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Saturday 28 January 2012

15 years computing + 15 using a computer

- and just now realising exactly what I've been missing for the last 15!

Amazing what you can forget - and what can bring the memory back. And what a memory restored can make you realise again. Suddenly, I'm remembering again three houses like Goldilocks's three bowls of porridge: a grandfather house, a grandmother house and a teeny-weeny little baby house - and not a roof between them. I remember them and along with them I suddenly realise what I've been missing all these years. An article in the i newspaper (Thursday, 26/01/12) has plunged me into a great hot bath of nostalgia, reminding me that it is the thirtieth anniversary of the Commodore computer. I never had or used a Commodore, so what's this all about then, you're entitled to enquire. Well, I would say that it was the Commodore that changed the world, certainly the world of teaching/learning - even though many schools never had one. I would have dearly loved to say that it was the Apple "what did it", and some will say t'was the Acorn, but sorry guys, I'm sticking with the Commodore. The Commodore 64, to be precise. - The "64" in its name indicated its memory: 64 kilobytes! Cutting edge back then. (here) The image is from Wikipedia.

Back in the eighties I was running a special needs school when the government in its very great wisdom decided that every school in the country should be given a computer - begging the question, of course, of what a school might do with ONE computer! In due course, we received ours - an Acorn (or if you prefer, a BBC, since it was constructed to a specification laid down by the BBC). If I remember correctly - and everything in this post will depend upon that! - the BBC came out just after the Commodore. At any rate, we ripped the wrapping from the box, eased the machine out of said box, took a shifty at the manual, plugged in the machine - and sat there looking at it. It looked back at us. There was no way in. There were no programmes like Windows, back then, of course. Nothing at all in the way of an interface between the machine language which it, being a machine, would naturally understand (and which consisted entirely of long strings of 0s and 1s), and the sort of language that a human being might comprehend. In other words, before it would do anything at all it had to be programmed. The enlightenment that had overtaken the government - and to some extent, the BBC - did not extend to supplying software to make it work. There were one or two programmes around commercially, but nothing that might be suitable for our purposes.

I decided that I would learn a suitable language. A couple of members of staff agreed to join me. One stayed with me to the end. The easiest - and therefore quickest - to learn would be BASIC (standing for: Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). The BBC had a more advanced version: BBC BASIC (you could have guessed, couldn't you?). We began by teaching ourselves BBC Basic. Later, there was the American firm Tandy trying to break into the UK schools market and offering courses, some of which we undertook.

My opening sentences describe the opening screen of my first programme. It was envisaged as part of a programme (not a computer programme, but a graded series of exercises aimed at developing the ability of very young children to estimate size). The screen opened with the three houses described above. Then a roof appeared. The child selected the house s/he thought it might fit. The roof obediently slid on to that house. If the choice had been correct, the windows of the house lit up and the chimney puffed little balls of smoke before the next roof slid into view.

Yes, I know, but the most sophisticated programme any of us had seen until then was Tennis. You played against the machine. A white dot travelled up and down the screen, bouncing off white lines top and bottom - unless you, the player, could intercept it near the base line with your "bat" - a short white dash. Remarkable it was, how mesmerised it was possible to become by that white dot.

But having written a programme, there was a problem yet to be solved. The machine didn't have enough memory to take a programme. So the programme was saved to a cassette tape and played to the machine. It took ages (10 to 15 minutes for my houses) if all went well. More usually, though, all would not go well: it would cough and splutter and report a fault very near the end, and so the thing would have be rewound and we would try again. Whenever possible, the teacher would load the tape before school began - or certainly before the lesson began. It would be a while before government or local finances would run to a disc drive.

Later, other goodies arrived. One was Logo. (here) This was a programming language that the pupils could use. You had a turtle on the screen and told it to move FORWARD 5 (say) or to turn RIGHT 20 (say) and it would do as instructed, leaving a trail behind it. So it was possible to construct even complicated geometric patterns, for example. As their familiarity with the turtle's understanding of their instructions improved it became possible for the students to input a programme of turns and moves and to state how many times it should repeat. They could then watch the result of their programme unfold on the screen before their very eyes. A simple example would be: REPEAT 4 [FD 100 RT 90]This would produce a square. Later still, came a floor turtle. This could be programmed in exactly the same way. Furthermore the pupils could now set up an obstacle course and attempt to programme the turtle to run the course. The excitement that resulted from their feeling that - possibly for the first time in their lives - they were making something happen, was unforgettable.

The drawing shows the result of a programme several stages on from the one given above. A square is drawn, then saved to the terrapin (or turtle). The terrapin can now reproduce it in response to the command "square". Using this mechanism, a set of four squares is drawn and taught to the terrapin as "window". Finally, several "windows" are drawn, the terrapin turning a specified amount after each. (It is not necessary at this stage to worry the youngsters with terms like "degrees". The terrapin knows they are degrees, the children need not.)

The floor terrapin, fitted with felt pens, could draw these figures big time on large sheets of paper. Or, as already mentioned, it could be programmed to run an obstacle course. Some spectacular crashes could result, but to see very young children, who might be really struggling with basic literacy, setting about to debug their faulty computer programme was all but unbelievable.

It is interesting in this context to hear a spokesperson for the CBI say that businesses cannot find school leavers with the necessary computer skills, whilst the government, in the shape of Michael Gove, is waking up to realise that the current schools ICT syllabus puts too much emphasis on computer admin' skills (spread sheets, mail merges, data bases and word processors etc) and almost none on coding for programming. They are saying that this must change. (I am merely saying that it's interesting that they are saying it!)

However, not only the students felt the glow of achievement at making something happen. I, too, felt it more and more as I got into programming. So much so that when I retired and acquired a computer I designed myself a website, thinking that HTML might replace the not-so-basic BASIC, but of course HTML is not a programming language in that sense. It does not create anything, it merely instructs the browser how to display it.


Christine said...

Quite an interesting historical account of the coming of technology to the community. A story that should be preserved for some future historian. Hats off to yourself for working out how to make it work

Cloudia said...

not only are you classically educated, but a pioneer programer too!

You are a wonder, Dave

Warm Aloha from Waikiki
Comfort Spiral

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Tabor said...

Boy does this take me back...I remember our first computer and my first class I took from an American professor at the University of Jogjakarta, of all places.

Mary said...

As a 6th grade teacher, my first computer in the classroom was an Apple IIe. I remember Basic and Logo and having the kids work with both. Of course,the other sixth grade teacher and I had to learn it right WITH them. We used to work noon hours with the especially able and interested..just for fun, as we thought it was fun too. Eventually I bought my own Apple IIe, and truly I thought I had then 'arrived.' Ha. Anyway I hadn't thought about those days for a long time. Interesting though that Apple survived and Commodore and Tandy are long gone. No schools that I know of here had either Commodores or Tandys. Schools knew the way to go was Apple, it seemed. by the time I retired, all classrooms in my school had at least one computer; and also a Mac Lab and a PC Lab. So much change in a comparatively few years.

The Weaver of Grass said...

How well I remember those one computer per school days Dave - we had it in each class for a limited time and some of us leart the very basic moves to be able to work some programmes. Then it was who could use it? Was it to be used as a reward for good work/behaviour or for a specific skill? I honestly felt at the time that it did more harm than good until more came on the scene. Those were the days eh?

Carl said...

I learned my BASIC on a TANDY TRS-80 computer at School and my mom got hooked on it as well. I remember well the first time sitting in front of the screen thinking now what.... You eventually get over that. The best thing that computer gave me was comfort around other computers and knowing the secret that there is nothing in it to be afraid of.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

It's amazing how fast time can turn out to be: the world of computers and software I hadn't the least idea of what it could not only become but BE only twenty years ago, now instead, as marvellously is evident in your account, already possesses its own archeology.

Windsmoke. said...

We've certainly come along way since then considering we have hand held portable devices that just about do anything, well almost :-).

Brian Miller said...

interesting..i remember being one of the 'gifted' students that were allowed on the first computer at school...now look at it...if you are not using technology you are not engaging kids...

Dave King said...

Thanks Christine, but we had some good teachers. What was interesting one stage later was to see the children - even young ones with learning difficulties - showing the teachers how to work the hardware. The downside was that the software in school didn't measure up to that which they had at home.

Hardly a pioneer, i'm afraid. We were flying the thing by the seats of our pants, if you like, but more intrepid guys had gone before us. Some, though, who moved into microelectronics were close enough to ground level to make a killing later on.

Great days, eh? Thanks for telling.

Great account. Thanks for it. Really good to hear how it was for you and to compare notes.

The Weaver of Grass
Yes, we went through the same heart-searching. I remember some members of staff who thought it should be kept for wet play times! The clerical assistant thought it should go in the office.

You put your finger on the big issue, I think. The battle was won if you could convince all and sundry that hitting the wrong key would not cause it to blow up!

Yes, that's absolutely true. It has gone from gee whizz almost to yawn in a couple of decades.

Give 'em time, they will!

That's right. Some of my colleagues in main stream schools were apt to argue that computers would be wasted on kids with special needs - unless used as aids for the sensory or physically deprived, of course.

Carl said...

Dave - It has served me well. All these years later I find myself IT MGR for a healthcare company with almost 2000 employees... :-) Being a nerd paid off.

Wander said...

"One was Logo. (here) This was a programming language that the pupils could use".This was advanced for where I grew up While the rest of the world was starting to use early versons of windows we were making turtles crawl...
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