I was heavily involved with CSE 101 for from 2002-2008 and partly
responsible for curriculum development, so I can speak to what the
When I started, we did in fact have one day (out of approximately 28 or
29 2-hour days of instruction [now lower because of the academic
calendar change] -- 2 days a week for 15 weeks minus holidays, of which
6 or 7 are used to deliver tests, so figure you've got about 21 days
total that you can spend instructing students) that covered computer
hardware concepts, including the differences between hard disk and RAM,
and a short section on comparing different computers from manufacturers.
After struggling with how to keep this material relevant to the modern
student, eventually we canned the lesson for a variety of reasons. I
argued in favor of removing the day, so blame me if you want. My reasons
1) By 2003 or 2004, any computer a student purchased would run Windows,
[Microsoft] Office, and whatever e-mail program (likely Yahoo, Hotmail,
or Gmail anyway) just fine. Windows XP was still the dominant OS on
computers and ran fine in 512 MB of RAM, which was the minimum you could
get on a computer without going way out of your way. If were into PC
gaming, you already knew more than most of the TAs about PC hardware and
didn't need us to tell you how to correctly buy a system that meets your
2) System requirements as printed on the box never tell the full story.
For example, Vista officially needs only 512 MB of RAM, and Office 2007
Home and Student requires 256 MB of RAM. It did not seem that teaching
students to read the requirements on the box and then either just
multiply them by 2 or completely ignore them was a skill we strongly
wanted to promote.
3) By sacrificing the day, we were able to include an extra day on
advanced concepts in Microsoft Excel, which was more likely to be
relevant and useful to the students later in their careers.
4) There's very little material / few concepts from a day on computer
hardware specifications that is testable. I can ask a student to compare
two machines and tell me which one is right for say, word processing and
which one for a digital video archive, but if the only difference is
that one costs $100 more and comes with 250 GB of extra hard drive
space, is that really worth it, or should I teach the students that a
new hard drive from Newegg.com can be had for the order of $100 per 1 TB?
So in the end, the day got the axe, and I don't think anyone's really
looked back and said "that's a concept we really need to be teaching
today's students." With the rise of the ultraportable / netbook
computer, and the shift toward using laptops over desktops (which I
don't recall being the case back in 2004), it might be worth revisiting
explaining some of the concepts, but when you have 20-21 days to work
with, and ultimately your goal is to prepare the students for things
they will use in future classes and/or careers, is that really worth the
time it would take?
So that's a brief (and partial, one-sided) look at why CSE 101 no longer
teaches anything about computer hardware.
Former Head Graduate Assistant, CSE 101
Former Course Design and Development Team, CSE 101
Gordon Jensen wrote:
> I'm close to students' age (24) and went to a public schools growing up.
> At our school, we had to take a basic computers class like what you're
> describing in middle school and another one in high school.
> However, like most things-- if you don't use it, you lose it.
> Realistically, most students nowadays don't need to know how it all
> works in order to use computers for what they do. That is, except like
> what you said with buying a new one. But I'm sure many of us on this
> list have been asked by friends at times to help them buy a computer,
> help them install virus protection, help them set up a wireless router
> in their home, etc... Having tech savvy friends is enough for some
> people to be happy. But of course knowing more yourself about how
> computers work is no disadvantage.
> For many undergraduate programs at MSU, students are required to take
> CSE 101, which I believe is supposed to fill in a lot of the gaps
> (Perhaps the students you know haven't taken it?). Maybe somebody on
> this list knows more about that class.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: MSU Network Administrators Group [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On
> Behalf Of Al Puzzuoli
> Sent: Saturday, November 21, 2009 8:37 PM
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: [MSUNAG] A Concerning Lack of Computer Literacy Among Students.
> I've noticed an interesting, somewhat concerning trend over the past
> few years. First, let me clarify that I have absolutely no reason to
> believe that what I'm about to describe is any more prevalent among MSU
> students than it is in the general population. It's just that since I
> primarily worked with students, MSU is where I've experienced this the
> Over the past decade, computers have become an increasingly ubiquitous
> part of our daily lives. This has happened primarily for two reasons:
> Due to the Internet, we have far more incentive than ever before to
> learn to use a computer. Also, the computer itself has become
> significantly easier to use. Things are much more automated, plug and
> play, point and click than they used to be fifteen or 20 years ago.
> Back then, there were fewer computer users on average; but, I believe
> that the percentage of users who had some idea of what was going on
> behind the scenes was much higher than it is today. In the late 80s
> when I was in high school, basic computer intro classes were offered.
> In those classes, many fundamental concepts were introduced: What is the
> difference between hard drive space and ram? What is the CPU? What does
> it do? ...
> I wonder if classes like that are still being taught today, or if the
> computer has become so ubiquitous that such fundamental concepts are
> now taken for granted? Due to what I'm seeing in my day to day work, I
> suspect the latter.
> I would estimate that at least 75% of the students I've worked with have
> not had any exposure to such concepts. They could download files all
> day and copy them to their thumb drive; but, if you were to ask them how
> much space is currently free on that thumb drive, they would be
> They don't know how to buy a computer. Well sure, they know how to whip
> out the credit card and pay for one, but they have no clue what to look
> for when making the purchase. If they did, these retail outlets would
> never be able to get away with selling Vista machines which limp along
> with 1 gig of ram, and are preloaded with tons of garbage to make
> matters even worse.
> They'll under buy the ram, and yet way over pay for hard drive space,
> because, well, it sounds like they're getting more for their money when
> they buy 500 gigs instead of 4.
> Are we as a university doing anything to combat this situation? Do we
> offer any basic 100 level intro classes which cover this stuff?
> What about a general computer users group? Does such a thing exist?
> If not, perhaps one solution might be to form such a group, where in we
> would offer presentations, and mentor any students who were interested
> in learning more.
University Outreach & Engagement
Michigan State University
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East Lansing, MI 48824-1022
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