BBC mulls new effort to kickstart computer education

A couple of months ago Google chairman Eric Schmidt stirred up a hornet’s nest when he gave a stern and blunt speech aimed at the British media and educational establishment. The message: you suck at teaching computer science.

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in U.K. schools,” Schmidt told the audience in Edinburgh, Scotland. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but it doesn’t teach people how it’s made. It risks throwing away your great computing heritage.”

The heritage he refers to is rich, but often ignored today, since West coast companies dominate. But Britain did play its part in the development of the industry: the U.K. was the home of the first computer that could store programs, The Baby; the place where computer science pioneer Alan Turing lived and died; and the site of the first commercial business computer, LEO.

It wasn’t just stiff upper-lipped boffins meddling around with machines during the war, either. Britain was also the place where huge and unlikely institutions helped fire the home computer revolution of the 1980s.

Take a look at what the BBC did when it took on a mission to help educate and inform people about this coming revolution, for example, by embarking on what was known as the “Computer Literacy Project”. In 1981 one of the world’s foremost broadcasters produced a regular TV show about programming (yes, really) and at the same time threw its lot in with a local computer firm, Acorn, to produce a range of machines that could get people coding, and ended up in homes and schools across the country.

It was a move that brought massive dividends, helping breed at least two generations of bedroom coders, hackers and programmers and boosting a series of companies and technologies that ended up resulting what we know as chip maker ARM.

Now, 30 years on from that move, it seems the BBC is considering whether it should try again — by embarking on a new digital literacy initiative that could spark another revolution and help Britain respond to Schmidt’s criticisms.

The corporation is apparently undertaking a consultation to work out if it should back a ‘new BBC Micro’ scheme — and how it might do so.

The project, which is not yet live, is being led by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University. The group has been contacting people in the industry to ask them for ideas and contributions, according to this email reproduced on the Teach Computing blog.

If you were to make hardware available to schools in the same way as the BBC Micro in 1981, what sorts of hardware would you think was essential to develop the skills and understanding needed?

If you were designing a tv programme today that sought to have the same effect as The Computer Programme in stimulating interest in the most important new area of technological development, what area would you expect it to address and what topics would you expect it to cover? Would it still be in the field of computer science? What areas?

The ambition is fairly clear: “developing a project with the specific purpose of encouraging an interest in computers, computer science and computer programming amongst young people”. But the mail makes it obvious that the process is still incredibly early on — and, as a consultation, there’s clearly no guarantee it will end up with any tangible result.

But it does hint that some of Britain’s biggest institutions are trying to fix a serious issue. Indeed, on Twitter, Professor Keri Facer, who is leading the project, suggested the government and private companies may get heavily involved too. She was sure that partnership would be important, she said — “after all, the govt paid for the last BBC Micro project”.

Whatever happens, the scheme does tap into a wider movement trying to improve computer education — not just in Britain, but worldwide. One Cambridge-based consortium is already developing a low-cost computer known as Raspberry Pi, which is intended to help children learn to code. There is also, famously, the One Laptop Per Child scheme that span out of MIT.

It also chimes with a number of media critics and academics who suggest that not only are open technology systems vital to a healthy democracy — but that we need to make sure the next generation of computer users can really get inside those systems. As Douglas Rushkoff says: “Program or be programmed”.

BBC Micro photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Soupmeister