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Harvard’s 1983 Experiment with Coin-Operated Word Processors

Our forgotten edtech history.

July 12, 2018
 
 

The other day I came across a higher ed tech experiment that I’d never before heard about. Coin-operated word processors.

In 1983 Harvard, in collaboration with Digital Equipment Corporation, installed 36 DECmate 1 word processing units across campus. Each unit came with a terminal screen and printer.

The cost to use the word processor for students was $2 an hour, equivalent to $5 today.

The word processors were available 24 hours a day, and could be found in dormitories, libraries, and classroom buildings.

An 11/16/83 story in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Robert Carroll, Harvard’s director of the campus Office Information and Communications Systems:

"Harvard wants to know whether students not involved in technology, mathematics, or science can use word processors as a regular tool in their everyday study...The university wants to know whether students can improve their classroom work, especially the writing of papers, by using word processing machines.’'

That same CSM article also quoted Eudora Pettigrew, associate provost for instruction at the University of Delaware (where coin-operated word processors were also being used):

"'Some people conceive of a computer in every pot. The computer is a supplement, a tool, not a substitute for education. To get an education, a student must think.’'

The head of the Harvard coin-operated word processor program, Mark Van Baalen, noted that:

''The use of personal word processors by students could be the tip of the iceberg in a technological revolution on campus.”

Robert Carroll, the overseer of the Harvard project, is also quoted as observing that:

'Some faculty members . . . are concerned the computer may be just another expensive tool that will have little impact on student achievement”.

The coin-operated word processors were expected to break-even if used for 6 hours a day at $2 per hour.

Alas, Harvard’s coin-operated word processor experiment seems not to have succeed. The Harvard Crimson ran a story with the the following headline on 2/17/84:

Coin Op Processors Losing Money: System To Be Reorganized

The Crimson quoted Marcuv Van Baalen, of the Office for Information Technology:

"We are making about one-third to one-ball of our target of breaking even. Some places are hotbeds of activity, and others are doing nothing,”

The 1984 Crimson article noted  that the The Office for Information Technology was “...meeting regularly with students and with representatives of the Undergraduate Council and the Harvard Computer Club to determine where best to locate the word processors.

While student demand for the $2 an hour word processors was not what Harvard and Digital Equipment Corporation would have hoped, it seems as if Harvard technology leaders were still happy with the “experiment.”  The Crimson ends its story with a quote from Van Baalen from the Office of Information Technology, calling the program,

“...a tremendous success. The practical experience gained in handling maintenance and supply problems is invaluable. Once people start using the word processors, they won't go back to using their Smash Coronas.”

I was unable to find any other articles about coin-operated word processors or computers on college campuses. Nor could I find a picture of the coin-operated DECmate 1 word processing units.

Apparently, coin-operated typewriters were not uncommon on college campuses at one time. 

Had you ever heard of Harvard’s coin-operated word processor experiment?

When do you remember computers coming on to campus for public student use?

What about this story blows your mind the most? The fact that we’ve come so far in 35 years, or the realization that we are still having the same discussions about the usefulness of computers in education?

Did it also strike you that some of the quotes above from 1983 could have been uttered in 2018?

What educational technology experiments of 2018 will be largely forgotten by 2053?

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