Before iPads

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The culture of progressive American families was a driving force behind the development of children’s instruments of play incorporating the dual purpose of learning. These instruments were children’s literature, learning toys, and educational television. This helped to establish that learning and play was a successful component of educating young children. The creators of early learning software believe it was important to develop software that would engage the interest of children. If the learning games were not interesting or they did not motivate interaction, then these tools were unsuccessful. The early computers functioned as tools for the businesses and the military. They were not originally introduced for everyday families and certainly not for children. But early on as computers developed it became obvious that this exciting technology would stimulate young minds to higher learning. In addition, access to the World Wide Web opened a plethora of opportunities for the consumer, which has grown exponentially over the past few decades.

Children’s software and mobile applications were rooted in the desire to make education fun for children. This is what spurred the early programming languages for children and continues in today’s software applications. As technology advanced it caused an obvious impact on children’s programming creating advanced interactive media whose functions could accomplish learning and playing. Even though learning dominated the industry of children programming, the introduction of mobile applications, utility of android smartphones, and the Apple iPad gaming and entertainment took its position if not in front of education, at least next to it. Children not even out of their diapers yet are enthralled with being able to swipe their fingers across a digital screen and play.

Alan Kay and Dynabook

Children’s computers, mobile apps, gaming, learning, and all the other current and future hardware and software all begin with the innovative ideas of an American computer scientist. His idea of computers for all children was promoted during the late 1960s. His name is Alan Kay, which is not immediately familiar outside of the computing community. However, Kay’s concept is the catalyst for what is seen today in the hardware and mobile applications for children. His ideas were ahead of time as he envisioned a computer with a utility that could capture the attention and imagination of young children. Kay’s research introduced a computer language which he intended to be manipulated to create his own version of the laptop computer.

Kay was born May 17, 1940, in Springfield, Massachusetts. However, he spent his childhood in Austria with his parents. The onset of World War II prompted Kay’s family to move back to the United States when he was three years old. By then Kay knew how to read and write and had already read one-hundred-fifty books (Gasch, 2005). Kay was an accomplished jazz guitarist and played professionally for several years; most likely he was influenced by his mother, an artist, and musician. When Kay joined the U.S. Air Force his affinity with computer language began. Discovered during the aptitude test, Kay found out that he had a talent for computers. When he left the U.S. Air Force he graduated with a degree in Math and Molecular Biology. He then attended the University of Utah where he studied Electrical Engineering (Gasch, 2005). It was in Utah that he discovered the Sketchpad program and Simula programming language. Drawing from his analytical mathematics skill and his background in biology, Kay sought to combine the idea that a computer could behave like a living form able to work within a body and also alone. The principle influence for changing how Kay envisioned programming was when associate scientist Seymour Papert used a computer language called Logo that enabled children to program. The idea that children could actually program was fascinating, and Kay went on to experiment with programming languages and eventually wrote Smalltalk, an “object-oriented programming language” (Gasch, 2005). As a Xerox consultant, Kay continued his argument for a computer device for children. He had an idea for a model he named Dynabook, unfortunately, the technology to support this had not been invented. However, Kay along with Chuck Thacker built an interim model and called it the Alto, although not very successful in the commercial market, it was the first “network personal computer” (Gasch, 2005). The Alto utilized the fundamentals of the graphic user interface (GUI) a trailblazer of this function in 1972. Xerox chose not to invest in Kay’s ideas for the Dynabook; however, others who saw the Alto and the programming capability of Smalltalk were excited. Kay laid the groundwork for the next steps in the development of laptop computers and tablets.

Kay’s vision for computing and education was a merged product designed specifically with children in mind. In 1972 Kay authored the article “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages” (Kay, 1972). The learning process of children was very important to Kay. He envisioned children as intuitive students using technology to stimulate the process of learning. He compared personal computers to books, which if opened would introduce the world in a compact way that otherwise would not be accessible. In Kay’s 1972 article, he displayed a drawing of two children sitting in the grass with what appeared to be a tablet computer. These handheld devices had no wires or cables attached to them; they were free handheld devices.

Kay’s vision incorporated the utility of today’s learning environment as he created a scenario between the two children Jimmy and Beth. Jimmy needed to find some information to answer a question about speed and the sun. Their instructor gave them a hint to try the library. Jimmy proceeded to use his Dynabook to access the local library to research his topic (Kay, 1972). When Jimmy found something interesting that he wanted to review later, he simply copied it to his Dynabook. The scenario sounds remarkably similar to what children in the twenty-first century are accomplishing today. Kay’s foresight into today’s computing landscape was amazing. He also saw Dynabook as a tool for adults to include business applications as well as personal. He continued his story with Jimmy’s dad, while on a plane with his Dynabook personal computer he downloaded a video he wanted to see just before the plane took off. Kay’s Dynabook offered flexibility and innovation as one of its features was the user’s ability to program software. This could be compared to building advance macros on excel worksheets. At any rate, adding the ability to program on personal computers promoted a higher performance of problem-solving tools for the end-user.

The similarity of tablets and the iPad cannot be ignored. In 1970 a touch screen was developed by the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated) a group of research scientists. As a founding member of Xerox PARC, Kay was at the forefront of their innovative technological accomplishments. This group contributed significantly to the development of computer technology. They are also responsible for the Ethernet, the Laser Printer, and the mouse, and as mentioned before the GUI. These technologies were developed in the 1970s (Galwell, 2011). Anyone involved in computers was interested in what was going on behind the doors of PARC and Steve Jobs was no exception. Already making credible headway with Apple I and Apple II computers he was astounded by the capabilities of the Alto personal computer designed by the PARC team. After Jobs experienced mouse technology, menus, and windows on the Alto, he wanted to make a better version resulting in the groundbreaking launch of the Macintosh computer (Galwell, 2011). As with the first of anything, the second ones are usually better unless it is a sequel to a really great movie. Karl Benz built the first automobile, but Henry Ford capitalized on the mass production of them. Jobs, in essence, did the same thing with the Macintosh and later the iPad. Xerox had the technology but did foresee its marketability to the general public.

Kay is first and foremost a scientist who is passionate about the learning capabilities of children. He could have developed the Dynabook, however, he believes there is a significant difference between entrepreneurs and scientists. His goal, before capitalism, is to retain the ability to create and invent (Galwell, 2011). Kay was very enthusiastic about learning and was very connected to the students and children he wanted to enlighten. While the iPad has some of the features Kay saw for his Dynabook, it falls short of the far-reaching goals of self-computing and programming.

Educating, Play, and Software Development

Software developers were often participants of the educational system, so teaching and helping children understand the importance of learning was a priority over play in their software offerings. The Plato system and the Wicat were first-generation computer learning tools for children (Mizuko, 2009). The Learning Company (TLC) was founded in 1979 by Ann McCormick which focused on software directed towards learning and replaced Plato and Wicat. TCL programming interaction was more in line with what was happening in the video game market with the release of the video game Space Invaders in 1978 introduced by Atari. However, McCormick who was an educator prior to becoming a software developer directed her children’s software towards learning. She was careful to ensure that these tools were goal focused on developmental learning. However, the interaction and level-oriented Space Invader video game was a component of her software learning environment. Ito noted that these types of children’s software were called edutainment, a combination of education and entertainment. Parents and teachers were convinced that if children were going to actively participate in these learning tools that they had to enjoy the process. Therefore, TLC released a line of software learning games, “Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, Reader Rabbit, KidPix,” and “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego” (Mizuko, 2009, p. 5). These learning games were very popular and successfully created a market for elementary children-focused software computer games.

The educational aspect of learning through a computer-based program was exciting for teachers, parents, and students. The 1980s and 1990s were productive years for the development of programs for middle-class families who were financially sound and could afford the investment of a computer. They saw this as healthy entertainment with a purpose; an alternative to watching television. Developers were anxious to accommodate this new market for products directed toward children and learning. Educational institutions saw this new technology as a way to enhance their curriculum and make it a more interactive learning environment for their students. The ability to make graphically exciting characters with bold bright colors visually catering to the sensibility of very young children created a dynamic platform for innovative learning options for children. The visibility translated easily into a platform that incorporated some of the adventure aspects of current gaming trends (Mizuko, 2009). For example, the hierarchy of play was implemented so that when levels were achieved there would be some type of reward such as bonus points. The goal was to blend the elements of play and learning together to create a user-friendly product. This technology was well-received, and throughout the 1990s learning technologies did well. However, several small companies such as McCormick’s TLC were sold several times, and her vision for the company of putting learning before profits were reversed with business success taking over as the priority. By the end of the 1990s only two prominent manufacturers were left, Mattel and Cendant. Since innovation and creativity in software development was not at the forefront, the sales of children’s software dramatically declined from 498 million in 2000 to 152 million in 2004 (Mizuko, 2009). Even though the highly successful Leapfrog children’s computer was introduced in 1999 there was a gap in the development of children’s software from a creative and innovative standpoint. This is most likely one of the reasons the Leapfrog product sold as aggressively as it did, not very many competitors. This created a hole in the development of progressive learning technologies for children during this period.

Creative learning has been a strategy since the 1970s in the programming objectives of public television aimed at preschoolers. Educators discovered early on that children responded to interactive learning. The 1980s produced CD Rom technology and this enabled enhanced graphics and other know-how resulting in better gaming and learning software. Middle-class families whose objectives were a learning-based and organized play is why learning-focused software continued to be developed. The demand had to be met. McCormick consistently pushed for learning software and while at TLC as she introduced several programs designed to be used on a computer versus a gaming module. These games were specifically designed for what was considered the good digital screens, computer monitors versus the bad digital screens used in gaming. Her software had names such as “Gertrude’s Puzzles” and “Rocky Boots.” Joining McCormick was the University of Minnesota introducing software titles of “Oregon Trail” and “Numbers Munchers.” Jan Davidson in 1983 founded her company and introduced software titled “Math Blaster,” and it remains a strong selling product today (Mizuko, 2009). This helps to achieve the goal of parents to promote good media for their children, as opposed to the bad media of television. The 1980s and 1990s were fertile ground and entire programming departments were dedicated to the development of educational software. Experiments at learning institutions such as the 5th Dimension, an anthropology project of Ito, and the Los Angeles Open School helped to facilitate the development of learning software. Bank Street College developed its own software for its own alternative learning institution. Kay was also involved with the Los Angles Open School (Mizuko, 2009). Apple also had its classrooms facilitating software growth of learning directed software.

The trend to saturate the market with educational products continued throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. Parents that read PC Magazine and geared their children towards goal-focused learning were the target audience of software marketing. These were usually white middle-class families and were the target audience of “Knowledge Adventure’s software Jump Start” (Mizuko, 2009, p. 44) advertising campaign in a December 2000 advertisement in PC Magazine. The Jump Start software advertisement associated self-esteem and character with success. The ad copy read, according to Ito, “When kids succeed, they feel confident. When they feel confident, they succeed. This is how Jumpstart works. And why so many parents think it’s the best learning software you can buy” (p. 44). Very different from today’s marketing messages which are aimed more toward children, versus these early messages which were directed toward parents. This proved to be an excellent strategy because parents were convinced that these learning games were critical to their children’s academic success, and they, in turn, convinced their children that these games were fun to play. Games like “Math Blaster” were created to make difficult mathematics classes fun and better understood. Parents were anxious for their children to perform well and believed these learning play tools gave them an advantage.

The growth of children’s software is highly attributable to marketing messages directed at parents of middle-class America. However, with the introduction of CD-ROM and its enhanced colors and graphics, another type of gaming developed that was more entertainment than learning. Brøderbund Software Company was started by Gary and Douglas Carlston from their home in 1980. They were among the first to develop educational games on for multi-media computers. Their most popular multi-media game was, “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” (Mizuko, 2009, p. 85). Gary Carlston in an interview said that this game grew out of his software developer’s curiosity about geography. The fact that it also became popular educational software for children was a surprise. Brøderbund went on to develop other multi-media children software under the titles of “Just Grandma and Me” and “Myst (p. 85).” These titles are still sold on the market today. Videos of the software can be viewed on YouTube.

The Predecessors of the Tablet

Now that tablets are here, and some children think that it has always been that way, anyone over thirty understands that this is not the case, and those that are older remember when the Apple II was introduced and are amazed at how far computer technology has come. But what were the tools of the first tablet? How far back does its innovation go? In 1888 Elisha Gray invented and patented the Telautograph (Lammle, 2012). Gray was an electrical engineer and is one of the founders of Western Electric Manufacturing Company. He is said to have invented the telephone first and fought Alexander Graham Bell for the patent. To Gray’s credit as an American inventor, he developed over 70 products (Lammle, 2012). The Telautograph facilitated signatures or drawings to be transmitted over a distance using a pen. Not only did it introduce an early generation of the stylus pen, but it also was the prototype of the first fax machine. In 1964 the Rand Corporation sold a 10 inch by 10-inch Rand Tablet that utilized a pen to activate its applications. The corporation introduced the tablet as a man-made device; it was very expensive and cost $18,000. Therefore, its commercial usefulness was limited. Apple in 1979 introduced a graphic tablet as a companion of the Apple II computer. This device came with a connected stylus pen for drawing and the drawing could then be uploaded to the Apple II. However, its success was also short-lived because the technology used to develop it interfered with radio frequencies. The evolution of the current day tablet is seen in the KoalaPad introduced in 1984. This was a drawing pad that could be used with a stylus pen or fingers. This is the most successful commercial tablet (Lammle, 2012). It was compatible with Apple II, IBM and other market PCs of this time. KoalaPainter software was sold with the KoalaPad.

Computer portability was the obvious next step in the continuing tablet evolution. In 1981 the Osborne 1 Portable Computer was developed. It was a large commercial success because everything was bundled together. It had two floppy drives and sold for just over $1800 and also came with $1500 worth of free software. The computer was twenty-four pounds. One of its major shortcomings was the 5-inch computer screen which could only display 54 characters at a time (Osborne Computer Company, 2013). Adam Osborne was the founder of the Osborne Corporation and was responsible for introducing the first portable computer. Unfortunately, Osborne’s premature announcement in 1982 of the Executive model, an upgrade from Osborne 1, caused the sales of Osborne 1 to disappear causing the company to eventually file bankruptcy. While the Osborne was portable, in a heavy sort of way, the first actual laptop introduced in 1982 was the Epson HX-20 which retailed for a lot less at $800. It weighed only 4 pounds and came with a CMOS 8-bit microprocessor, used microcassette tapes, and boasted an internal clock. The screen was very small and could only display 4 lines of text and no more than twenty characters per line. However, this was the largest screen of the time. Epson’s website still has the specs and the user manual available on-line. In 1989 Atari introduced the first handheld device, the Atari Portfolio. This device used the MS-DOS operating system. It was not the first computer the same size as a VHS tape, but it had the most utility and was priced right at $400. The evolution of the stylus application and the portability of computers led way for the next generation of devices. The first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) device was introduced in 1993. The initial Apple Newton PDA could be used as scratch paper to write down ideas or to take notes at meetings. Users could update their phone books and use other calendar options. However, this particular brand had some bad press and did not take off as it should have, and only lasted in the market a few years. However, the idea of the PDA caught on. In 1994 IBM launched the SIMON PDA. This was an expensive device with smartphone attributes selling for almost $900 dollars. It had the capability to send and check e-mails and make and receive phone calls. It also had a full-sized QWERTY keyboard. Because of the price tag, this PDA did reach commercial success; however, its successor the Palm Pilot 1000 did (Lammle, 2012). It was developed in 1996 as a digital organizer with memory and its ability to sync to personal computers made it a very popular device. This device included compatible appointment and calendar software of the day (Kairer, 2006). Later, the GRiDpad was developed in 1989 by Jeff Hawkins who at the time worked at GRiD, and is known as the first actual tablet computer, and was designed on a 3.3 MS-DOS operating system. This tablet did not have a floppy drive, but it had slots for two memory cards. This is the forerunner to the memory cards in tablets and cell phones. The information on GRiDpad since it was on the MS-DOS operating systems could talk to other computers, so linking and sharing information was possible. It had a 10-inch touch screen and could only be operated with a stylus pen. The keyboard can be viewed on the touch screen and this device also had the option of connecting an external keyboard. These predecessors, the early stylus pen, the portable computers, including the first laptop and PDA devices are forerunners for twenty-first-century computing technology. The stage has been set for the beloved iPad and numerous brands of Tablets.

Instant Technology

Education is still the driver for developing great children’s software programming. The conversion of entire school districts to computerized learning is occurring at breakneck speed in many educational environments. And it is not just at the preschool and elementary levels. Educators are interested in ways to help make learning interesting and to encourage active learning. The need for teaching methods coincides with the growth of android smartphones. In the article “From Chalkboards to Tablets: The Digital Conversion of the K-12 Classroom” reminded readers of the very first Net Day, which involved volunteers across American installing CAT-5 cable so that internet access would be available in schools (From chalkboards to tablets: The digital conversion of the 12-K classroom, 2013). The students are very involved in bringing the latest available technology into the classroom. They actively are participating in how they want to study and are bringing social media, games and mobile devices in the classroom.

Digital conversion in the classroom can mean that using textbooks in the traditional sense will change. Parents are helping to facilitate the conversion to digital literacy and learning. They are very supportive, not only with their resources, but they also donate time and offer innovative ideas. Parents have been instrumental in helping schools and entire school districts be more aggressive in moving forward with what they believe will enhance their children’s learning experience. The students understand the digital move, as they are living in a digital environment independent of the school. They would like to see technology in school keep up with the technological advances they use in everyday life. Why only use online libraries and databases from home when this technology should be available at school as well?

The 2012 study of digital conversion in today’s public school determined that adherence to “the Common Core State Standards” are mandatory for success (From chalkboards to tablets: The digital conversion of the 12-K classroom, 2013). The standards are basically the agreement to prepare students to successfully enter institutions of higher learning. How this is achieved is by using multiple teaching tools, including communicating by using mobile devices including the smartphone. Educators should make full use of technology such as texting to communicate with students outside the classroom. Make joining a social media group a learning experience. Students who are in grade K-12 their next steps are college and beyond and joining a professional website as a starting point to learn proper internet etiquette is a good idea. As school technology budgets are decreasing, teachers and administrators must be open to other ways to use current technology. Most likely the most underutilized media is the smartphone or the iPhone. Even in the urban community, over 75% of the parents have a smartphone and over 50% have a tablet (p. 7). Schools must work around the lack of funding and relax the restrictions of bringing electronic devices to schools. This is a way to get students involved in learning and also make them feel as though they are contributing to the process. “Over one-third of parents (37 percent) now say that they would like their child’s teacher or school to communicate with them via text messaging; only 5 percent held that same view just two years ago” (p. 8). Text communications between teachers, parents, students are a non-obtrusive way to connect. Digital conversion prepares students not only to be successful in advance education pursuits but also as they enter the workforce.

Now that big brother and sister are learning technology innovations, the software and hardware for their younger siblings are continuing to evolve. The Fuhu Company developed the Nabi, which is the first Android Tablet for children. In 2011, Fuhu sold 1.2 million devices (Helm, 2013). The Nabi comes complete with applications both learning and fun-based. However, the designers at Fuhu take the Nabi a step further by making it a useful device for parents as well. The Nabi has built-in technology to help encourage completion of everyday chores and tasks. Children are reminded to go to sleep on time and to clean up their bedroom and if these chores are performed then the children are rewarded with Nabi coins to buy more apps. Fuhu boasts that parents love these applications.

The affair with tablets was a gradual one. The conversation turned a little more serious in 2009 when computer manufactures started getting close to actually introducing the product. People were excited about them but not really sure how to use them. As previously discussed, other tablets were introduced but did not gain the popularity their developers had hoped. Tablet PCs materialized at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This was a few years after products like GRidPAD and other pen computers did not do well in the consumer computer market. However, computer manufacturers were hopeful with the next wave of tablet PCs because of advances in technology. The old CRT screen which offered limited color options is no match for its successors. With the flexibility, user-friendly nature of touch screens, and their high-resolution capabilities, these next-generation tablets are positioned to be a successful product. The wireless capability adds another dimension of personal utility. This new tablet will appeal to businesses, just as computers do, and developers hope that everyone has to have one. In 2010 the iPad was introduced with phenomenal success.

Children are enthralled with handheld touch screen devices. Those as young as two years old grab their parent’s iPad to find the Angry Birds application to play with. It is as though they have been programmed for technology. The bright interactive screens, the ability for children to see and experience what just swiping their little fingers across the interactive screens will do, are enough to keep children wanting more. Kay’s vision for personal computers as a foray into the world is a reality. Using tablets as learning tools for children is one of its most valued uses as it changes the way that children learn. The ability to reach the world from any location is amazing. Children are interacting with other children from around the world with online learning tools and games that include team-building skills.


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