A Case Study:

The Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School

Brian Harvey
University of California, Berkeley

The Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School is a four-year public high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts. I was Computer Director there from 1979 to 1982. Before 1979 there was a computer (a PDP-8) in the school, run by the math department. The two math teachers who were most involved had proposed the creation of a separate computer department, partly to attract kids who didn't think of themselves as mathematically inclined, and partly because they couldn't both give the computer facility the attention it needed and also do the rest of their jobs.

My own learning about computers took place mainly at the Artificial Intelligence laboratories of MIT and Stanford. I decided to create an environment at the high school that would be as similar as possible to those labs. To me this meant a powerful computer system, with lots of software tools, an informal community spirit, and not much formal curriculum.

I installed a PDP-11/70 running version 7 Unix. The cost of the machine was paid 75% by a contribution from Digital Equipment Corporation and 25% by a special bond issue approved by the school committee. Lincoln-Sudbury is a Unix source licensee; we were an alpha test site for 2.9BSD, the PDP-11 version of Berkeley Unix. The installation, testing, and debugging of this new system was carried out entirely by students.

The administration of the facility is carried out by the Computer Center Users Society, a group of about 50 students and teachers. Members have keys to the computer center, and may use the facility evenings and weekends without adult supervision. Students also use the computer from home via modems.

In the early days of the new computer, many students took an individualistic approach to it. Some students sought power and status by writing game-playing programs, and including in the program a list of their enemies, who weren't allowed to play the game. Later, as the computer users became more of a community, students came to realize that a more profound kind of status comes from being a helpful expert, encouraging younger students to learn rather than standing in their way. This change was the result of discussions among students; I did no lecturing on the subject.

The results of allowing unsupervised students in the room have been better than most people would predict, although not perfect. No equipment has been stolen or damaged in the evenings, but there has been damage to furniture through rough use. A couch was destroyed because its pillows were used too often as swords. Litter is a recurring problem; the room gets so messy that the students themselves complain, but sometimes they don't exert themselves to do anything about it.

What about password hacking? Well, there is some. The first time a student asked me how to turn off echoing to a terminal, I suspected that what he wanted was to write a login simulator, but I encouraged the project as one that provided a strong motivation to learn. I thought that the reaction of other students, when the project became public knowledge, would be enough to control password hackers. I was a little too optimistic; it took a good deal of struggle to make the point. The problem is a recurring one, partly because every year brings a new batch of unsocialized freshmen. But a strong deterrent is the fact that students aspire to ``superuser'' status, that is, a privileged account given to system administrators. Superuser candidates must be accepted both by the existing superusers, to ensure their technical competence, and by the entire CCUS membership, to ensure that they are trusted by the community. The students who have the skill and interest to be potential password hackers are also the ones who want to keep the trust of their colleagues.

Software maintenance and development is a challenge bearing much more intellectual fruit than password hacking, anyway. Many Lincoln-Sudbury students have written software that is distributed through Usenix and widely used outside the school. The most outstanding example is JOVE, an EMACS-like text editor written by Jonathan Payne while he was a student there.

Although I'm no longer at Lincoln-Sudbury, the facility still exists. (As I write this, the PDP-11 has just been replaced by a Vax; it's not yet clear what changes in the social structure of the facility will result.) [1994 addendum: Alas, it's now a roomful of Macs. But at least they teach the kids Object Logo.] It has all the same problems of malicious users that any computer does, but the problems lead to profound moral education when the villains and the victims are all fellow-students, friends, and professional colleagues. Putting the burden of dealing with these problems on the students themselves is a powerful educational force.

Note: This is an appendix to "Computer Hacking and Ethics," a position paper I wrote for the ACM Select Panel on Hacking in 1985.

A longer paper about Lincoln-Sudbury is "Using Computers for Educational Freedom", a talk I gave at Lesley College in 1980.