8 years ago
Author: Rob Zwetsloot
Date: Sun, 02 Mar 2014 08:27:50 -0500
The BBC Micro and the Raspberry Pi, two devices designed to help teach coding
in schools. We investigate the link between the two?
When the MP Elizabeth Truss recently reiterated her party?s desire for
children aged 11 and over to learn to program in two languages, her comments
were met with some scepticism. It has been the same since education secretary
Michael Gove spelt out his plans in July for children to be taught about the
definition of algorithms and to be creating and debugging simple computer
programs between the ages of five and seven.
One of the accusations some internet commentators levelled at Truss, the
Conservative parliamentary under-secretary of state with responsibility for
education and childcare, was she would, most likely, be unable to code
herself. ?Do as I say, not as I do? seems to be the mantra among detractors
of what will be a revolutionary approach to the teaching of computing in
Yet that is missing the point entirely. It could perhaps be said, with a
great degree of accuracy, that Truss has very little knowledge of the inner
workings of a computer and that she is familiar with Word, Excel and
Powerpoint to a far greater extent than Python, C++ and the myriad other
languages out there. Never mind getting children to learn at least one
text-based language and encouraging the learning of data structures such as
lists, tables or arrays, it may well be that some MPs wouldn?t have the
faintest idea what that sentence even means.
If this is the case, however, then it is because Truss and her ilk have been
failed. Years of poor- quality IT teaching and an emphasis on using software
rather than creating it has dealt so many children a bad hand. If Truss and
other MPs who are insistent on promoting coding in schools can?t program
themselves, then that is not their fault. You really can, in this instance,
blame it on the system. In attempting to prevent future children from the
same fate, though, their commendable efforts are to be applauded.
For those with long memories, the early days of computing did come with the
idea that we should be teaching children to code. It is for this reason the
BBC lent its name to a series of computers which came to be known as the BBC
Micro, and which were introduced into schools up and down the UK. It was a
success in that it helped to breed a good number of talented programmers and
turned them on to the power and creativity of computing ? but something went
wrong down the line. As computers began to have glossy icon-driven desktops,
children started to be cut off from what was lying under the hood and the rot
began to set in.
[image 2]The BBC Micro helped introduce a generation to creative
Now we are in a position of crisis ? in the sense that too few children are
being introduced to programming ? and the BBC is returning to the field in
which it once played such a great part. Director general Tony Hall announced
plans to bring coding into every home, business and school in the UK in an
initiative that will roll out in 2015. ?We want to inspire a new generation
to get creative with coding, programming and digital technology,? he said.
All that remains is working out exactly what role the BBC wants to play. The
plans are still being formalised; the BBC only knows that it wants to do
something and it has a loose strategy that it hopes to firm up over the
coming months, in partnership with government, teachers and technology
companies. But one person in a great position to advise is Stephen Furber,
one of the designers of the BBC Micro. Today, he is professor of computer
engineering at the University of Manchester and such is his great work in the
field ? he went on to design the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor ? that he was
awarded a CBE in 2008.
?I chaired a Royal Society study of computing in schools which came out very
strongly with the idea that we?ve got to get away from being just users of
technology and back to being i nterested in being creators of technology,?
Furber begins. ?That coincided with the report that Nesta sponsored from the
games industry, which is the Livingston-Hope report, that basically said the
same thing. And, of course, there was the Eric Schmidt MacTaggart lecture
that said the UK was foolishly risking losing the heritage of the BBC Micro.?
Welcoming a curriculum that is even wider than coding: ?It?ll include
robotics and Raspberry Pis and all these other little things that bring
people closer to the technology,? he adds ? Furber says the time is right for
the BBC to get involved again. ?The move to encourage more people to get
engaged in the creative basis of technology is fairly broad and the BBC has
latched on to this and recognised that it can, again, play a role.?
To what extent, though, he is less sure. ?I doubt it can have as
transformative an impact as it did in the Eighties because the world isn?t on
the turn in the same way,? he says. ?When things are starting, the scope to
have a big impact is much greater than when things are in the sort of more
continuous state and today things are still changing but they?re not
transforming ? they?re evolving. I think the BBC realises that it can?t have
the same transformative impact.?
In the early Eighties, there was a civilian explosion in home computing. The
microprocessor developments during the Seventies had put low-cost computing
within reach of the public but there was no set standard, so dozens of
companies in the UK designed their own home computers. The BBC had seen that
the introduction of the microprocessor was going to have a very significant
impact right across general life from home to business and it wanted to do
something, as part of its educational role, to bring the wider public up to
speed on this (Lord John Reith, in establishing the BBC, summarised its
purpose in three words: educate, inform, entertain). The BBC decided it could
best achieve this by adopting a machine and using that as a basis for a
series of TV programmes.
Having begun discussions with Newbury Laboratories, which was producing a
machine called the NewBrain, the BBC had begun to despair of the company?s
ability to deliver a working machine on the timescale they needed, so they
opened the contract up and put it out to tender. Several companies bid for
this, including Sinclair and Acorn, but the BBC was most convinced by the
Acorn offering, even though it was not really in the centre ground of the
spec the corporation was looking for. It was decided the new machine would be
branded the BBC Micro and work continued.
It worked well. The BBC brand had ? and still has ? a lot of public trust and
so, when the BBC Micro came out, the wider public saw this and felt computing
had arrived in some sense.
In volume terms, it was outsold by Sinclair but it was able to establish
itself in schools and among the richer, more conservative computer buyers
(the Micro wasn?t cheap by any means). But that was then. The BBC would be
hard pushed to replicate that kind of success again today.
?I think it?s also the case that the BBC today would find it very difficult
to get directly involved in commercial activity in the way it did with the
BBC Micro,? says Furber. ?There?s no doubt that the BBC?s involvement in
offering its brand for that Acorn product had a very big influence on the
commercial marketplace ? and Sir Clive Sinclair was very upset about it ? but
it was controversial then and I think it?s probably undoable now. I don?t
think the BBC has got quite the ability to operate in the commercial domain
in that way today.?
[image 3]Furber believes Linux would help get children to investigate,
question and probe a lot more
Furber elaborates, noting that the BBC is much more constrained in terms of
how it can engage: ?I don?t think it would be appropriate. At no point have
they said they want to sponsor a new BBC Micro. Their emphasis is different
and quite rightly so. But they are still one of the world?s biggest and most
respected media companies and they have a lot of influence. If they choose to
use that influence in this positive way then I think we could all welcome
There are still lessons to be learned from those early days, he says. One of
the problems was that the BBC Micro, while booting with a BASIC prompt and
letting you type programs immediately, wasn?t actually used like that in the
vast majority of schools. ?There was a fairly significant emphasis on
programming but actually if you look at the way BBC Micros were used in
schools, a lot of that was using software produced by the very large number
of software companies that developed to ride the bandwagon and a lot of the
schools? use was not actually around writing programmes.?
BBC?s new push
It is this aspect that the BBC today will be hoping to change and yet, as the
BBC?s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones noted, ?Many teachers feel
they lack the skills and the materials needed to teach coding?. A survey by
Will Akerman, managing director of MyKindaCrowd, discovered 69 per cent
of teachers don?t think the Government will provide enough support for them
and 96 per cent would welcome the closer involvement of business to help them
build the practical skills and knowledge of their students. ?From our
anecdotal knowledge and our survey, it is clear teachers don?t feel able or
prepared to teach the new curriculum,? Mr Akerman said. ?There has been a
shift ? and it is a tremendous one ? but teachers have to hit the ground
running. It could be fantastic and close the skills gap, but people will say
the initiative has not worked if teachers are not in the position where they
This is something Furber certainly agrees with: ?The biggest issue that has
to be overcome is the training of teachers to cope with this. ICT was not
only, in many schools, fairly passive, it was also a fairly low-grade subject
in terms of the staff appointment. Quite often the ICT class would be taken
by the slightly underused geography teacher, because they couldn?t find
anybody else to do it. If you?re going to introduce some real programming and
peering into operating systems, then you need some people who?ve got some
reasonable computer science background on the teaching staff and most schools
just don?t have that.?
Rather than partner with a computing company and badge up another machine,
Furber believes the BBC would do better helping
teachers to learn to program and provide education tools for students to use.
He also believes that Linux would be the answer. He feels using Linux would
help get children away from the accepted familiarity of a Windows or OS X
environment and would help make them question, probe and investigate a lot
?If you needed a reasonably substantial operating system, then it seems to me
Linux is the obvious choice because what else are you going to go for??
questions Furber. ?It?s free, it?s public domain, it?s got enough momentum to
move with the technology and the greatest thing about it is that it isn?t
Windows, right? I live in an academic world where I use a Mac but all my
students and post docs use Linux. If you went and scraped around my group
hard enough you might find one or two machines that run Windows but Linux has
become the standard platform for most academic work these days and that is
because it is more open.?
Since a lot of the academic work being carried out by Furber?s students is
software development, they require that openness: ?If you want to do software
development on Windows you?ve got to kind of live in a fairly closed box.
Unix has always been about software development ? software development is in
its genes ? and Linux has carried that tradition forward: all the standard
ways that people build complex software will find direct force in Linux in a
way that they don?t anywhere else.?
But, we ask, wouldn?t Linux scare the teachers? ?Oh I?m sure it would, yes,?
he says. ?But of course Raspberry Pi is doing that. I think any digging into
operating systems is going to terrify teachers, whatever the operating system
and the number of teachers who have got the background and experience to cope
with that is very limited.?
The BBC, it seems, is therefore entering a tricky arena. In seemingly having
decided against badging up a BBC Micro 2 ? discussions have been held but
ultimately have come to nothing ? the corporation can concentrate on the
central message. It matters less what computer children use and the BBC could
get caught up in that whole issue and lose focus. What matters more is that
they develop coding skills that would make technophiles of the nation?s kids
rather than see them grow into disinterested technophobes ? which is a
dangerous situation in today?s world.
While some may scoff ? journalist Willard Foxton wrote a blog on the Daily
Telegraph website claiming ?coding is a niche, mechanical skill, a bit like
plumbing or car repair?, calling the bulk of developers ?exceptionally dull
weirdos? and saying ICT was taught by ?the runts of the teaching litter and
seen as pointless by pupils? ? such people will become the exception in the
future should these plans come off. Besides, the interest in the Raspberry Pi
is showing that there is an appetite for learning programming in greater
depth among the nation?s young.
?I think Raspberry Pi is great. Probably the greatest thing about it is the
kind of buzz it?s created and the enthusiasm and all these events that I keep
hearing about,? says Furber. ?They?re encouraging people to get interested
and enthusiastic. The Pi itself is not unique but it has generated a unique
buzz and that itself is great. The BBC is probably right to keep a little bit
of distance from that, but together there is a sense that real change is