In the UK, the birthplace of modern computing, we have a problem. We have ensured that, through an untimely ICT curriculum, that computer programming is off the menu. A large proportion of today’s children have access to computers (~75% of households have a computer) and so will be familiar with standard software packages from a very early age. What they may not be familiar with is the art of how to tell a computer what to do.
Way back in the mid 80’s (when I were a lass, blah) our primary school had one computer. It was a BBC micro and was granted to whichever class had been lucky enough to reserve it. It was a huge, beige monster that ate 5 ½ inch floppies right in front of our eyes. The class would gather round in awe, playing games collectively with teacher at the helm. People may laugh at these old pieces of technology but they had one striking advantage. These computers did not wear the glossy mask of a slick user interface. They demanded your attention at the command line. In order to get what you want, you had to be drawn into the world of BASIC.
In my last year at primary some designated mini-nerds (yes I was one) were allowed to “play around” with the micro at lunchtimes. This consisted of my friend and I watching two of our classmates copying BASIC programs out of a “how to” book. The computer was kept in a little curious annex of our classroom where all the supplies, paints, and random artefacts were kept. There in the half-light we stared open mouthed at the strange syntax appearing across the black screen. When the time came to run the code there was always frustration because a comma was missed, or some other syntax error. Then eventually the triumph came when the program resulted in some rudimentary action like a polygon drawing itself on the screen.
A couple of years later a second hand ZX spectrum came into my possession with its blistering 128 kB of RAM. I had already been bitten by the BASIC bug. I had little time for the attractions of Jet Set Willy, Dizzy, or Horace Goes Skiing. I just wanted to copy programs into the computer and see what they did. I didn’t really understand how it all worked but I had the feeling that I was circling the edge of a technical world that I wanted to be part of. My greatest triumph was to successfully reproduce a game called “star racer”. It was a thrilling adventure in which asterisks race each other across the screen, resulting in a somewhat predictable climax. I recorded it onto cassette, keeping it for posterity.
It wasn’t until university that programming crossed my path again, when we had two years of enforced FORTRAN (which I secretly loved). Had it not been for my early brush with BASIC I don’t think I’d have taken to FORTRAN so readily. As a group we spent many nights in the computer lab battling through compiling errors, gradually losing the will to live. Then at the 11th hour, our sense of worth returning as our codes began to obey the laws of physics. Nothing filled me with satisfaction and pride more than being able to produce a well-executed program.
We need to let young people learn and play with programming again. Teaching programming as part of ICT in schools would ensure future generations were well equipped to operate in a computer centric world. The birth of cheap, programmable computers like the Raspberry Pi could revolutionise the classroom and school computing forever. I applaud the education driven ethos of the Raspberry Pi foundation and wish them the best of luck in this endeavour. Also I’m totally going to buy one…
10 PRINT “hello world”
20 GOTO 10