Five Reasons for Teaching the History of Computing

In general, computing history is seldom studied in official settings; incorporating history in computing classes frequently depends on the educators’ initiatives. Recently, several notable scholars have advocated the historical perspective as a vehicle for developing a broader understanding of computing (e.g., Tedre & Denning, 2021; Impagliazzo, 2020). It can bring authentic contexts to the computing topics and develop rich and inspiring meanings about the successes and failures of attempts to advance computing science and technology. This post provides educators with five key reasons for incorporating history into computing learning experiences.



[1] It’s Older Than Students Think: Every idea, system, and architecture has multiple millennia-long histories. For instance, if learners travel back in time, they will realize that the binary representation has roots tracing back thousands of years in various cultures and civilizations in areas such as divination systems and games (Tedre & Denning, 2021). Similarly, the core computational thinking concepts and capabilities listed in curricula have broad and deep histories. For example, using “algorithms” is at least dating back to the ancient Babylonians (Tedre & Denning, 2021; Rapaport, 2020). In fact, the original, eponymous usage of the term refers to the arithmetic methods created by Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian mathematician who lived approximately 1200 years ago (Rapaport, 2020).


[2] A Bigger Picture Approach: Consider the following inquiry for your students: Is the online world merely part of computing history, or of the broader history of sharing information, or telecommunication? While students go back and forth with possible solutions, they would be able to see the big pictures. Additionally, they will understand that inventions are constituted by histories of prior interactions and relationships between humans and nonhumans, matter, and epistemologies.


[3] The Necessity of Critical Thinking: Unfolding the many profound shifts from the past to the present will reinforce students’ critical thinking; students will be more likely to deal more critically with technological hypes (Impagliazzo, 2020). For example, if you addressed Turing’s classic 1950 paper on whether computers can think and relate his work to the advent of automated vehicles and “deep learning” algorithms, that might be biased. The experience may propagate students’ thinking about the ethical concerns currently addressed in countless resources. They may ponder urgent questions in the current scene: Would artificial intelligence present a risk we should not accept? Would such inventions put us in the position of being a Dr. Frankenstein? What would be the relationship of such creations to us? Would they have any rights or responsibilities?


[4] Avoid Mistakes of the Past: The Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes”. Embracing history in computing education teaches vital lessons and helps avoid repeating previous mistakes (Tedre & Denning, 2021). Consider for your students the case of “The Morris Worm, 1988” and how it changed the way people trust networks and the internet and led the way to the current world of cyber security. Discuss with students that those malicious codes will always be around and that coders will only change what motivates hackers to attack computer systems.


[5] Trial and Error Process: Computing advancement has depended on much trial and error; what appears to be a straightforward system today resulted from many years of experimentation (Tedre & Denning, 2021). Ignoring history prevents students from grasping the ideas that underpin the success of today's inventions. Consider for your students the famous story of Grace Hopper and the origin of the term computer bug. Relate this historical incident to explain the role of trial and error in solving computing problems and technology design.


In closing, embracing history to teach computing courses is a valuable endeavor (Impagliazzo, 2020). As students learn about and discuss the origins of the various computing practices, they will be able to see the wholeness of the field of computing and develop a broader understanding of our collaborations with other disciplines (Tedre & Denning, 2021). Furthermore, historical stories can add relevance to topics students learn and may support students’ interest in our professional careers (Tedre & Denning, 2021).


About the Author

Marwa Kotb is a programmer and a strong advocate for equity-oriented computer science education. With the aim of inspiring youth in an engaging, diverse, and culturally responsive programming learning experience, she is currently working at the intersection of CS training programs, ed-tech integration, and project management with various educational environments.


References

Impagliazzo, J. (2020). Why teach history of computing? Encyclopedia of education and information technologies (pp. 1786-1791). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-10576-1_57

Rapaport, W. (2020). Philosophy of Computer Science. Retrieved from https://cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/Papers/phics.pdf

Tedre, M & Dennings, P. (2021). Computational Thinking: A Professional and Historical Perspective. In Yadav, A., & Berthelsen, U. D. (Eds). Computational thinking in education: A pedagogical perspective (pp.1-17). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003102991