What is a Computer?

This is an essay exercise that follows the form of other Technology Project Exercises such as the Supermarket Exercise. In this case the focus should be on the physical components of the computer system, including the people who operate it. The student should be guided away from being distracted by the kinds of operations that the computer is used for and directed to concentrate on the physical aspects of the computer, and the tasks that people in its environs perform, such as data-entry, operations, programming, and customer services.

A visit should be arranged to one of the larger computer installations in your area so that the students get some idea of the difference in scale between large computer systems and personal computers.

If possible, arrange a visit to one of each type as the kind of work that people do at each one is very different. Giving students some idea of career opportunities in the industry is an important aspect of this exercise.

Also show students the school's computer system, and a personal computer or laptop if they do not have personal access to one. This will provide students with a range of three or four computers of very different scale.

Write an essay, about 1000 words (for Y8), summarizing the general properties that large and small computers have in common. Then explain the differences between large and small computers to give some idea of how large the range of scale can be.

This exercise should be revisited every four years as the students understanding of computers grows and as computers change.

The essay should be assessed on the number and accuracy of the observations documented.

Text Editor

- recommendations ?


email is a popular way for newbies of any age to gain proficiency at simple writing and text editing. email is a pertinent, popular, immediate, responsive and rewarding medium for writing short items of text. email is a primitive medium that precludes complicated formatting.

The Te Rapa School Cluster has developed An Introduction to Using Electronic Mail in the Classroom. This document is in pdf format which indicates that it is somewhat frozen in time. This is unfortunate because it presents a number of questionable issues that require further discussion and consideration. With regards to the Key Pal Links, teachers should seriously consider the appropriatness of forming links that will only exist in cyber-space. For younger children, links closer to home that can be followed up by real contact should be pursued. It is easy, even for adults, to confuse values communicated over the net with real values. Children should be able to make real comparisons between what is communicated over the net by a writer, and the writer's real circumstances. Pure cyber relationships should be deferred until about Y6 and international relationships until Y7-8 since there is also the complication of language even amongst "English" speaking countries.

Many of the "learning opportunities" only use email as a vehicle for asking maths problems and so on. THey are hardly exercises in their own right. However it is important to be aware of the opportunities that new communication media offer to make "old turnips" more appealing in the classroom. This is not just a process of window dressing. email offers an immediate, responsive and involving environment which also demands that the writer carefully and precisely communicate ideas and responses.

The ASCII Oscars

Communicating with Computers

The preceeding topics deal with the mechanics of using some of the basic computer tools. The tools are well developed and use buttons on toolbars to provide all their functionality. These tools are designed mainly for one off tasks in which the user actively paints what he wants using whatever tools are provided that the user feels comfortable about using. However this is a rather limited way of using a computer. Computers are important not because they provide ways for us to perform particular tasks, but because we can tell the computer to perform whatever tasks we want done. However instructing a computer to perform tasks requires us to learn how to comunicate with a computer. There are some basic skills which apply not just to communicating with computers, but which train us to communicate with each other in a rigorous manner. These exercises do not require a computer.

The Diagram Exercise

Interactive Fiction

Student Project

This project is the familiar term student project. It should be produced in a book format.

Book format remains and will remain one of the most important formats for accessing information. There are several reasons for this.

It is these qualities that the student is working with in completing a book format student term project. But the Web is one of many possible information sources and for one particular term project it may be possible to require that all information be sourced over the web. Topics chosen for such a "limited sourcing" project should be carefully selected to ensure that the possible quality of the result is not impaired by such a restriction but it could be a specifically web oriented project such as

Marking - higher grades should be reserved for the following qualities:

These are all qualities that are important in all forms of information presentation, including computer-based documents. (Preparing a quality book on a computer requires a large learning curve and is appropriate only for Y12-13 students with special interests in this process, such as producing the School Annual.)

Webpage Authoring

Mastering the Net is an excellent resource for this material. It covers all the general aspects of setting up a webpage and writing a basic page of HTML.

There are also programs which help you write HTML pages such as HotDog, Netscape Composer and Front Page. These are all mechanised and sometimes produce horrible HTML code which cannot be worked with by people (unreadable). It is better, and in most cases easier and quicker, to write HTML by hand (using Grey Matter Web Pro). However some pundits believe this product to be seriously flawed. Art Sackett of Art Sackett Professional Web Design, Meeker CO, USA states

That (ed - Grey Matter Web Pro) chunk of crap has the worst revision control in history! One copy seemingly knows everything, another can't find its ass with both hands. I'm thinking Front Page is the answer...

Please note that Pagetutor is a commercial webbased tutor, also available in print and on CD. The beginning tutorial is quite approachable, and though it is a little dated it is probably still the best approach for the first-time author. For instance, it starts with the <HTML> tag which is now redundant and would not be used by a "modern" author. However this old-time author still uses the <HTML> tag as can be seen from this page source. But Pagetutor also uses deprecated tags such as <CENTER> which should no longer be used. However it is difficult for a beginner to learn basic formatting without using tags like <CENTER> because the correct alternative is to use CSS which is much more complicated to explain to a beginner - especially a young beginner. So while it can be criticised for its obsolescence, the pagetutor site is nevertheless a good start for a beginner.

The HTML Editor debate

The Class Homepage

Assessment - Class homepages could receive formal recognition at School and National level and personal student homepages could receive formal recognition at Class, School and National level. Assessment would be made on the basis of the appearance of the webpage using the usual criteria - basic functional things like: Individual assessment can be of a different order. Rather than assess the webpage, assess the student's ability to use special tools in the process of creating the webpage. For instance all students may learn to use a graphics painter to produce pictures to go onto the webpage, but only 1 or 2 may finally be selected. But the successful use of a tool to produce something should be assessed and noted.
Experiences to date
Kavanagh College, Room 2C, 1997 This project is of particular interest because there was limited access to computer resources.
Links to Class Webpages


The static story can be implemented by using a sequence of interlinking web pages. Many technical reference books have this quality even in printed form and often have a roadmap at the start. Page xiii of "The Art of Computer Programming Volume 1" by D. Knuth, provides a good example spiced with some wry humour. However its purpose is more pedagogical, providing an example of a flowchart, than instructional.

The technology for constructing simple nonlinear stories is hypertext. At some point in the text the reader has an opportunity to click on a hyperlink and follow the text on that page rather than continue to read the text on the current page. At the foot of a page several alternative paths can be offered. Students need only to be able to understand basic HTML Tags familiar from the web-authoring exercises above.

Books have a closed quality. Literature in particular presents as a self-contained object. There are examples in literature of exploration outside this closed quality, such as the James Cary trilogy "Herself Surprised" in which three novels look at the same subject matter from the point of view of three characters. But even in the case of Cary's trilogy, each novel is self-contained and stands independently.

Web documents make use of the fact that the next page can just as easily be outside the author's ambit as inside. This document is an example. Web documents have an open structure. An open structure by itself may not be conducive to good storytelling which demands an opening, a development and a closure, but within this structure hypertext allows for an exploration of variable structure that cannot be delivered convincingly in a book.

A non-linear story needs to have its strands integrated on some level. The trick with hyperfiction is to choose a very loose structure in the story so that keeping the strands coordinated does not become a chore. Complex interrelating structure is better suited to writing as Interactive Fiction. A nonlinear story can be written to a loose format easily by using a subject such as:

The Haunted House

This format doesn't rely on narrative sequence, but rather on a variety of shock events as one moves through the rooms of a Haunted House. Being a Haunted House there does not need to be a strict physical relationship between rooms (pages) as there is in a real house. In addition there is a simple but handy trick: some pages can be made to be almost identical so that they represent the same room in different states, or Ghost room versions of the original room. The story consists of arriving at the door and exploring the house, exiting by the front door again. Upon entering there is a hallway and the first page involves walking the length of the hallway and back again to the front door, passing by rooms on each side of the hallway. The reader finishes the story at the foot of the first page, exiting by the front door. The reader may choose to enter a room. Events occur in the various rooms. Each room is handled the same way as the hall, by writing a sequence which performs a circumlocution of the room back to the first door.

The events that occur in each room don't really have to link up, but they could follow a theme that builds up a complex picture. There are thousands of themes. The trick is to find something that allows a theme to be expressed from a number of different points of view. Being a haunted house, the themes could be uniformly maudlin, but there are plenty of themes that can avoid death as a persistent element. Being a haunted house, noone expects anything to make sense; the comic, the dada and the surreal can be explored. Here are some sample themes, some about ghosts, some about living things, and of course the house can simply be empty but full of suggestive imagery.

Lewis Carrol's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is an obvious linear version of this kind of subject matter, but Carrol's theme was the different views that adults and children have of existential philosophy. He used "Down the Rabbit Hole" and "Through the Looking Glass" as his vehicles instead of a Haunted House. Other vehicles are "The Desert Island", "The Dragon's Cave", "The Forbidden Planet" and "The Magic Mountain". These titles will suggest famous works of literature, but it is important to remember that we are not attempting to present a coherent work with interrelating characters and action that resolves here. We are using this genre for its freedom from these constraints.

The Haunted House is also the title of a topic on creative writing for Y7-8. The goals of this topic, which emphasizes plot and character development, should not be confused with the use of this genre to explore loose structures in nonlinear narrative. However the use of illustrations on all these stories should be promoted, and they serve to break up the text so that following hyperlinks is more natural.

Multiple Perspectives

This document is an example of just such a multi-narrative book. Certain themes form strands which span the Chapters, such as this topic of writing stories, or tools for working with music or with images. The reader can follow these strands progressively missing out other aspects which are not of interest. This document is also open ended. Many links lead outside this document and into other websites that are organized according to an entirely different set of narrative strands. For instance Te Kete Ipurangi is structured according to curriculum strands, whereas this document is structured according to levels of ICT sophistication.

This observation opens the way to see how some nonlinear narratives can be written. It is possible to use the same content but access it in different ways. A story can be written from the point of view of the various characters in the story. Although they are present at the same events - they see different things, and interpret events differently. Much literature has been written along these lines but ultimately it is all defeated by the linear nature of the book (or movie) medium.

One way that this structure has been handled in the past is the Detective Genre. Here the Detective acts as the reader's agent, and interviews the witnesses, collecting their facets of memory of events to build up a complete picture, solve a problem and be able to see the whole story which none of the witnesses could see individually. The information provided can be muddied by misinformation just to make the reconstruction process a little more difficult.

Using nonlinear media, the need for the Detective intermediary can be dispensed with. We can simply observe the individual characters separately. This opens the way for explorations of events other than secretive murders.

Alternatively, this genre can use simple plot, and explore character more, perhaps in keeping with the style of Katherine Mansfield.

Interlocking Structure

If we try to develop more structure in the story: then the writer needs to plan structure carefully using flowchart techniques. This Pathways resource provides materials for learning how to use flowcharts to structure stories.


The Beacon School in the USA uses this material.
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