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Summary:

The BBC played a huge part in the British computer boom of the 1980s by supporting local manufacturer Acorn. Now, with the U.K.’s computer education under criticism, it is considering whether to take on a similar role in the 21st century.

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A couple of months ago Google chairman Eric Schmidt stirred up a hornet’s nest when he gave a stern and blunt speech aimed at the British media and educational establishment. The message: you suck at teaching computer science.

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in U.K. schools,” Schmidt told the audience in Edinburgh, Scotland. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but it doesn’t teach people how it’s made. It risks throwing away your great computing heritage.”

The heritage he refers to is rich, but often ignored today, since West coast companies dominate. But Britain did play its part in the development of the industry: the U.K. was the home of the first computer that could store programs, The Baby; the place where computer science pioneer Alan Turing lived and died; and the site of the first commercial business computer, LEO.

It wasn’t just stiff upper-lipped boffins meddling around with machines during the war, either. Britain was also the place where huge and unlikely institutions helped fire the home computer revolution of the 1980s.

Take a look at what the BBC did when it took on a mission to help educate and inform people about this coming revolution, for example, by embarking on what was known as the “Computer Literacy Project”. In 1981 one of the world’s foremost broadcasters produced a regular TV show about programming (yes, really) and at the same time threw its lot in with a local computer firm, Acorn, to produce a range of machines that could get people coding, and ended up in homes and schools across the country.

It was a move that brought massive dividends, helping breed at least two generations of bedroom coders, hackers and programmers and boosting a series of companies and technologies that ended up resulting what we know as chip maker ARM.

Now, 30 years on from that move, it seems the BBC is considering whether it should try again — by embarking on a new digital literacy initiative that could spark another revolution and help Britain respond to Schmidt’s criticisms.

The corporation is apparently undertaking a consultation to work out if it should back a ‘new BBC Micro’ scheme — and how it might do so.

The project, which is not yet live, is being led by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University. The group has been contacting people in the industry to ask them for ideas and contributions, according to this email reproduced on the Teach Computing blog.

If you were to make hardware available to schools in the same way as the BBC Micro in 1981, what sorts of hardware would you think was essential to develop the skills and understanding needed?

If you were designing a tv programme today that sought to have the same effect as The Computer Programme in stimulating interest in the most important new area of technological development, what area would you expect it to address and what topics would you expect it to cover? Would it still be in the field of computer science? What areas?

The ambition is fairly clear: “developing a project with the specific purpose of encouraging an interest in computers, computer science and computer programming amongst young people”. But the mail makes it obvious that the process is still incredibly early on — and, as a consultation, there’s clearly no guarantee it will end up with any tangible result.

But it does hint that some of Britain’s biggest institutions are trying to fix a serious issue. Indeed, on Twitter, Professor Keri Facer, who is leading the project, suggested the government and private companies may get heavily involved too. She was sure that partnership would be important, she said — “after all, the govt paid for the last BBC Micro project”.

Whatever happens, the scheme does tap into a wider movement trying to improve computer education — not just in Britain, but worldwide. One Cambridge-based consortium is already developing a low-cost computer known as Raspberry Pi, which is intended to help children learn to code. There is also, famously, the One Laptop Per Child scheme that span out of MIT.

It also chimes with a number of media critics and academics who suggest that not only are open technology systems vital to a healthy democracy — but that we need to make sure the next generation of computer users can really get inside those systems. As Douglas Rushkoff says: “Program or be programmed”.

BBC Micro photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Soupmeister

  1. Yes! It’s time! 28 years since I bought my BBC Model A (and almost immediately upgraded it myself to ‘B’). I worked for ARM, which would never have come about if not for the Beeb’s initiative, and still teach companies how to use the newest ARM chips. It was a sad loss when computer magazines stopped being about ‘how to do stuff’ and became ‘what to buy’. In the same way, British education is failing to motivate and equip creators in favour of users. Britain has precious few natural resources, why let one of its few remaining resources – potential innovators and engineers – atrophy and fall into service industries that bring no new money into the country?

    1. I feel old.

      Anybody remember programming Logo on the BBC B?

    2. Agree totally.

      Kids these days are after instant gratification, and show little interest in how to actually ‘make stuff’.

      But it’s all about engagement. Show them how to make a game for instance, and they’ll want to do it. My kid is interested purely because he sees his dad ‘making stuff’ every day.

  2. Tarique Naseem Monday, October 17, 2011

    It’s because of Acorn / BBC Micro I started in this industry. The built in BASIC language was what got me into programming.

    Back in those days, it was more about how to do things with your computer; creating rather than consuming content. Even the schools had (O’ Level) computing classes which taught actual programming on these very machines.

    It appears that schools now only seem to be interested in teaching kids how to use various packages (MS Word, etc) to complete assignments.

    Sadly, something’s got lost in the last 30 years. We appeared to be more forward thinking back then!

    – I write this as my 10 year old has just today embarked on coding in Python during his school holidays… The Dark Side is strong in this one :)

  3. Tarique Naseem Monday, October 17, 2011

    Actually, I’m not sure Hardware is the answer any more. Schools already have computers. So, why would they opt to buy yet another piece of kit, in a cash strapped industry?

    The initiative should focus on a software solution, which is easy to use for teachers and students alike. An educational IDE if you wish. The BBC Micro worked as they were essentially the first. Not only that, it came with a BUILT IN language, BASIC. Nothing more was needed. They need to focus on something as simple to get into.

    Also, the main hurdle I think they’ll have is with teachers themselves.

    I used to develop educational (gaming) software for schools in the UK. We found that the main issue with the technology wasn’t the kids, but the teachers. They were reluctant to take on the initiatives as they felt that the kids knew more than them. As a result, the teachers needed a lot of support.

  4. leaflet printing Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    I totally agree with Eric Schmidt, Computer Science should definitely be on all school curriculums A.S.A.P. It is so important particularly in this day and age with everything becoming digital

  5. Make ARM based PC systems for under $100 each that use TV sets as a monitor.

  6. BBC mulls new effort to kickstart computer education http://t.co/M42GrAHO #bbc #england #technology #education

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