The First Twenty-Five Years: Recollections of a Long-Standing Member

It has all been such great fun. That has been my main thought as I reflected on a quarter of a century of life in CESI: from the pioneering days when “computers” meant mainframes with programs input on punched cards (or even paper tape), to the present time with multimedia and the web — and always in the company of great human beings who were also great educators and only incidentally computer buffs. Maybe we did not always achieve as much as we would have hoped; but we learnt a great deal, and over the years at least some students were able to share with us in that learning. Indeed, some of them helped to lead the way.

So how did it all begin? Looking back over early documentation, I found the draft of a report which I wrote in Autumn 1972, and which was going to be the thesis proposal for my M. Ed. degree. (The report was never finished, as I was asked to work on one of the City of Dublin VEC curriculum projects instead.) The most relevant passage reads as follows: ‘The Department sponsored a teachers’ course which was held in Galway in Summer 1971. Professor A. C. Bajpai, from Loughborough University of Technology, came over from England to help run this course, and subsequently came back for a seminar in Dublin last Christmas [that is, Christmas 1971]. Another course in Galway followed this summer [1972], and out of such things has grown a Computer Education Society which hopes to hold a conference in January [1973] — again in Galway. The author has been invited to attend, although she was not directly involved in Professor Bajpai’s courses.’

A few years later, the late and much lamented John Kelly wrote an account for the (English) ICL-CES Newsletter of May 1977: ‘In 1972 the Galway course was repeated under Professor Bajpai and the idea that a group should be set up to promote the development of computer education … was canvassed. A steering committee was set up and, following some preparatory work, the Computer Education Society of Ireland (CESI) was formally established in January 1973.’

Thus, CESI was born in 1973, and the conference in January of that year was the occasion of the first AGM. The original Chairman was Jim Roche, and Sr. Lourda Keane was the secretary. As a guest on that occasion — invited to stand in, if I remember correctly, for another of our “late and greats,” Fr. Cyril Byrne — I cannot count myself as a founder member; but at least I can say that I was there.

According to John Kelly’s article, CESI in that early period “concerned itself with two main aims: (a) the provision of training facilities for teachers, (b) the introduction of computer studies into a second level curriculum.” Its very first aspirations were even broader; the aim was to educate the public at large, and the initial focus on schools was a matter of convenience, a means to the greater end. Indeed, I recall some suggestions that the primary sector might also have been involved, were it not for the fact that teachers were still in the throes of implementing the (then very) new curriculum; so second-level teacher education, and second-level curriculum, became the key areas.

As regards teacher education, the Department-initiated Galway courses continued for another couple of years, but CESI then took over as the major provider. A ground-breaking course was held at Coláiste Choilm, Swords, under the aegis of Pat O’Leary in Summer 1975; it was followed in the four succeeding years by courses at what was then the NIHE, Limerick. I recall the excitement of having a PDP 8 minicomputer in Coláiste Choilm for the Swords course; that PDP 8 was the first computer in a second-level school in the whole island of Ireland, though some Northern schools had access to large machines via a terminal. I recall, likewise, the intensive use made of the multi-terminal PDP 11 in our first year in Limerick; and, at one of the Limerick courses, the fun of having an Apple II+ — or was it even an Apple II? — in the lecture room for the first time, allowing “hands on” use while teaching. (We stood it in front of the blackboard, and it was showered with chalk as we wrote up and cleaned off our programs; not surprisingly, in consequence, it went down on us in the middle of the week.) Those Limerick courses generated massive enthusiasm. People stayed working until late each evening, and on one famous occasion we were unintentionally locked in; we had to climb out of a window in the NIHE’s main building, Plassey House. The social side was good, as well, and I remember lively sessions in the Parkway and other such hostelries as, for example, we pored over beer-stained draft (draught?) timetables, adjusting the courses to suit the target groups for the various parallel lectures.

After 1979, summer courses were no longer concentrated in Limerick; in 1980 and 1981, they took place in a variety of locations round the country. In 1982, the Department stepped back into the frame, and CESI began to concentrate on other roles (though CESI stepped in again when Departmental courses were suspended in 1983 for lack of funds). The tradition of an annual conference had already been initiated. With “the leaving of Limerick,” the Society’s AGM no longer had a natural home in a unitary summer course; so the concept of a one-day or two-day meeting, with the AGM taking place during it, came to the fore. In fact conferences were held each session from 1980-81 to 1987-88, variously at Carysfort and at St. Patrick’s Drumcondra: often, though not always, in conjunction with the AGM. Increasingly, they became platforms at which the good work going on at classroom level — in later years, at primary as well as at second level — could be shared with teachers from all around the country. As the primary sector became more and more active, the Society developed a Primary Education Group. It reached its zenith in taking major responsibility for organising the conference for the 1987-88 session. That conference was the last of what might be called the 1980s series; after a short break, the present series of conferences began in 1991.

The story so far has dealt, in one form or another, with what John Kelly gave as the first aim of the Society in the mid-seventies: teacher education. The second aim referred to the development of Computer Studies courses in the school curriculum. That formulation shows its age now, but its spirit lives on in the drive to integrate ICTs across the curriculum. It is worth noting that CESI always paid heed to the wider brief of “educational computing,” and that the proportion of time and energy devoted to traditional programming was a reflection of the lack of software by means of which the more ambitious dreams could be turned into practice. For the original summer course at Swords in 1975, for example, there were three components (and I quote from the official notice):

1) A series of lectures on various aspects of Computer Education in Schools.

2) A course on BASIC for Beginners.

3) A course of lectures, suitable for those with some computing experience, on more advanced topics.

Thus, programming came second (and third) to the more general aspects. Nonetheless, it is true to say that the decade of the seventies was the one in which hopes were high that programming could be a route to problem-solving for all, or at least for very many, students. Moreover, in those days one still had to combat unrealistic expectations about what computers could do (“the computer made a mistake in calculating your bill,” and so forth); so there was a role for courses on applications to the world of work and implications for society at large. Thus, many of us looked for the introduction of Computer Studies courses, preferably into the junior cycle curriculum.

CESI drew up its first draft curriculum, and hence made what I presume was its first detailed curriculum-related submission to the Department, in the mid-seventies. The submission was the first of many that have been made on curricular matters: to the Department, to the Curriculum and Examinations Board (CEB), and latterly to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). As a result (I presume) of that first submission, as well as of CESI’s general activity and leadership in the field, a delegation was invited to an official meeting with Departmental personnel in October 1979. It was a historic occasion. Those present on behalf of the Department were Padraig Ó Nualláin, Con Ó Caoimh, Bill Hyland, Lorcan McEneaney, and Joe Codyre; CESI was represented by Michael Moynihan (then Chairman / Cathaoirleach), John Kelly (then Vice-Chairman), Diarmuid McCarthy (long-standing Secretary), and myself. We heard of the plans for the “Leaving Certificate option,” formalised not long afterwards and introduced for the academic year 1980-81. We had reservations about the fact that the option was to be part of the Mathematics course — CESI had done its best to de-emphasise supposed links between computer education and mathematics; but there was power in the argument that everyone takes Maths., and that some people, namely those transferring from the Higher Intermediate to the Ordinary Leaving Certificate course, actually had time on their hands at that stage. (Well, they did then; nowadays, the time may be reallocated to some more point-earning activity.) In any case, we were naturally delighted that Computer Studies was making an appearance in the curriculum.

From that time on, CESI has generally been a player on the field when major national developments have been undertaken. Thus, when Computer Studies was about to make its formal appearance at junior cycle level in 1985, CESI had a place on the syllabus committee, with Art Anglin as the representative. He reported progress for example in the Society’s journal Ríomhiris na Scol in May 1985, pointing out that John Kelly had addressed the committee and that I was present as an observer for the CEB; thus, CESI was there in force, even if not always, so to speak, wearing the Society colours. When the CEB, and later its successor the NCCA, gave thought to what we would now call ICTs in education, CESI was ready, willing and able to produce submissions and to look for meetings with those in authority. Altogether, Ph. D. theses could (and maybe should) be written on the evolution of the Society’s thinking as reflected in its submissions, from that first syllabus in the mid-seventies, via later versions in the eighties, to more recent inputs in the nineties — and on a variety of issues, from the purely curricular to those involving wider policy and the vexed topic of resourcing. The work goes on. Highlights of the current year include our meeting with the Minister last January [1998], and, since then, various discussions with the NCTE.

Unlike the courses and conferences, this side of the work of CESI does not take place in the public eye; but it is no less valuable for that. Especially when there seemed to be limited movement at official level, and when the missionary zeal of the early years had faded somewhat, computer (or ICT) education needed pressure groups to hang in there and help to keep the issues alive. The CESI Executive has played that role. Other groups have done likewise, of course, and gallant teachers have kept things going in their classrooms and schools; but CESI has been an identifiable and familiar protagonist throughout.

The story so far has dealt with the two main roles characterising CESI: the teacher-support association and the ginger group. For the record, something should be said also about the structure of the Society and about how it has evolved over the years.

Originally, CESI was set up as a “Friendly Society.” Hopefully we are still a friendly society, in the ordinary meaning of the phrase; but the first constitution, perhaps formulated with the vision of a general rather than a teachers’ organisation in mind, was rather too complicated and bureaucratic for our needs. Altering it, however, was no easy matter, chiefly because we could not assemble the unrealistically high proportion of our membership required to authorise the change. Eventually we succeeded: albeit with the aid of some neat footwork as to when the subscription year began, and hence as to who was a paid-up member at the time of the crucial meeting. (Are we therefore a slightly constitutional society?) The second version, with a view to gender equity at a time when both “Chairman” and its many variants could be deemed unacceptable, gave us the titles “Cathaoirleach” and “Leas-Chathaoirleach” for the two leading officers; but latterly we seem to have reverted to the original designations. That second constitution did not meet all our needs either, so there has been another — less problem-laden — revision in recent years.

One of the problems with the original constitution was that it did not allow for branches. Initially, these came into being in what might be called a bottom-up rather than a top-down manner. The original branch — the Dublin Branch, born in 1974 — grew out of the initial Computers in Education Diploma course in Trinity; it formed itself and opted to take on Branch status, rather than being set up by the central organisation. Various branches have appeared (and disappeared) since then, at times of strength contributing greatly to the Society’s teacher-support role at local level, and at intervals taking on ginger-group aspects as well. This article tells the story of CESI at national rather than Branch level, but one Branch initiative has become a national institution and deserves mention here. No prizes are offered for guessing that I am thinking of the national Student Fair. The brain-child of Michael Grehan, it was initiated in Dublin’s Millennium year of 1988, and was an immediate and charming success. Just as CESI is notable for covering all levels of education, so is the Fair a special occasion on which primary and second level students set out their projects side by side, having opportunities to admire each other’s work and benefit from each other’s expertise and creativity. The Dublin Branch now runs the Fair for the Society, not just for the local area. Fairs have also been run by groups or branches outside the capital, likewise with great success. Other initiatives at Branch or local level, run by CESI itself or by CESI stalwarts, also deserve recording; but in this personal account, I cannot even begin to do justice to them, so I shall leave the task to others.

In looking at CESI’s branch structure, and hence at the Society nationwide, we should not forget that it in its earlier years it was a thirty-two county organisation, for there was no Northern equivalent. In the seventies, major contributions of both technical expertise and educational vision came from Chris Dawkins, then a teacher at Portora. He and his team of students made notable inputs to the Swords and Limerick courses. With the development of computer education (and the Computer Education Group) in the North, CESI was no longer so relevant to Northern affairs; but we maintained contact with the sister body, and I recall “Enterprising” journeys (by the Dublin-Belfast train), undertaken to represent CESI at CEG meetings in Belfast, for instance in the early eighties. Reciprocal visits were made to Dublin by people from the CEG and Stranmillis. Hopefully there will be more such North-South links. We have had links with England, as well; people from ICL-CES (Computer Education in Schools) were important contributors to early courses.

The Society has had great leadership over the years. Professor Bajpai, our Honorary President, helped to point us in the right direction at the start. Jim Roche got us going. John Kelly provided his unique brand of inspiration, intellect and joie de vivre. Brendan Mackey was one of the first of us to embrace the concept of computer as tool, and to see the major possibilities for using applications packages in schools. Mike Norris gave us technical insights and expertise. Michael Moynihan, in long stints at the helm, gave CESI an international profile and setting; he was also the creator and editor of Ríomhiris na Scol. Peter McKenna guided us gently and wisely through the early nineties. Now — when, after years of individual and group initiatives, we finally have a national policy framework for ICTs — Eddie Guilmartin is ensuring that the Society continues to play its various roles as we approach “Y2K.” Now also, with the wonder and accessibility of the Web on the one hand, and the introduction of Schools IT 2000 on the other, work put in over so many years is coming to fruition. The internet, in particular, has enabled us recapture the passion and sparkle of the early days. To rephrase what I said at the beginning of this article: it has all been a great deal of fun.

Times change, but the most basic features of CESI have not changed. To quote from the excerpts from the statement “What is CESI?” that appeared at the front of copies of Ríomhiris in the 1980s:

Its membership includes teachers from ALL LEVELS and from a wide range of disciplines…. CESI is not exclusively a subject association, yet it provides all the services of such a body…. Nor is CESI merely a pressure group, although it exerts considerable influence on the relevant authorities…. In summary CESI is about people with ideas about computers in education.

Long may it continue to be so!

Addendum, 2013: We had hoped to produce an official History of CESI, to mark our quarter century of existence. Pressure of work dictated otherwise, and the account given above – published originally in the programme for the 1998 Annual Conference – owed more to memory (boosted by the contents of my personal CESI files) than to scholarly research. Perhaps there are errors; doubtless there are omissions; I apologized for them then, and I do so again here and now. Many more people could have been mentioned if space had allowed. We would be delighted to receive corrections and contributions that could eventually build up an archive and lay the groundwork for a genuine history. They can be sent to me personally at eoldham@tcd.ie or – preferably, in case I am no longer available, at least at that address! – to secretary@cesi.ie.

Elizabeth Oldham

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