
The Canadian educational market was of a similar make-up with the ex-
ception of a much stronger position of Commodore which, in 1983, had 65%
of the Canadian education market to itself. A unique Canadian educational
computer–the ICON–is discussed below.
All major microcomputer manufacturers developed educational software. For
instance, Commodore had vast libraries of educational programs for all its
computers. In 1983 Commodore introduced the Computer Educator – the
library of educational programs for its immensely popular VIC-20 computer;
many of these programs were published in Canada (by Commodore Business
Machines in Agincourt On.).