The BBC Micro and computer literacy

This weekend I’ve read a fascinating pamphlet published in 1983 by the BBC’s Education Department. Towards Computer Literacy (pdf) describes a 1982 TV series educating the general public about computers and programming, and the wider computer literacy project the BBC launched around the series.

The project included materials for schools; outreach to computer societies and clubs, further education colleges, and a host of other bodies; the establishment of a standard BBC version of the Basic programming language; and of course the development of the BBC Micro. This wildly successful home computer launched many a career in the industry, such as that of David Braben, who co-wrote Elite and is now behind the Raspberry Pi; and indeed a number of important companies including ARM Holdings (the descendant of Acorn which developed and manufactured the BBC Micro).

The people who made the BBC Micro happen, at a 2008 reunion (from Wikipedia)

The pamphlet is a fascinating read. There was a more colourful account in the BBC 4 programme The Micro Men but its focus was on Acorn. The striking thing about the project as a whole – in addition to its remarkable impact on the skills and enthusiasm of a whole generation, and on British industry – is what an extensive effort it was. It involved the co-ordination of a host of organisations and individuals, and all before we had email too. There’s an introduction by Aubrey Singer, then the Managing Director of BBC Television, which ends:

“This booklet tells the story of success in the beginning, but the real measure of it lies in the achievements of our audience in the years ahead.”

Twenty eight years later, it still looks like a story of success on this count too. Well worth a read.

PS One reason for my interest in BBC history is that I’m Vice-Chairman of the BBC Trust.




12 thoughts on “The BBC Micro and computer literacy

  1. Diane – This is an inspiring account of the start of the story 30 years ago, I am thirsty for the next chapter now.

    Many of those in the technology sector will agree that the huge impact caused by the 1980s BBC Micro project has left a lasting legacy that needs revitalising and reshaping to capture the imagination of today’s generation of children.

    While children in countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and India are being fed an educational diet that includes a core of computational thinking, there are clearly visible signs that the UK is already lagging behind in a sector in which it was once a world leader.

    Although it is very laudable for UK Government to encourage children to study traditional academic subjects like latin, biblial hebrew and ancient latin for the recently introduced english baccalaureate – personally, I can not see what positive contribution this will make to the long term economic depression our country finds itself in.

    A decade ago it was judged necessary and appropriate to provide our children with practical ICT skills they could use in the workplace, but in doing so neglected the vital discipline that is computational thinking. There is now, more than ever a need for a broad and balanced technology curriculum that allows all children opportunities to experience computing, programming and coding.

    We do not know precisely what future lives our children will live. One certainty is that software is quite definitely taking over the world and this is growing day by day, not just in the broadcasting sector but in every area including health care, entertainment, retail and stock markets. If we do not empower and engage our children to become confident users and creators of software, we are denying them the chance to succeed in the future global workplace.

    Perhaps it is our very children, rather than our teachers that we should be providing guidance, support, materials and resources to so that there are no further barriers to their learning.

    It was encouraging to hear this week that Keri Facer, Professor of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University has been asked by the BBC to consult opinions of teachers, professors and professionals to hear what their views are regarding the BBC’s role in this area. I would encourage anyone with an interest to contact her for further details.

  2. Diane, I couldn’t agree more about the legacy of the BBC Computer Literacy Project and indeed the ‘Beeb’ itself. Looking back it seems an incredibly brave and bold programme, the scale of which I find difficult to believe would be sanctioned in today’s corporation. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the project played an enormous part in propelling the UK to where it is today at the forefront of world’s internet and computer entertainment economy.

    My BBC Micro Model B was a present from my forward-thinking parents – I was only 6 years old, and my folks were on the receiving end of much criticism from other parents at the time. I wrote a piece about it recently, questioning what equivalent horizon-broadening career-influencing present I might buy for my children today, and was pleasantly surprised by the feedback from others who fondly treasure their memories of the beige box with its bright red function keys sat on a trolley in the corner of the classroom. I’m certain it helped to shape my career working with technology, and now I know how it shaped others’ too.

    Hats off to the brave pioneers behind the BBC Computer Literacy Project whose legacy has been to inspire a generation of competency and leadership in computing, and may their example now inspire and empower further bold projects and programmes, both within the corporation and beyond, to ensure our next generation gets a head start too.

  3. I think the conditions and rollout of such a scheme, now, would have an entirely different model perhaps? Certainly it would not be a top down one driven by a few extremely insightful and talented people but could, in the present day, surely co-op a much wider collection of people from the ground up as well because of the nature of how we are connected now?

    Yes, it was a success and spawned a whole industry, and a gaming industry by dint of the Spectrum and competition between commercial firms but we are still left with dearth of programming in our schools. I seem to remember that what drove a fair bit of interest in and development of new ways of using these devices were the fanzines, magazines and early bulletin boards – in effect, the social activity around what happened when the kit came out. Not what happened in schools…

    Perhaps we need to consider the nature of how we learn and interact anew. Yes, the Raspberry Pi is an interesting and exciting development but this time around what might be of more interest would be to redesign the infrastructure of “social inflection” around the kit and the systems by which we co-opt people to use and program such devices and reflect on how that could be amplified and the implications for cultural change in this area.

    My worry is that all this might be rapidly “systemised” and that inappropriate introduction of anything new like this could cause a fairly quick pallor of disinterest from only those people who are aficionados or those eager to learn how to program the devices without the “what do we do with them” side of things.

    I am glad that new developments like the Raspberry Pi encourage open source models and rapid prototyping rather than “black box” thinking. There is a big upsurge of Maker Fairs and rapid prototyping in this country which could be co-opted into any introduction of such devices. And by that I also mean rapid prototyping of social ways of coming together to code and work. The Knight-Mozilla foundation’s Mojo project in tandem with the BBC, the Guardian and other media companies is that very “Social inflection” needed around this activity perhaps. But that necessitates reconfiguring how we learn and how we work in more authentic ways and is disruptive.

    But that is, after all, how the last project succeeded – through exceptionally good networking and collaboration and people thinking ahead.

    I think too, that there is a wider pedagogical debate here as well in that how we use cheap and engaging equipment in institutions like schools. Again it will obviously necessitate a disruption of how we do business as a culture and that must be anticipated. UX design has been with us since the 40’s last century yet rarely is it considered in how we approach learning.

    I too am extremely excited about a new initiative to take any MIcro MK II forwards and I have already contributed to the resources and the advice requested. It will be fascinating to see if this evolves into a world beating culture of making and use whereby we again co-opt a whole generation into the joys of computational thinking. Exciting times.

  4. Oh its nice to know that the warm glow that the humble Beeb provokes in so many people, may have reached such heady heights within Aunty. But can it make our dear Aunt stir again and can she respond for a new age, a new generation, a new problem?

    I spend most weekends welcoming visitors to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park where they marvel at the wartime exploits of the Colossus builders and the accomplishments of the wartime codebreakers. But as the visitors meander down the corridor many hear a faint ‘beep’ in the distance, a familiar tone to some…can it be? As they turn expectantly into one of our galleries they are confronted with a row of BBC computers all running and waiting for the children (now adults) to sit once again and peck at those keys. Those ‘box’ screens still flicker and whistle, but now only the young complain as old ears are perhaps less sensitive. Some will copy a prog from a magazine, others will flick through that User Guide again and experiment and a few will venture to try some something locked away in their heads now 30 years past. “Was it 30 INPUT N? – yes, but it needed a $ for strings…”, “Dad what’s a string?”

    We don’t give them homework and they don’t get scolded anymore for making the Beeb make those loud electronic sounds… “OMG I remember it all had to be in upper case”, I hear a man say. “This is what I did my Computer Studies project on son…”; his son looks at him and at the Beeb and back again; “Mum, dad is acting strangely”.

    It’s easy to smile and join them in their moment of nostalgia. I point out the floppy disc, those pesky cassettes and over the other side of the room Chris Serle is getting those lessons in programming from Ian McNaught Davis all over again, followed by the Kraftwork theme tune and of course the owl flaps into our living rooms once more.

    BBC Domesday Laser discs reflect the light and attract the wonder of the visitor… “I remember that”, they say and they sit and some find their 25 year old contribution tucked away in some distant part of the UK. “Not a mobile phone in sight”, one woman says looking at Domesday pics, whilst another visitor is leafing through an old Computer Studies Exam paper, and his son is asking…”dad, what was Ceefax and Prestel?”.

    Hidden amongst the nostalgia, the history, the warm happy memories is that moment in time where (for once) an initiative seemed right, seemed to excite, seemed to connect a whole generation to a coming age that we couldn’t be sure was for good or ill.

    A piece of social engineering, surely not? After all this was Thatcher’s world and the free market was our saviour wasn’t it, not an elderly Aunty! So what on earth was our cuddly Aunty up to? I don’t think everyone in the BBC was equally excited about the corporation sponsoring a computer? A computer? What? A book maybe, but a computer?

    “Dad, can we get Facebook on this?”, No son, we bought these magazines and spent all Saturday typing in the program in and if you got it right you typed RUN and it well, was a game where we shot asteroids”. “Why didn’t you just download it Dad?”, “Well son there wasn’t an internet and erm…look I can draw coloured triangles…”

    Maybe it was a unique time. A combination of; a belief that an initiative by Government could make a difference; a BBC that oozed creativity and daring and took some chances, happy to fail sometimes; a nation ready, hungry, starry eyed at some new fangled device that was magical and would do anything, (except load your favourite game from a cassette just when you wanted it to).

    “Dad, where is the mouse? and does it show pictures?”, “No mouse son; look see I can get it to print the 4 times table – cool eh?”, “Cool Dad, hmmm maybe. Are you sure there is no mouse?”.

    Oh Aunty you made a difference, such a difference…so many kids, and mums and dads owe their failing eyesight to you and those awful wobbly screens. You got it right and you really were our favourite Aunty, and of course we will give you a big kiss on your licence fee.

    Can you do it again? There is a need, a definite need; but a different need. Different audience too, tech ‘savy’ or so they think, wanting more than a night typing in a 300 line program and just as likely to chat over their experience with a friend in San Franciso as next door. Sadly Chris Serle wont cut it again (sorry Chris) and some of my young visitors don’t even know what a cassette is for.

    “Come on son, time to go”, says Dad. “Hold on dad, I want to get this working”. Dad smiles knowingly. Something happens for some children, something connects and hooks their attention. “Look dad, enter your name….”; Dad laughs as he remembers…IF N$=”dad” THEN PRINT “hello “;N$; “ you are so NOT cool”.

    It’s time to take a chance Aunty; a chance on our young people. Sure you need to be at your best, clever, imaginative, modern. But you can do it, who else will ? It’s time be less like a dad and more like an Aunty – a really cool Aunty.

    Kids can code but they need to find it in their world, so make it cool. Make it so us adults don’t get it, make it with female presenters, get it into Eastenders, make it online and over the air, make it fun and connected to ‘stuff’. Make it soon….please.

    Come on Aunty, over to you.

  5. The BBC Micro was the first computer I ever owned and it was a direct result of the Computer Literacy Project. As such, my entire career has been shaped by my experience with the BBC Micro and the BBC Literacy Project and I used Acorn computers throughout my education right up until University where the onslaught of the IBM PC compatible had already gained a foothold.

    It’s fair to say that the Acorn technology I was exposed throughout my formative years had a massive impact on every aspect of my life. It’s a shame that the BBC Literacy Project came to an end as it provided a great foundation to learn how to program computers. ICT lessons these days just don’t go that far and we’re at risk of having a generation of users rather than creators.

    Projects like David Braben’s Raspberry Pi are attempting to fill that gap but I wonder if it’s too little, too late. I sincerely hope not.

  6. Some fantastic comments, and memories of how the BBC changed lives back in the early 1980s. I am amongst those, having received an Acorn Electron for my 10th birthday.

    As one other commentator has noted, the landscape has changed now. All schools have a range of computers and technology available to kids. During my research around school for our Games Britannia project, the majority of kids had access to at least one PC, probably a SmartPhone, and at least one games console at home.

    The challenge behind the next BBC project (and Games Britannia) is how to motivate our young people to actually learn to program the devices that they have access to. Delivering Computing as part of the curriculum will be a major step in the right direction, but what else?

    Chris Monk makes a great point. it has to be cool. Probably the coolest thing you can create with computers are games? After all, the main leading lights of this project, and the community all entered the industry making games – Ian Livingstone, David Braben, Andy Payne, Charles Cecil, The Oliver Twins, etc. Its more than likely the reason you got into programming.

    Why can’t this work with our young people who are passionate about computer games? Our own Games Britannia project, through a multitude of cross-curricular workshops, seminars and activities hopes to inspire and empower the next generation of British videogame talent.

  7. I just came back over here from Michael Sparks’ blog post , in which he points out how valuable it was that the BBC legitimised programming, and made computer literacy into something respectable and educational.

    These days policymakers tend to look upon the BBC as a creator of ‘content’ but I do think that its greatest value in a weightless world is as a creator of what the economists call Public Goods and Network Effects. The BBC Micro project was an excellent example of both. It’s hard to imagine it being replicated by an institution that was motovated by profit, and yet it fits very well with the BBC’s unique funding and mission. I do hope you’re not the only member of the BBC Trust who understands Brian Arthur!

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