Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Fourth Science

A couple of months ago I woke up, as is often the case, to the sound of someone on Radio 4 moaning. This particularly fella was from a campaign group called CASE who were campaigning for Computer Science to be taught in schools.

The item immediately caught my attention because it highlighted a huge problem that has long gone unrectified - the absence of any real serious efforts to provide kids with a basic knowledge and understanding of Computer Science - how computers operate and how to programme them.

When I was 12 years old my father had installed a ground-breaking computer system at the Architectural practice he worked for. It was leading edge - a huge investment made to help them design Terminal 4 airport at Heathrow. His early grasp of the importance of computer automation led him to make an equally fateful, at least for me, investment. My Dad bought one of Sir Clive Sinclair's ZX81 computers for home.

The ZX81 was a horrible little lump of plastic encased electronics with a nasty, flat, barely touch-sensitive keyboard that was absolutely hopeless to use. It had a tiny 1k of memory (less than a billionth of the memory in my current mobile phone) and stored computer programmes by connecting to an audio tape recorder and stored them by recording bizarre, unforgettable screaming noises on the tape.

I absolutely loved it.

The ZX81 was a strange computer by today's standards - because it didn't actually do anything. Instead it was equipped with the computer programming language BASIC which consisted of 20 or 30 commands that were combined in lines of code to create computer programmes.

I was fascinated with the challenge that this new device represented - I.e. making this unbroken device work for some useful purpose. I spent every penny I got on computer magazines and books and learned to programme it. I was utterly captivated with the extraordinary power that now rested in my hands to create a computer programme to do absolutely anything! It was staggering and truly breathtaking.

I wrote computer programmes for everything. My first commissions included a programme for calculating damp penetration through different materials, a bus time tabling programme and a raft of original games and copies of the first arcade games - space invaders, pacman, defender, donkey kong, etc. the list was endless. I wrote programmes for computer magazines and had them published and a friend of my father paid me to fill an audio tape with programmes because he had bought a ZX81 but couldn't be bothered to learn how to programme it.

The future potential for what I was doing was limitless.

One day when I was 15 I went into school and told a teacher I wanted to do an O level in Computer Science. He laughed, literally. The school despite having over 2000 pupils only had one dusty BBC microcomputer that was mainly kept on a trolley locked in a cupboard because no-one knew how to use it.

I was told that my idea of doing Computer Science was impossible largely because the final O level consisted not just of written exams and submission of some computer programmes but also some coursework which I would be unable to complete - because the school didn't have a teacher who could provide the course..

I asked if it were possible to pass the O level without doing any course work.
Laughing boy tittered that it was technically but only if someone managed to get close to 100% in the exams and from their submitted programmes... A task that was insurmountable. I gave him my hardest Paddington stare and accepted the deal. To cut a long story short he finally agreed to enter me for the exam some time later.

I went home, typed out some of my computer programmes on a type-writer (I didn't own a printer!) and sent them to the examining board with some notes to explain how they worked.

On the day of the exam, I turned over the exam paper with some trepidation. For one reason or another I hadn't got around to revising. In fact, I didn't actually know what was on the syllabus. Having managed to talk my way into the exam, I was now taking a bit of a flyer. I was slightly concerned in case the exam would require me to illustrate a level of knowledge usually only possessed by mad professors not nerdy gobby schoolboys.

It was my turn to laugh. I still remember the first question. It was - 'What is a BIT?'. Ask anyone who knows anything about computer science and they will tell you, it's the equivalent of asking a student taking an English O level what the first letter of the alphabet is..

Anyway. Back to Radio 4. As I slowly gained consciousness I realised I was listening to someone describing the same problem I had encountered at school but it still existed nearly 30 years later!

Today schools are teaching ICT. ICT basically teaches kids how to use computers. They mainly fiddle about with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Rather than using these sort of tools in every other lesson as tools for writing, managing information and presenting it as they will do later in the workplace, they have a discrete 'lesson' for learning how to use tools and acquire very basic skills that they have NO opportunity to use and develop in the rest of their learning time at school.. Madness.

There is still a complete absence of Computer Science teaching in schools. As someone observed recently it's like teaching people to read but not to write or perhaps more simply it's like learning how to drive a car but without having any understanding of how a car works.

But so what? Why do you need to know how a car works?

You don't If you only want to drive cars with engines and thousands of othe components that others design and make. But if you want to build future industries based on technology then you better at least gives kids the basic ABC building blocks at school and ignite their minds to the limitless possibilities that harnessing the enormous power of computing represents. I would never have gone on to build an IT company, an Internet business or been able to conceive the IT based projects I am currently working on if it had not have been for the ZX81.

So to say I am in support of Michael Gove's recent announcements that he is overhauling the teaching of a computer Science in schools would be a huge understatement. It is absolutely vital.

But to really understand where we, as a nation, went wrong with failing (so far) to harness Computer Science for the betterment of our Country, you have to take a visit to Bletchley Park the home of the first computers developed by the extraordinary Alan Turing - the subject of a future post. Ever since the 1940s we have failed to exploit the fruits of this genius. But I am convinced, it's not too late.

P.S. A bit is a Binary dIgiT. B.I.T simple as ABC.


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