Fundamental Information Technology Concepts

(Prepared for, and at, the National Academy of Sciences Workshop on Information Technology Literacy, January 14-15, 1998, Irvine, California.)
Allen Klinger
UCLA, Los Angeles California 90095-1596

Author's Fields of Expertise: Pattern Analysis and Recognition Data Structures and Algorithms Human-Computer Interaction

0. Overview
This is a concept paper about the material that we should offer all individuals to enable them to work in a sophisticated way with information and computer technology. The author is a founding member of the Computer Science Department at UCLA, an organization that started in 1968. He has worked with computers since 1956, when analog computers were part of his laboratory work at the Cooper Union. He studied set and information theories at Caltech, getting the M.S. there in 1958. He learned to program in machine language at the System Development Corporation in 1959. The military digital computer he used there, the AN/FSQ-7 was used in the SAGE air defense system, and is now in the Computer Museum in Boston Massachusetts.

In addition to fundamental achievements in optimization, commencing with journal publication in 1964, he has written an encyclopedia article on data structures, and taught that and introductory programming courses at UCLA (Pascal) and the University of Hawaii (PL/1).

The following reflects views on teaching information technology based on a decades-long involvement with that field.

The call for papers, managerial efforts reflected in the appendix, and opportunity to participate in the workshop stimulated deeper reflection on expanded teaching efforts. A statement on my views is in the conclusion section.

Elementary items concerning literacy in computers also appear at the end of the appendix.

1. Concepts, Applications and Principles

This section follows the outline in the electronically-circulated call for paper submissions. Each of the following three sections begins with a brief statement. That is followed by a table of concepts with material about the age and education level, as well as a few ideas about a method to introduce the topic.

Six concepts appear in the first section on fundamental ideas. Three are present in the next part which concerns applications. Finally, two ideas are listed in the design principles section. That part concludes the discussion of concepts, applications and principles.

Concept Introduction-Age Educational-Level Introduction Method
Binary61st Grade Mankala, Checkers
ASCII126th Grade Cryptography
Hierarchy149th Grade Library Catalog
World-Wide-Web1510th Grade On-Line Research
Stored Program1611th Grade Calculate Sample Mean
Routing1712th Grade Telephone Numbers
Figure 1. Fundamental Information Technology Ideas

Concept descriptions

Binary: that switches have the ability to represent any numeral. That place notation is equivalent to computationally trading space and time (economical representation of decimal versus long binary strings). [At age 9 grade 4 expand to include Boolean.]

ASCII: that letters and punctuation signs can be put in correspondence with strings of relatively few binary numbers.

Hierarchy: that there is a nesting quality for many concepts, and that it is akin to finding a floor in a department store before finding the good sold there.

World-Wide-Web: that computers using communications links can transmit bursts of binary information and then process it locally to turn any connected processor into an information tool.

Stored Program: that evaluating what to do next is a capability of a machine, and that other parts of the same device can store the list of instructions.
Routing: that sequences of binary numerals can correspond to directions that a good can take through a connected network.

1b. Essential Applications of Fundamental Concepts

Although there are many applications of the fundamental concepts, only a few qualify as essential. Those that every information-technology aware individual should be educated in follow, along with the age for introduction or educational level achieved and some suggested ways to bring up the subject.

Concept Introduction-Age Educational-LevelIntroduction Method
Word processing149th Grade Book report(s), then compare two.
Web search138th Grade Geography lesson.
Efficiency1510th Grade Multiple alternatives.

Figure 2. Information Technology Literacy Applications

Concept descriptions

Word Processing: Word processing involves use of cut-and-paste, spell, string-search, and elementary formatting utilities (italics, bold, underlining; font-change in type style or size).

Web Search: Searching the world-wide-web uses the ASCII encoding of letters, numbers and
punctuation marks, as well as locators called pointers. Those addresses enable stored programs to operate on data stored at diverse places (and in devices with different access characteristics).

Efficiency: Comparison of multiple alternatives. This can be by means of a spreadsheet program or simpler quantitative computing, even via hand calculators. As advanced examples, routing has led to shipping efficiency and lowered cost of goods. The same can be said for information transmission over networked computers. There massive speed- and scale-increases enabled entirely new applications of computer technology.

1c. Essential Engineering and/or Information-Technology Design Principles

Essential engineering and design principles in information technology involve hierarchies of clients and devices. These can be conceived of us ranging from (at top) visual-textual-audio-human-computer-interaction, to (at bottom) the microcode computer-chip levels. These principles are best explained through introduction of diagrams and charts. Charts and diagrams refer to the use of block diagrams, feedback loops, Pert charts (planning and scheduling device), and signal-flow graphs.

Concept Introduction-Age Educational-Level Introduction Method
Charts, Diagrams1510th Grade Book outlines and course schedules.
Computer Chips1611th Grade Cyphers and codes; light switches.
Figure 3. Information Technology Literacy Design Principles
Concept descriptions

Charts, Diagrams: Representation of branching and information flow by graphical means. Indications of responses that are yes/no leading in different directions. Gain or amplification, information input, and combination of matter from different sources.

Computer Chips: The ideas of amplifying systems and multiple-state (multivibrator circuit) devices. Accumulation of many such items on an integrated circuit. A general idea that the number of items fabricated together, i.e., combinations of many switches and multipliers, has increased to the point where highly complex systems (formerly taking up significant space and power) can be placed on a small device.

2. Evolution

In a rapidly changing technical area it is surprising how much the concepts seem to be stable. I expect all of these essential concepts, applications, and engineering/design principles to change very little over time. The only forces in the evolution of information technology that could drive change here would be highly-sophisticated intelligent agents, software that would replace human knowledge of the working level of computing with automata. If that were to take over the pedagogical process should deal with the change by moving more rapidly into abstract concepts in data structures: lists and other hierarchic structures such as binary trees would have to be emphasized rather than the hardware.

The key question is how individuals could be taught to learn about computer use. Specifically, how much to focus on new applications, services, or software packages, and conversely what should be done to avoid that specialization. A good case can be made for emphasizing low-level use (email, library-record access) until the use of computer tools becomes second nature. I would like to see a test that acts as a hurdle testing competence in such areas before allowing introduction to more sophisticated applications.
3. Balance Between Concepts and Skills

Promoting information technology literacy requires getting individuals to jump in and begin to use tools they begin by fearing. It really isn't possible to address a balance between concepts and skills until some positive benefit tips the scales and causes a person to become a computer utility user.
Awareness, holding the concept, is insufficient. The most useful qualities are learning to persevere and seeking assistance from others. Gaining skill inevitably leads to greater conceptual understanding. But starting from the concept rarely supports gaining skill. These two approaches compete with each other. One is the thing that works (skill). The other acts to block ultimate understanding (concept - learning without application is valueless).

4. Learning Information Technology Limitations

To learn to make informed personal/social/policy decisions about issues that involve information technology people must become aware of a broad range of benefits from its use. That can be done by direct involvement or by observing the work of others. The latter route has some significant advantages. It is much easier to learn what others have done. Observing, supervising, employing all are valid ways to learn about information technology. Finding limitations comes from exploring the tool. But computer-based tools are extremely strong in capability compared to earlier technology (word processor versus typewriter; spreadsheet versus calculator; web search versus library research). Hence user-fatigue will likely be the main limitation, not technical failures of tools.

5. Conclusion

The primary obstacle to obtaining fundamental information technology concepts is their association with "difficult" or "boring." Much of that is due to teachers not having skill. An effective program should bolster teacher confidence by exposure to useful paid work involving computing.

University students who have grown up with computing can become aides in classes designed to develop teacher-mentors. Such individuals will have exceptional familiarity with information technology and be able to act as leaders in their schools and communities.

Computer and information technology have a revolutionary impact, probably exceeding similar major changes in communications. Telephony, printing by movable type, and many other noteworthy advances changed humanity's social institutions. Today the world of information technology is eroding barriers of time and distance.

The consequences of the information revolution include unforeseen and profound change in human society. If we are to make the most rapid adjustment and reap the greatest benefits from those changes we must act now to build mental tools to support comfort in working with the technology.

Work that includes information technology in fields ranging over English/Literature; History/ Geography/Politics, to Mathematics will accelerate a broad understanding of basic knowledge of computing. But the latter has a special role in process because so many Information Technology ideas and mechanisms are its progeny.


The following material prepared by the author is in two main parts. A.1 (before), A.2 (during) , and A.3 (after) are from the workshop. A.4 and A.5 represent my personal interests. A.1, A.2 and A.3 all are essentially outlines: the first two consist of visuals. A great deal can be said about information technology literacy, and the preceding text is but a small part of my views on that subject. Of the visuals, the first is to start group discussion, while the second was made to summarize an hour and a half breakout meeting [1]. While the content of the second presentation includes views of the listed individuals, the organization and overall theme are mine and the participants did not review them. The third item, A.3, is my ten point prioritized list about Information Technology Literacy [2]. Secondly, A.4 contains brief examples of ideas mentioned in the text and A.5 provides a reference list.

A.1 Information Technology Literacy

Allen Klinger, UCLA


Topics of Discussion

Data Structures

Individual Initiative

Plan Information Technology Literacy On Two Tracks

Promote Working Together

A.2 Motivating and Stimulating Learning Information Technology

Summary of Discussion by: Robert Anderson, Connie Hendrix, Greg Scragg, Andy van Dam, Charles Keleman, Allen Klinger

Widely-Available Information Technology/Teacher Training

Segment to Four Constituencies

Subvert Education Curricula

Change Teaching Modes

Computers for Student Team Use

Motivating Learning Summary

A.3 Ten Information Technology Literacy Items

1. The limited number of things needed to work with computers, e.g., be willing to learn; able to put up with computers' rigidities and their multiple-ways to accomplish things; that only patience, persistence, and talk with others leads to ease of use; that the latter is true for everyone.

2. The concept of data storage. Its low cost. The high value of a large amount of data as a source of information. The importance of saving data frequently.

3. Numeric counting via binary. The transformation of decimal into binary, binary into octal or hexadecimal, and the simple ideas for characters in either of the latter two schemes akin to 0, 1, ..., 9 in decimal.

4. Coding actions, letters and punctuation marks, and addresses by digital strings (binary, octal, hexadecimal symbols).

5. The ascii code and its ability to represent text-only documents.

6. Pointers, indicators of memory locations on a computer, general concepts of local and network-reached information. URLs as non-local pointers. World wide web search using URL-pointers. The latter as pointer examples where a network address is akin to an area-code/telephone-number.

7. Hierarchy.

8. An overview of the software in general use.

9. Extensions and other abbreviated alphabetic strings (http, html, rtf) acting like supermarket/department-store categories.

10. Algorithm.

A.4 World Wide Web Computer Literacy Items

This section is to demonstrate simple exposition of needed concepts.

Number Words' Names

Dozen, hour, minute, week involve quantity. Those words name amounts of eggs, minutes, seconds or days. (This leads into number bases and modulo arithmetic.)

The pointer Words and Concepts [3] leads to more five-information and additional text.

Two Puzzles

What is 11 cut in half?

Will 9 apples fit in 4 baskets with an odd number in each?

The pointer Puzzles [4] leads to more connecting this to computing's use of binary (odd/even) and number representation methods (octal, hexadecimal).

Number Bases and a Sequence

Discussion at a more complicated level follows here.

Numbers lead to power; ideas like 'odd' lead to problem-solving.

Ideas in the puzzle, apples-baskets are at the core of the on-off basis of digital computers.

What's next in this sequence?

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 22, 24, __?

(Merwyn Sommer contributed the problem. Hint: it pertains to math in the computer world [5].)

Building on the preceding we can create an educational unit, as in the prototype below.

Bases for Counting

Dozens work for eggs as sixties do for minutes. General agreement has been to use tens since numbers took the current form. For digital computers that choice isn't best.

Computers count with zeroes and ones, only two symbols. This causes two, eight and sixteen, even numbers found from repeated multiplying of two, to play special roles in the digital computer world.

Computers replace counting and symbols based on ten with systems that use two, eight or sixteen. The names for those systems and an example of counting in them is next.

Binary three, 11, is octal nine and hexadecimal seventeen.

More can be said about number systems used by cultures in different parts of the world, and historic change. Instead this ends here with counting the main theme.

A.5 References

People, Electronic Mail Addresses

[1] Hour and a half breakout meeting moderator, A. van Dam,

[2] Compiler of prioritized information technology literacy items, A. Aho,

World Wide Web Resources

[3] Words and Concepts

[4] Puzzles

[5] http://www.cs.ucla. edu/~klinger/tabbed.html Number Bases