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Computer Courses in Finnish Schools, 1980–1995

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The early history of computers in Finnish schools occurred during the period 1978–1995. In high schools, courses were officially included in the curricula in 1982, while at the upper level of comprehensive school, computer courses started in 1987. This paper describes and analyzes the challenges and results of the first wave of computer education in the Finnish school system.
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J. Impagliazzo, P. Lundin, and B. Wangler (Eds.): HiNC3, IFIP AICT 350, pp. 150–158, 2011.
© IFIP International Federation for Information Processing 2011
Computer Courses in Finnish Schools, 1980–1995
Petri Saarikoski
Digital Culture, Degree Program in Cultural Production and Landscape Studies
PL 124, 28101 University Consortium of Pori, Finland
petsaari@utu.fi
Abstract. The early history of computers in Finnish schools occurred during
the period 1978–1995. In high schools, courses were officially included in the
curricula in 1982, while at the upper level of comprehensive school, computer
courses started in 1987. This paper describes and analyzes the challenges and
results of the first wave of computer education in the Finnish school system.
Keywords: Comprehensive schools, computer clubs, computer courses,
computer literacy, Finland, high schools, history of computer education.
1 Introduction
“Discussion about the computerization of our school system has mainly been
dominated by computer consultants and the computer industry. This has been affected
by the myth of the information society. It is regrettable that, in this way, parents and
teachers have suddenly and sadly lost their self-respect.”
The above sentences were included at the start of a research publication [1] written
by Jarkko Alajääski, Senior Lecturer of Didactics of Mathematics. The work, which
was published in the spring of 1987, strongly criticized the way in which computers
and information technology had so far been introduced into schools. In the late 1980s,
there were relatively few academic studies available about the use of computers in
Finnish schools. Some researchers had collected data and material from high schools
where computer teaching (more commonly known in the early 1980s as “teaching of
Automatic Data Processing” or more simply “ADP-teaching”) had started in the
1980s. The results had mainly been embarrassing; high school students and teachers
had declared that “ADP-teaching” did not work as the National Board of Education
had planned it [2].
In media publicity, the computerization of schools was more commonly associated
with “the computer literacy project.” I have studied the computerization of schools in
a couple of publications and partly in my doctoral thesis [3, 4, 2]. In this article, I
examine how the adoption of computers started in schools during 1980–1995. What
were the politics of this computerization project? In what ways were the interaction
between schools and computer clubs established? It is also important to study the
collaboration of teachers and pupils. What was the role of the ordinary pupil, seen as
an integral part of the computer culture, which was already taking shape?
Computer Courses in Finnish Schools, 1980–1995 151
2 Background of the Early Computer Courses
The teaching of data processing and information technology began in the Finnish
universities during the 1960s, and some basic courses were available in some schools
and institutes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Finland, this was combined with
the educational and do-it-yourself aspects of IT-learning. Early courses were usually
joint ventures between local schools, universities, and computer companies. This kind
of activity started in major cities, especially in the metropolitan area. Sources have
indicated that Tapiola co-educational school in Espoo offered ADP-courses already in
1965. This particular school was well known for its reformist curriculum and open-
mindedness towards the use of new technology. During these first experimental
courses, pupils had the opportunity to learn the basics of programming. After their
graduation, some of the more talented pupils started to study ADP at university [5, 6].
Computers and information technology, more generally, still had no official status
in the Finnish school system during the 1970s. ADP-teaching was only available in
some special courses and in unofficial computer clubs founded by some far-sighted
teachers. In fact, during the 1970s and early 1980s, ADP-teaching and the hobby of
microcomputers were socially and culturally very close to each other. However,
things had begun to change from the mid-1970s onwards. Finland was in a deep
economic depression during the late 1970s. Traditional heavy industry was in crisis
and companies were rapidly seeking solutions for production problems from
computerization, the use of electronics, and industrial automation. Economic life and
society was clearly changing. The policy of the information society was established
by the state and the usage of information technology was seen as part of everyday life.
This also meant fundamental challenges for the Finnish school system [7, 4].
The consultative committee for the development of ADP in Finnish society –
funded by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund – started a major research project in the
spring of 1977, in which the challenges and opportunities of IT in schools were
studied. The ulterior motive of this project was the formalization of ADP for the
Finnish school system. The research report published in 1978 indicated that there
were indeed many challenges; very few schools had computers or any other ADP-
infrastructure available. When the situation was compared to other Nordic countries,
the results showed that Finland’s readiness for ADP-education in schools was weak.
As a conclusion, the report proposed that drastic measures were necessary before the
first ADP-courses could be started. Primarily, this meant that schools were obligated
to purchase computers and other hardware. Computer training should also be arranged
for the teachers. According to the report, this reform was to be first started in high
schools and then in comprehensive schools. The proposal argued that from the
economic point of view, the fast computerization of high schools was realistic,
because in doing so learning results would be quickly utilized [8, 9].
The early 1980s was a crucial turning point for the Finnish school system. The
reform of the comprehensive school system, started in the 1970s, was already
completed, and the computerization of schools, initiated by the government, was a
major addition to the whole school system. This project was, in fact, a combination of
separate IT-projects that took place during the 1980s. The basic goal of each of these
projects was the foundation and maintenance of IT-infrastructure for the Finnish
educational sector. These projects had a clear and understandable connection to other
152 P. Saarikoski
similar projects that had started in the 1970s and 1980s in Europe (for example, in
Britain, France, and the Nordic countries). The concept of “computer literacy” was
very popular during the 1980s and it was mostly linked to the domestication of the
home computer. It had strong connections to the use of home computers during
leisure time, but also to the computerization of schools. A typical early adopter of
computer literacy was the computer hobbyist. The concept became common during
the late 1970s, but it gained more popularity in the media during the early 1980s. The
whole concept, and especially its media exposure, was the counterpart of a similar
kind of public discussion that was going on in Europe at the same time. The best-
known example was Britain’s “The Computer Literacy Project,” started by the
Ministry of Education in the late 1970s and early 1980s [10, 11].
In Finland, the concept of “literacy” has a very strong connection to the emergence
of the welfare state after World War II. Free education provided by the state became
the very cornerstone of Finnish society. Therefore, in Finland, “literacy” was both a
privilege and an obligation at the same time. This evocative concept was also
analyzed in the media by a series of experts, who underlined that in coming decades
the knowledge and mastery of computers was to become a strong part of general
education. This marks the point at which computers came to be seen as a tool in the
education of youth and children, making it possible for them to acquire the basics of
computer literacy that were to be so valued in the future. This is, of course, only a
generalization. Families typically bought their first home computers as a leisure tool
for technically-oriented boys. On the other hand, the early 1980s was a period
characterized by a strengthening of the optimistic, symbolic meanings associated with
home computers [12, 2]. The concept of computer literacy has similarities to the
concept of digital literacy, which became popular during the first decade of the
twenty-first century [13].
In addition, the concept of computer literacy linked closely to the emergence of the
microcomputer hobby and the opening of home computer markets during the early
1980s. Unofficial computer clubs in schools were also part of this development.
These clubs operated like earlier technically oriented clubs founded by radio amateurs
and electronics enthusiasts [3]. The importance of these clubs was also noticed in
reports published by the Ministry of Education. Such clubs became important staging
posts in some schools before the official introduction of ADP-courses.
The official start of computerization in schools offered new markets for the
computer industry. Computer systems, designed for educational purposes and home
computing, were also manufactured and designed in the Nordic countries. Perhaps the
best-known example was the ABC80 microcomputer engineered by the Swedish
corporation Dataindustrier AB (DIAB) and manufactured by Luxor. The growth of
the educational computer market was also noticed in Finland, and sources indicate
that the Finnish IT-industry was also interested in starting its own serial production of
home computers. Nokia became the most successful manufacturer of microcomputers
in Finland during the 1980s and early 1990s. The Nokia MikroMikko series was sold
to industry, schools, and households [14, 3].
In Finland, the number of computer systems ordered by schools increased slowly,
but in 1980 and 1981, computerization began to escalate, when more state aid was
available. In 1979, one high school out of ten had purchased computers and associated
peripherals, but in 1981, almost 33 percent of high schools had some sort of
Computer Courses in Finnish Schools, 1980–1995 153
ADP-infrastructure. Furthermore, in high schools, ADP-courses were officially
included in the curricula in 1982 and, during the autumn term of the same year, ADP-
courses were arranged in 320 high schools, which comprised almost 70 percent of all
upper secondary schools. During the following spring term, almost 87 percent of all
high schools could arrange ADP-courses. In the autumn term of 1983, ADP-teaching
was offered in practically every Finnish high school. The National Board of
Education calculated that about one third of upper secondary students took a
computer course as a free elective [2, 9].
The most popular computers used in high schools during these years were ABC80,
Apple II, Nokia MikroMikko, and AMC-100, which the National Board of Education
recommended. The machines usually operated with 32–128 kB memory and the most
common operating system was CP/M, provided by Digital Research. Furthermore, the
most typical computer system was AMC-100, manufactured by Finnish Auditek. One
AMC-100 classroom system consisted of one minicomputer for the teacher, six
terminals for pupils, educational software, and associated peripherals, which
constituted extremely expensive investments for high schools [12, 9].
3 Finnish Model for Computer Education
The ADP-education of institute members had many problems right from the start. The
main problem was that in the 1980s, educational software support was very weak.
There was also a lack of decent course material and difficulties with teacher training.
In most of the cases, teachers had no other alternative than to start courses with the
programming exercises. BASIC programming language was widely criticized for
dominating the computer curriculum. Many IT-experts criticized these courses for
having no real value in working life, where the need for skilled ADP-workers was
growing all the time. These problems were also noticed by the Ministry of Education,
but the lack of extra resources and relatively bureaucratic policymaking, led to the
situation in which most of the problems remained unsolved [15]. ADP-courses were
mostly successful if teachers were motivated and had taken part in the education
provided in computer clubs. Most of these teachers were also computer hobbyists who
also quickly learned that it was more effective and affordable to buy home computers
for classrooms. For example, Commodore Vic-20 and especially Commodore 64,
both very successful home computers in computer clubs, were purchased for some
schools. In this way, computer clubs were also established in some comprehensive
schools [16–19].
During the 1980s, a characteristic of the Finnish “computer education model” was
that computers did not belong to the lower level of the comprehensive school. In
reports and memoranda produced by the Ministry of Education, there are still
references to experts who recommended that some sort of ADP-education should be
available at the lower level of the comprehensive school. However, these
recommendations were mostly ignored when plans for the computerization of the
upper level of comprehensive schools began in 1984 [20, 6].
On 12 October 1984, ADP was officially accepted as a free elective in the new
reform order for the Finnish comprehensive school (which was roughly translated in
the late 1980s simply as “Computer course”). The curriculum for these new computer
154 P. Saarikoski
courses was mainly planned by the “Tietokone opetuksessa” (Computing at School)
working committee. The first draft was presented in the spring of 1985. It had several
interesting features, for example, the working committee insisted that the mistakes
made in high schools should be avoided. This meant the reduction of the importance
of programming languages. The draft included several modules: the basics of
computer use, information networks, programming, and computer-aided education.
The latter module included the idea that teachers could use computer software in
drawing and language courses. BASIC was still considered a good option for the
programming module, but the committee recommended that simpler LOGO
programming language should be included as an alternative. The most ambitious idea
of these first drafts was that in future years all school courses could be computer-
aided, the long-term elaboration of which was left open [2, 6].
During 1985–1987, the state gave special funding to ten schools where computers
had been partly used in unofficial computer clubs. The best-known examples include
the computer club of Herttoniemi Primary School (started in 1984) from Helsinki and
the computer club of Uomarinne Primary School (started in 1985) from Vantaa
(Fig.1). Computer courses officially began at the upper level of comprehensive school
during the autumn term of 1987 (eighth grade) and the autumn term of 1988 (ninth
grade). 20 percent of municipalities postponed the start for one year and, according to
some statistics, about 60 percent of pupils did choose the computer course during
1988–1989. The computerization of Finnish society had clearly put some demands on
the Finnish school system. The first waves of the home computer boom were already
starting to diminish in 1985–1987, but PC-microcomputers, more common in
business use, had clearly gained some foothold in consumer markets. In this way, PC,
an industry standard, was slowly but steadily becoming the most common computer
platform in households and schools. The National Board of Education decided that
schools should primarily purchase MS-DOS -compatible PCs, and by the spring of
1988, some eight thousand microcomputers were available in schools, although only
half were PCs. These new instructions were criticized because PC-compatible
microcomputers were usually very expensive. Schools had already saved money when
they had purchased affordable home computers. It is interesting that this politically
and technically motivated decision also helped Nokia to increase the sale of
MikroMikko computers to schools [21–25, 6].
The time schedule for the launch of computer teaching in comprehensive schools
was extremely tight and criticism of the politics of computerization was growing in
1987, as Jarkko Alajääski’s study had shown. Some of the teachers and researchers
were very skeptical about the successful embrace of the new computer education
program [1]. Insufficient teacher training was a major problem; most of the teachers
started their first computer course after only one week of training. Pekka Lehtiö, who
was involved with the Computing at School working committee, had later stated in an
interview that the National Board of Education had a clear tendency to statistically
show that there were more and more computers in schools and the Finnish school
system was therefore being updated to meet the demands of the information society.
On the other hand, little attention was being paid to the implementation of the
curriculum itself [22]. This once again created problems at the grass root level of
computer education.
Computer Courses in Finnish Schools, 1980–1995 155
Fig. 1. Sixth grade pupils, from Uomarinne primary school in Vantaa, using Commodore 64 at
their school’s computer club (spring 1987). Courtesy of A-lehdet.
During the late 1980s, the lack of decent educational software and course material
was a continuous problem. Once again, programming exercises played an important
part in most of the computer courses. Some of the problems can be explained by
teaching politics; computer courses were mostly given to the teachers of mathematics
and physics. The Trade Union mostly backed this policy for Teachers of Mathematics
and Physics (“Matemaattisten Aineiden Opettajien Liito,” MAOL) [22]. This might
have given a boost to the mathematically oriented “teaching philosophy;” if computer
literacy was the essential ability of the information society, then programming was its
official language.
The expensive license fees can partly explain the lack of decent software.
Programming languages remained in the curriculum most of the 1990s, but were
slowly substituted for the computer-aided teaching methods. This was also a time of
growth for educational software systems, primarily due to the advent of more
affordable computers and the Internet. For example, pupils could try out Visual Basic
programming environments later, in connection with their education. Pascal
programming language has also been used in the illustration of programming
principles. This education has undoubtedly been particularly useful for the technical
and mathematical oriented high school students. The technical simplicity of LOGO
programming language has also extended its life cycle. In Finland, LOGO is still
occasionally used in teacher education [2].
Although computer courses were less technically oriented in the late 1980s and
early 1990s than in the early 1980s, sources indicate that learning results were
controversial. While some of the pupils had difficulties in following the teaching
because they had absolutely no foreknowledge of computer use, some of the computer
hobbyists, typically boys, could feel that course exercises were too easy. In
156 P. Saarikoski
questionnaires and interviews collected some fifteen years later, informants criticized
these computer courses. Some of them thought that the teachers had not enough
experience and that the pupils knew more about the subject than their instructors [26].
These levels of difference between user generations and groups had already been
common in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first computer courses became available.
There are also examples where informants criticized the authority of teachers; pupils
were instructed to strictly follow the course exercises and not to try anything
independently. On the other hand, there are also a number of neutral examples where
computer courses in schools were classified as the first steps towards more advanced
computer education. When teachers were motivated and pupils had the ability to co-
operate, learning results were even better. The usability of computer courses
improved when word processing, spreadsheets, computer graphics, music, and even
games became more common in the curriculum during the 1990s. During these years,
computers were also more widely introduced into the lower level of comprehensive
school [27, 2]. Despite advances in computer education, the challenges and problems
continued in the 1990s. The economic depression in Finland had a severe negative
effect on the Finnish school system. During 1991–1995, schools had less money for
the purchase of new computers, associated peripherals, and software. A major turning
point occurred in 1995 when the government started to intensify information society
programs [28].
During these years, the emergence of information networks began to increase.
Already in the late 1980s, some pupils and students were also active users of
information networks, such as BBS (Bulletin Board System) and several other
systems. BBS networks were especially important in Finland before the country was
connected to the Internet in the late 1980s. This tradition also continued in the 1990s,
when the culture of information networks began to spread. In universities and other
institutions, local networks were important points of connection for hobbyists,
students, and professionals of information technology. These socially constructed
networks led to more benefits and more use. The short cultural history of this
development includes the communal spirit and mutual support of USENET, BBS, and
the early Internet, in general, and leads into the Open Source movement as its
contemporary successor [4].
4 Conclusion
In the late 1980s, the prominence of information technology was contradictory in the
Finnish society. The domestication of microcomputers was more clearly regarded as
an integral part of the Finnish society, but there was still a wide discussion about the
purpose and usability of information technology. The early years of computer literacy
and information technology in Finnish schools were challenging in many ways.
Computerization started hastily and led to several problems. For policymakers, it was
easy to show that the computerization project was advancing, because computer
hardware was being steadily purchased for schools. Nevertheless, there were
indications that too little attention was being paid to the implementation of the
curriculum itself. Insufficient teacher training was one of the main problems, and for
some pupils, parts of the curriculum modules also had an orientation that was too
Computer Courses in Finnish Schools, 1980–1995 157
technical. In addition, the programming language was widely criticized for
dominating the curriculum. Still, for many pupils, these initial computer courses were
the first opportunity to learn the basics of computing, when the domestication of
computers was in its early stages.
On the other hand, computer hobbyists could feel that courses were too simple or
they had other motivation problems regarding the authoritarian teacher. In recent
studies [4], I have noticed that some of the “success stories of computer education”
have links to the unofficial computer clubs. During the 1980s, these clubs also had
links to the culture of computer hobbyists, who created a range of subcultures, where
different kinds of communities began to emerge. Networks of these communities
formed a very strong social base for the emergence of the computer culture of the
1990s.
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