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BBC Micro retrospective and the Raspberry Pi – educate, inform and entertain

Steve Furber, designer of the original BBC Micro, talks to David Crookes about how the BBC can learn from the past in their new push to teach programming to the masses

Raspberry Pi

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 schools.

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.

BBC Micro

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.

Raspberry Pi
The BBC Micro helped introduce a generation to creative programming

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.”

Eighties explosion

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.”

BBC Micro Raspberry Pi
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 it.”

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 can teach.”

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 more.

“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.”

Scary Linux?

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 coming.”