April Fools' Day: Laughing at the Earliest in Edtech

In honor of the most humorous of holidays, join Remake Learning on a trip down edtech memory lane.

Looking for the latest in edtech? You’ve come to the right place. We’ve heard word of a new computer game whose goal is to build a “kicking machine.” And another where the player types a letter of her choice and watches a nearly static illustration appear just moments later.

Um . . . April Fools’! Next to the 3-D printers and lifelike simulations of today, these products may sound like jokes. But just a few decades ago, they were at the cutting edge of education technology. In honor of the most humorous of holidays, join Remake Learning on a trip down edtech memory lane.

STICKYBEAR ABC Stickybear ABC, a game released in 1984, conformed to a popular picture book structure: It aimed to teach the alphabet by pairing each letter with an illustration of an item that begins with it. A? Apple. B? Baseball. The machines of the 1980s offered a new level of interactivity that the analog format lacked. To play Stickybear ABC, a young person typed a letter of his or her choice, prompting one of the corresponding pictures to appear on the screen after several seconds of suspense. The illustrations were mildly animated and typically featured the titular character, a cartoon bear who’s still stars in contemporary software.

LOGO In the past few years, increasing numbers of schools and organizations are teaching coding to kids. But programming for the younger set is hardly a 21st-century invention. Back in 1967, Logo entered the scene. In the following several years, the educational programming language gained widespread use in schools. When students entered basic commands, a turtle-shaped icon responded. Players could direct the turtle to design various geometric shapes, hopefully picking up some math skills along the way.


Word Munchers, another early educational game. Photo/Ken Fagar

ROCKY’S BOOTS In Rocky’s Boots, a critically acclaimed game from 1982, the player’s avatar was an orange square. The player/orange square had to design a series of logic circuits. The end product? A “kicking machine,” or a mechanical boot that gave the boot to various objects on a conveyor belt. The logic circuits ensured the boot kicked only the desirable objects. When the player succeeded, an animated raccoon materialized and did a dance.

TYPO ATTACK When teenagers today are tasked with designing video games, they come up with complex narratives and stunning graphics. In 1982, kids had decidedly less to work with, but one 17-year-old managed to create a program on his ATARI Home Computer that earned him a $25,000 prize and was eventually used in schools. In David Buehler’s Typo Attack, users eradicated enemy letters by typing the correct key as they fell down the screen.

LAPTOPS IN SCHOOLS? It’s common these days for schools to instate one-to-one laptop programs, providing take-home devices to all students. In 1990, a class of lucky 10-year-old girls in Melbourne, Australia, pioneered such a program. When the fifth-graders at Methodist Ladies’ College received their laptops, they weren’t allowed to take them home for two weeks. First they had to learn maintenance and basic skills, like entering the date and time. An author who documented the experiment noted that one girl gleefully tricked her machine into thinking the date was different. Once the students were comfortable with the computers, the teachers got to work convincing their parents of the educational value of “using high-tech stuff.” 

In 1982, “The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog” was published. The delightful document was packed with predictions for the 21st century, including prophesies for education. The authors saw teachers inevitably replaced by robots. Of course, we’re far from such a scenario, but the rapid integration of digital tools in learning environments these days certainly raises fascinating questions about the roles of educators and parents in a quickly evolving ecosystem. We know the value of games-based learning (at least when the games look a bit more sophisticated than the programs described here) and equipping kids with STEAM skills and technical expertise. But technologists like Illah Nourbakhsh talk about ensuring digital learning sparks, rather than stifles, interpersonal connection and opportunities for educators.

Our last treasure from the recent past is a 1990 Apple promo video that envisions the classroom of the future. In it, teachers videochat and send each other “cyberlinks” to their lessons. It’s a surprisingly realistic portrait of the kind of fantastic fusion of education and technology we see today.

And one wonders what contemporary gadgets and games will end up on the April Fools’ Day blog post—or brain chip imprint—of 2050.

Published April 01, 2015