Eastern Europe teaches programming on Western computers
TAMAS LUDANYI watches his flashing Commodore 64 and smiles. Along with a dozen of his fellow students at the Haman Kato Technical School, 14-year-old Tamas is enjoying his first computer class and writing his first program. ``What fun,'' he says. ``I think I'd like to become a programmer.''
Computer education has come to Eastern Europe. As part of their attempt to close the technology gap between East and West, the region's communist governments all have launched programs to make their children computer literate.
``Party leader [Janos] Kadar came to one of our computer exhibitions a few years ago and saw children 4, 5, and 6 years old playing on the machines,'' recalls Gabor Renyi, director of Novotrade, a leading Hungarian computer company producing educational software. ``Not long afterward, he decided that as we approach the 21st century we have to make computers an essential part of education.''
So far, success is limited. Communist parties continue to fear the political consequences of large-scale use of computers.
Authorities complain that dissidents have begun using word processors to produce samizdat magazines. Zbigniew Bujak, the former Solidarity underground chief, reportedly carried a portable Tandy model as he moved from hide-out to hide-out in Poland.
Financial constraints pose many more problems than ideology. Although East-bloc countries all produce some of their own computers, they remain dependent on Western imports of hardware, which eat up scarce hard currency.
``It's not a question of being scared of computers,'' asserts Novotrade's Mr. Renyi. ``It's a question of money.''
At best, East-bloc governments can afford cheap home models, such as the inexpensive Commodore, which are designed primarily for games.
In Poland, for example, Zbigniew Rogowski, a Ministry of Education official, admits he faced that embarrassing problem when he began organizing computer classes for the 1986-87 school year. He was forced to depend on donations from parents.
``We wanted to implement the programs in all schools, but not all schools have computers,'' Mr. Rogowski laments. ``We have so little means and so much interest.''
Mikhail Gorbachev wants to meet this interest. Alarmed by the West's growing technological lead, Mr. Gorbachev has made a dramatic catch-up effort in high-technology one of the dominant features of his policy toward Eastern Europe.
Under the auspices of Comecon, the Soviet-bloc trading group, a comprehensive program for scientific and technological development was launched in December 1985. It committed the allies to ambitious Soviet-led projects to develop industrial robots, electronics projects - and above all, computers.
Reaction ranges from relief to dismay. Countries such as Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, which have limited trading ties with the the West, welcome the program as their only real opportunity to computerize.
Frantisek Zaloudek, director of the University Department at the Czech Education Ministry, says only 600 classrooms in his country have computers. Widespread computer education, he explains, will begin only in 1989, when Czech-made computers become widely available.
``So far, we've just taken the first steps in computer education,'' admits Mr. Zaloudek. ``We are waiting for the mass production of computers.''
But some East Europeans, particularly Hungarians and East Germans, don't want to wait. The economies of these countries are tied to trade with the West, and officials fear that greater cooperation with the East will waste their scarce resources and hold them back.
East-bloc material, these officials explain, is not up to needed standards, either in quality or price. When Novotrade, the Hungarian computer software company, bid last year on a contract to supply 10,000 computers for schools, they were able to offer the American-built Commodore 64s at half the price of the Hungarian models built by the state computermaker.
``The Hungarian computers are not only more expensive, there is no educational software written for them,'' adds Katalin Miklos, Novotrade's software manager. ``We already have a textbook in Hungarian for Commodore and lots of programs available.''
Nonetheless, most Hungarian schools are equipped with Hungarian-made computers. At Haman Kato, for example, headmaster Frank Jancso says the school has only 14 working computers, three of which are imported Commodores. Classes are taught with no textbooks and no common software. Not long ago, Mr. Jancso visited West Germany and came away shocked.
``The schools I saw there have 22 classrooms with 14 computers each,'' he says. ``We need more computers and better computers.''
Hungarian students persevere despite these disadvantages. Brains, not fancy machinary, remain the key to writing high-quality software, and Hungary long has produced world-famous mathematicians, including most recently Erno Rubik, inventor of the famous Rubik's cube.
With such resources, it is little wonder that Novotrade has marketed its computer games in the United States. Szamalk, another Hungarian computer firm, recently sold a data modeling system to International Business Machines.
``There are lots of Hungarian software experts,'' says Jancso. ``This gives me great hope.''
And this translates into great classroom enthusiasm. Tamas and his fellow students move on to the next project - making their simple program work.
``All right now, type `RUN IT,''' the teacher commands. ``If everything works, your name and birthdate should flash on the screen.''
Tamas types and his screen flashes:
February 2, 1973
``It works,'' Tamas exclaims. ``Let's write another program.''