‘Back in My Day’ is an Information Age series profiling some of our older ACS members and Information Age readers speaking about their early days in IT.
This week, we speak with Arthur Tatnall, aged 77, from Melbourne, who was awarded the 2018 ACS President’s Award for his contribution to IT education.
When did you first get involved in the tech sector?
I did a science degree at Melbourne University. In 1965, in Physics III, we did some programming in Fortran IV. I ran a program to print the first 1,000 prime numbers on an IBM mainframe in St Kilda.
Following that I did a diploma of education and then became a high school teacher of physics, science, and maths. I did nothing again with computers until the mid-1970s.
In 1974 at Watsonia High School, a colleague, Bill Davey, and I started using a system at La Trobe University to allocate school student groupings using data entry. La Trobe University had the program, all we did was put the data in and the answer popped out for the student groups.
In 1975 I started up a Year 11 computer science subject at Watsonia High School. It was using the MONIX system, and I was teaching basic programming so students could design algorithms to solve mathematical problems. That was the theory of it. It involved students writing a problem in BASIC using Mark-sense cards. Then we took the cards to La Trobe University to run the program. The results were frequently disappointing for the students. It was often just a printout listing a number of syntax errors. That must have been incredibly frustrating.
Our school got an Apple II in 1977 through Bill Davey’s work with the Maths Teachers Association. It was a 16k computer with a 110-volt power supply that needed a television for a screen and a cassette tape for a disc drive. It was a very basic machine at this stage.
That’s where I really started getting into it. It was one of the first Apple IIs to be used in an Australian school.
Was it difficult to convince the higher ups at the school to get involved with the tech classes?
They were totally amazed by this new machine. No one had much idea what a computer could really do or how practical it was. It was something that the school admin could crow about. They were quite happy.
A little later when the technology had matured a little I managed to get a bit more money out of the school to get a proper monitor, a disc drive and a card reader.
Where did your career take you after that?
In 1979 we started a new ‘Computer Awareness’ subject in the Year 10 curriculum. It sounds really odd now, but it was literally just to make the students aware of what a computer was, what it could do and what effect this might have. It was a core subject for one year having one term of computer science, one of business applications, and one of social implications of computing.
I did a graduate diploma in computer science at La Trobe University in 1979-80.
In 1981, Year 12 computer science was first offered. It was a bit controversial – Melbourne University and Monash wouldn’t accept it as a proper subject, it wasn't serious enough for them! It was offered for 10 years – and after a couple of years I became chief examiner.
In 1981 and 1982, the Education Department seconded some teachers as computer education consultants. I was one of these, seconded from Watsonia High half-time for two years. I was based in the northern part of Melbourne and the job involved travelling around schools talking to their computer people, helping them out if necessary and often speaking at a staff/parent meeting at the school. I then did a couple of years as a full-time general curriculum consultant.
In 1983 I had a visit by a lady from Jacaranda Publishers. They wanted me to write a Year 11 Computer Science textbook. I said: ‘I don’t think I’ve got the time’, but she said: ‘If I thought you had the time I wouldn’t have asked you’. So, I wrote the Year 11 textbook with Bill.
In 1985, after the Commonwealth Government put money into computers in education, and I was appointed to the Victorian State Computer Education Centre (SCEC) as an educational computer systems analyst.
At that time, a Government School could only spend public money on a computer that was on the ‘recommend list’. My job was to evaluate micro computers, software and facilities offered by the computer companies, and to draw up the recommended list. I did this for three years.
While at SCEC I was appointed to a School’s Commission working group to ‘design the Australian Educational Computer’ that would be ideal for Australian schools, not include foreign jargon like ‘trash cans’, and be manufactured by an Australian company. After eight meetings in Canberra, however, Government money ran out and the project did not proceed.
In 1988 after the Computer Education Centre closed, I took up my first university position at Footscray Institute of Technology, teaching Information Systems, then later at Western Institute. These later evolved into Victoria University.
How did that compare to teaching at high schools?
It was quite different. As well as teaching, I was doing research, writing journal articles, and presenting papers at international conferences. I then did a Master of Arts at Deakin University on the history of business computing in tertiary institutions in Australia.
The new university began doing some overseas teaching, and I taught Management Information Systems in Singapore, Malaysia and China. You went for a week and taught five three-hour sessions, then you came home. You got to see a bit of the country as well.
In 2000, I completed my PhD with the help of a little study leave. In it I traced the adoption of technological innovations, using the adoption of the Visual Basic computer language as an example.
In 1994 I went to an Information Federation of International Processing (IFIP) conference on IT in Educational Management. After that I got quite involved with IFIP, attending many conferences, and I chaired two working groups. I recently became the IFIP official historian.
In 2010 I took up the position of Editor-in-Chief of the Springer journal ‘Education and Information Technologies’ (EAIT), and that’s a position I still hold. The journal has become a very popular high-ranking journal now. I’ve got two deputy editors, eight associate editors and about 3,000 reviewers. Last year we had 3,800 submissions but accepted only about 15% of them.
Although still retaining a connection, I’ve now officially retired from Victoria University, so I like to describe myself as ‘semi-retired'. I still do plenty of work, I’m just not getting paid much anymore.
What advice would you have for someone just getting started in the tech sector?
One of the first things you need to look at is how technical you want to go. The tech world is skyrocketing along and if you get involved with that, keeping up is an absolutely major task. If you can find something that’s important but not quite changing as fast, and that’s more fulfilling and doable, then do it.