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Opinion: Teaching the History and Usefulness of Spreadsheets

For all the ed-tech innovations and bespoke software tools at the disposal of students today, don't let them overlook the power and versatility of one of personal computing's foundational technologies: the spreadsheet.

spreadsheet with calculator and magnifying glass
With all the new programs, applications and devices being released on an almost daily basis, the spreadsheet's story and its legacy as a powerhouse could be lost. The story of the electronic spreadsheet is the story of the growth of the PC industry and the story of a very powerful tool students can use to accomplish many different tasks and solve a wide range of problems.

Who can forget Bob Cratchit, Ebenezer Scrooge’s long-suffering and underpaid clerk, who worked in the cold office with poor lighting, working on the firm’s paper-and-pen bookkeeping? How much better his life would have been with a laptop running a spreadsheet!

The lesson to be learned about the relationship between the electronic spreadsheet and the growth of the PC industry is one I observed firsthand. It is described in many books about the birth and growth of the PC industry, and Wikipedia provides a good summary:

“The concept of spreadsheets became widely known due to VisiCalc. It was developed for the Apple II in 1979 by VisiCorp staff Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, [and] significantly, it also turned the personal computer from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into a business tool.”

How did Bricklin come up with VisiCalc? According to Wikipedia, he watched his professor create “a table of calculation results on a blackboard. When the professor found an error, he had to tediously erase and rewrite several sequential entries in the table.” The power of VisiCalc to do powerful calculations, and recalculations based on changed input, became the first “killer application,” or technology so useful that it became the core of some larger technology. History records indicate that VisiCalc was so useful that Apple IIs were purchased just to put the electronic spreadsheet into use. Further study can provide students with an incredible business and history lesson.

Spreadsheet usefulness drove the use of program and PC sales, and that is a lesson to be shared with students at all levels. The other lesson is the power of the spreadsheet itself. All students should learn the range of tasks a spreadsheet can tackle and how it can make life easier. I thought it might be useful to share my “Very Short Introduction to Spreadsheets” lesson that I have used for years with my students, including my project advisees. Hopefully, it will inspire other educators to develop similar approaches with the result of more students using spreadsheets in more ways.

I start with a display of a live spreadsheets and rapidly introduce the concepts of rows, columns and cells. Then I create a simple “materials needed to build a house” spreadsheet, for which students suggest items, quantities and costs, which go into the columns. (I bet you know where this is going.) In the fourth column, I put the formula to multiply the cost and quantity. They love seeing the total appear. We change both cost and quantity and see the total change — and experience the same excitement as the first VisiCalc users. We enter the same formula for the rest of the items, then add all of the items, first manually and then by using the sum function. They want me to change all the variables and watch the new totals appear.

Then they create their own spreadsheets and share ways they found to use them, as well as new things they found by exploring the menus.

On the second sheet, or page, I create a similar display for one of the items, such as paint or nails, listing different types of nails or paint with different costs and amounts. After I create the first row total, I use copy and paste to rapidly fill in the formulas for all line totals, and the students almost cheer! I copy the total from the second sheet to replace that item total on page 1. They love seeing that as I change values on page 2, the total on page 1 changes. Then I sort a few of the items alphabetically and by size. At this point they almost applaud — really! Now they understand why VisiCalc drove Apple II sales! Imagine how excited business folks were when they could create a wide range of accurate “what-ifs” in a matter of seconds.

I try to find a way to do this lesson in every class, because I want all students to have a positive experience with spreadsheets and to see their power. In a current events discussion, we can enter demographic data, instantly graph it in different ways and make future calculations. While doing projects and planning events, they can sort lists of students by status, age or other vital data; plan activities and projects; and track thank-you letters from draft to approved, printed and mailed. Lab results can be analyzed and graphed, and so much more.

At other points in my classes, I might show the spreadsheet’s usefulness as a class organizer, list sorter, event or trip planner, or an information display. Spreadsheets are wonderful tools for storing, organizing and analyzing data from sports teams and survey results to sales numbers and student bookstore inventory monitoring. Students can store research data and results, and then use spreadsheets to work with the information. For example, Google Forms can provide the gathered information in Google Sheets format for ease of analysis.

Educators are using spreadsheets for many things behind the scenes and visibly in their classes, not only to prepare for their lessons and run their classes but also for students to use in their work. The graphing functions alone are valuable in both higher math and in visualizing results or testing theories in science classes.

My thesis is that the power of the spreadsheet is well known in the financial world, but we can encourage students to use it as a basic tool to do much more. It doesn’t hurt that along the way, students learn the order of operations and many other logic functions. By having them experiment with menus, they see the power of formatting, displaying, filtering, sorting and other available functions.

Spreadsheets have become very sophisticated, with features such as pivot tables, complex formulas and macros, and they rapidly accomplish tasks and increase efficiency. I use spreadsheets more often than documents in my daily work.

VisiCalc was a valuable business tool when it performed “what-ifs” years ago. Newer spreadsheets do things that early adopters never dreamed of. All of our students deserve lessons in the use of this valuable tool.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.