Back to School: Oh, How I Wish the iPad Had Existed in 1982

Return with us now to the era when a major university might have a single computer on the premises.

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Someone using an IBM System/370 mainframe computer in 1970 -- presumably not at Boston University, where I used one in the 1980s

How long ago was I in college? Consider the evidence, in the form of a few details about the computer lab I used at Boston University:

  • It was called the computer lab because it had one computer: an IBM System/370 mainframe
  • There were some green-screen terminals, but the primary devices you used to connect to the mainframe were Teletype-style machines which printed, very slowly, on tractor-feed paper — basically interactive typewriters.
  • The entire university had a grand total of one laser printer, staffed by employees who brought your printouts to you.
  • There were still bins in prominent spots containing thousands of punch cards. (As far as I know, they weren’t in use, but their presence suggested that it hadn’t been all that long since they had been.)

Even at the time — which was 1982-1986 — some of this struck me as being more than a tad retro. I’d gone to a high school with a PC lab outfitted with Radio Shack TRS-80 machines; I owned an Atari 400; my parents both used microcomputers. But the PC revolution hadn’t yet revolutionized much of anything about the way people educated themselves at Boston University. There may have been some desktop computers in the dorms, but I’m positive I never saw a laptop in use in a classroom, even though models such as the TRS-80 Model 100 existed and were quite popular, at least among well-heeled businesspeople.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the average BU student had never used a computer in the mid-1980s, and certainly not for school work. I was probably unusual in being a non-computer science student who spent a fair amount of time in the computer lab. (I did take one programming class, in PASCAL. I don’t want to talk about it.) I don’t remember using the lab or my own Atari to do anything related to classes — mostly, I played games and fooled around with BASIC programming.

I did, of course, do plenty of study-related stuff in the library, where the card catalog was still a card catalog and the microfilm room was where you went to do really serious research. And I used spiral-bound notebooks and pens and #2 pencils and all sorts of other non-technological devices. And, occasionally, my father’s Wang word-processing system to write papers.

It all sounds incredibly archaic, although perhaps I’m overestimating how quickly things changed in the decades since I graduated. My colleague Jared Newman, who went to college 19 years after I did — the young whippersnapper — says that even in the early years of this century, few of his classmates owned laptops. As he points out, wi-fi hotspots weren’t yet all that common, so a connected desktop in a dorm or computer lab was far more useful than a notebook cut off from the Internet.

Still, it’s fun to contemplate what my college years might have been like if I’d had access to 2013 gadgets, software and services. And it’s surprisingly easy to imagine the scenario, given that being a journalist is so very similar to being a liberal arts student. In both instances, you listen to experts, ask questions, gather information, take notes and then try to synthesize what you learned into concise, comprehensible and insightful written documents.

I’m pretty sure that if I’d had the tools I use today — especially my iPad with an LTE connection and a keyboard case — I would have been a far better student. I would have taken more copious notes in class. I would have been able to write more polished essays than was possible with even the best 1980s word processor. If my textbooks were available in iPad form, I’d probably read them more thoroughly, and would certainly be more likely to take them everywhere rather than forgetting them at home. And although the Internet couldn’t have replaced a gigantic library stuffed with printed books and reels of microfilm, it would have been an enormously helpful supplement.

A cynic might suggest an alternative scenario in which I used my iPad to play Candy Crush Saga in class and answered essay questions by lightly rewriting Wikipedia entries. I refuse to acknowledge that possibility, and even if it were real, it wouldn’t be new — students have always zoned off during lectures and ripped off encyclopedias rather than doing real research. Technology might make it more tempting to be a slacker. But it also makes it easier to be a conscientious, ambitious learner, and that’s what I would have been. Or so I hope.

(Then there’s the question of whether I could have afforded an iPad, a keyboard and LTE service as a student. I earned a total of $1929 at my part-time job in 1984, or $4335 in 2013 dollars. I could have theoretically spent part of that on a TRS-80 Model 100, which started at $799, but the idea didn’t even flit into my mind long enough for me to reject it. I did, however, manage to come up with $400 to buy a VCR.)

Anyhow, I hope I never become the sort of geezer who claims that things were better in the old days, or that my generation is better than the new generation because it was toughened by blood, toil, sweat and tears. If someone from the future had traveled back to 1982 and presented me with an iPad, my jaw would have dropped to the floor and my eyes would have ping-ponged out of their sockets and then back into place. But then I would have taken it and used it. And I wouldn’t have any regrets about the matter 31 years later.