Liza Loop

BOD - Liza Loop.jpg


This article first appeared in the Alumnae Bulletin of Dana Hall School, Summer 1996, Vol.58, No1, edited by Judith A. Kilborn. Dana Hall School is an independent boarding and day school for girls located in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Dana accepts residential and day students in Grades 9 through 12 and day students in Grades 6 through 8.

Inside The "Technical Loop"

by Liza Loop (AKA Liz Straus '63)

My mother taught science at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and my father was an early computer researcher at MIT in the '50s. Hence, I'm sure my interest in and comfort with technology can be attributed to "early childhood environment." Academically, Dana provided me with a solid general education and a strong science background. Sociologically speaking, I didn't know girls weren't good in science and math because all of my classmates were female and many were technically excellent. Thus it should come as no surprise that I was not pushed, but jumped, into my field. I "stumbled on" computers in education while taking Montessori techniques in 1971 and have pursued opportunities to contribute in this sphere ever since.

While I've never been afraid of "technical things," I teach people who are. I've concluded it isn't the technology itself that is so intimidating; it's the quantity of learning one has to go through to master the technology. Many people, women and men, are overwhelmed by the large number of little details they must grasp in order to use technical tools such as a computer. Even though individual items of knowledge are limited and simple, we see them piled together and think they're too complex for our small minds. Once we realize tasks such as walking and talking, things we learned as infants, are much more difficult than learning to operate a computer, mastering technological subjects looks less formidable.

I think the best resources to overcome fear of technology are a patient, psychologically supportive colleague and the privacy to make a fool of yourself repeatedly. It's helpful, but not necessary, for your colleague to know more about technology than you do. What is necessary is to have someone to encourage you through the times when you are discouraged. Privacy is for practice time. There is as much art as science in using a technical tool. You need time to develop techniques. That won't happen if someone is always pointing out your errors.

Among my many mentors, my two sons have given me the most insight into ways to enjoy and employ technology. When they were two and four, I bought a videotape recorder. They quickly learned how to rewind it and proceeded to watch sequences from Sesame Street over and over again. I thought they would be bored, but they knew instinctively how many times they needed to review a piece to memorize it. They taught me to take control of technical tools and to use them in whatever way I needed to meet my own learning needs.

This is the philosophy I bring to the LO*OP Center, for which I had the concept in 1971. Dean Brown, Stuart Cooney and I founded it in 1975, and it has been my full-time occupation ever since (along with being a "full-time" mother, a "full-time" student and a "full-time" start-up executive at various times). The Center is a project-based, nonprofit corporation specializing in educational services in intercultural communication and appropriate technology. Services include training, consulting, participating in collaborative projects and event management. We serve people worldwide, educational organizations, community groups, business and industry, government and individuals. Our objective is to better peoples' lives through learning, for we believe human beings must be in thoughtful development of their societies, sciences and selves.

The LO*OP Center has long been an educational innovator. It introduced the first Apple Computer into a school in 1976, brought Soviet and American teenagers together as citizen diplomats in 1985, taught educational technology to Malaysian educators at Stanford School of Education in 1987, developed new English as a Second Language (ESL) evaluation methods for U.S. industry in 1990 and founded the Intercultural Resources Forum in 1991.

Among developing LO*OP Center projects is the "Multi-cultural Education Resources List," a list of multicultural education materials soon to be available on the Internet to anyone who wants them, but specifically to teachers. The resource is interactive: people are encouraged to give input on how a particular tool worked for them and on what changes they would make if using it again. This way, teachers can choose multicultural curriculum materials based not only on a title and description, but on the experience and insights of others who have used them. [NB: This project is still not published as of May, 2013]

There is as much art as science in using a technical tool.
We are also working to help many poor and/or immigrant parents who are unfamiliar with the U. S. medical system, its underlying beliefs, what doctors expect, how the system works and many other important and useful concepts that the middle-class mainstream take for granted. Well baby and child care, including vaccinations and nutrition, are areas that may be viewed differently in different cultures. We are developing a "touch screen" kiosk with this and other key medical information, in English and five to ten of the most common immigrant languages, to be installed in clinics to call to viewers audibly and in written languages. We want this down-to-earth use of multimedia technology to provide an accessible and cost-effective way of educating English and non-English speakers about how to attain and maintain good health in the U.S. context. [NB: Again, this project is still not published as of May, 2013]

My greatest professional frustrations occur when I encounter narrow interpretations of ideas. For example, many people assume "technology" means electronic gadgets. I think technique is "know-how" and technology is the study of know-how. Certainly there has been an explosion of know-how around designing, building and using electronic devices. But learning to use a pencil and alphabet is just as much a case of mastering techniques as learning to use a word processor. In many circumstances, a pencil is a better tool than a computer for the task to be accomplished. I lose patience with people who fall so in love with the complexity of the tool that they fail to assess its appropriateness for the job within its surroundings.

Here's a little triumph I experienced at the end of a workshop for teachers who were introducing computers in their classrooms. One of my students approached me and said, "Now I know how to operate my computer, but you didn't explain how it would solve teaching problems." "Wonderful," I replied. "You have learned that the computer is only a medium of communication between teacher and student. It can never replace the teacher. Solve teaching problems yourself. When you do, the computer may be one tool you use." When assessing technology, it's important to remember that it's people who achieve. As we use electronic and communication technologies, we will open up new ways to distribute know-how, new ways to teach and to learn. I expect to contribute most in distance learning and schools.

Moving electrons is more efficient than moving people.
Distance learning involves learners led by live or recorded teachers who can reach their students regardless of location. Every time we turn on a radio or TV, open a book, magazine or newspaper, receive a telephone call, fax or e-mail message, or play a video game, we use distance education tools. If we are changed by the experience, we have been educated. Today, distance learning is market-driven by consumers willing to pay for receiving messages. Only a small portion of distance education is part of a conscious teaching effort in schools.

However, by 2000, I expect a few struggling organizations will take up the mission of delivering teaching to students wherever they are.
The effort will be led by transnational corporations that have learned that any data or information that can be squeezed down a wire or transmitted on the waves, should be. Moving electrons is more efficient than moving people. Traditional schools will compete with new institutions offering quicker, cheaper, deeper, more varied access to know-how in mediated form. We will be trying to figure out how to redeploy physical plants built for an industrial era in an information age. Perhaps 2005 is too soon to expect social acceptance of the paradigm shifts brought about by radical developments in information transfer technology. We may still be mired in the illusion that copyright can be preserved. We may not have discovered that information is only valuable when it is disseminated and does not obey economic laws of scarcity. We may have failed to sort out critical aspects of face-to-face encounter as compared to distance communication. But we will be learning.

Many people fear technology, yet know-how is neutral.
What people choose to do with know-how can be dangerous. Every new technique is a threat to humanness as we knew it yesterday and an opportunity to develop new ways of being human today. This is why martial arts instructors stress contemplation and self-control as well as ways to use hands, feet, body weight, balance and momentum. Adding tools such as fire, gun powder, electricity or printed words to human ingenuity can yield powerful results. Transistors, microprocessors and fiber optics are just more sophisticated tools. Every new technique is a threat to our old ways of being, to our existing culture, to what seems right and proper.

In the domain of technology it is best to be humble.
Perhaps the most important lesson to learn is to remain an inept beginner throughout life. Each new technological development requires one to discard hard-won expertise in the old way and learn a new one.

© 1996. DANA HALL BULLETIN. Reprinted with permission.**

Open Portal Schools

Here's an article I wrote in 1983 predicting the future of computing in education. Was I right?

Liza Loop Interview by Nick Demonte

Nick Demonte interviewed me. I've posted his questions below and I will answer them in the next few weeks (starting July 19, 2013). To anyone else who has additional questions for me, please add them to this list and I'll do my best to respond.
Photograph of Nick's Atari 800

Liza Loop Interview Questions

Can you tell us a little bit about your interest in computers?

You might want to read the article posted above. I'm actually not particularly interested in computers. It's humans that turn me on. But it turns out that computing environments bring out all kinds of interesting characteristics in humans. I've spent a lot of time putting people together with machines so I could watch the results. Of course, modern computers with appropriate software are very effective tools for calculating, communicating and creating (the 3 C's which I think should replace the 3 R's) and I take advantage of whatever efficiencies I can gain by using them. But I like hand saws, levers and screws as well.

What was your first computer?

Now that depends on what you mean by "your". I think my older brother built a kit called a Geniac when I was still in elementary school but I don't remember much about it. I graduated from high school in 1963, no computers there. When I got to college at Cornell University I did some key punching for the decks of cards my boyfriend needed for his research project. We never saw the computer, just handed the deck across the counter at the computer center and hoped nobody dropped it. Later we went back and picked up reams of green-bar print out, most of which was useless. When LO*OP Center opened I rented a computer terminal (KSR-33 teletype), a Telnet line and got an account at a company called "Call Computer" in Mountain View, CA. I believe they were time sharing an HP 2000. Of course, none of these was "my computer".

The first computer I purchased was a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8 for LO*OP Center. Although it was only an 8-K machine it did support 4 users simultaneously. When personal computers hit the scene people and companies lent them to LO*OP Center because I would show the public how to use them. I think we had one of the first MITS Altairs put together by one of our Sonoma County Computer Club members, Ron Wickersham.

For personal use I had borrowed Apple ]['s which didn't even support lower case when they first come out. That made writing articles for publication really difficult. Eventually I bought a PC. That was not the choice because I particularly liked the computer or the operating system. It just happened to be the machine that my then husband could support. Maybe I didn't actually buy it. Maybe he just rebuilt one of his old ones for me.

I'm not trying to avoid answering the question. It's just that I was well into "computing" before we had personal computers. In those days you learned to use whatever machine you could get your hands on.

Growing up as a kid, did you work on any electronics and/or homebrew computer projects?

When I was a kid "electronics" were audio hi-fi and ham radio. Radar was still a military secret. My father was deeply involved in that stuff but I didn't see much of him and knew nothing of electronics. I did take physics in high school but mostly I was into music and horses. Although I was pretty much a Tom-boy I was still a girl. Girls and electronics didn't mix.

Take me back before you worked with Atari.

To be continued...

Why are you interested in educational computing between 1970 and 1990?

How did you start the History of Computing for Learning and Education (HCLE)?

You state that you have "...old computers and computer controlled toys, hundreds of programs
developed to teach you-name-it, newsletters from early computer clubs,
research reports, books and magazines, personal correspondence and much more"

Question part 1: What artifacts have you donated to HCLE?
Question part 2: How can HCLE engage the community by honoring your collection with the intention of
education, research and conservation?

Can you tell us about the Guide to the Liza Loop Papers, 1972 - 1984 at
Stanford University Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections?

What types of storage media do you currently have and what are your efforts in conserving the data?

What type of culture did Atari embrace?

With all the new mobile devices and tablets, which do you use these days?

What operating systems do you use these days?

can you tell us anything regarding Atari BASIC?

Did you have a role in TOS?

What experiences did you have with Jack Tremiel?

How did Atari respond to other competing systems like Commodore, Amstrad, Texas Instruments, Tandy, Amiga, BBC Micro and Timex?

What type of research did your father work on while at MIT?

Did your father publish his research?

What computers did your father use while at MIT?

More information on Liza:


Informal Writings:

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