I was very lucky that the secondary school that I attended, some 30 years ago now, had links with the Rutherford Appleton labs and had a teletype connection to a mainframe there. I remember writing a simple program in, I think, COBOL and excitedly receiving back the punched cards with the program and the result. Even more clearly I remember playing some Star Trek type game on it. I was hooked.
After a couple of years the teletype was replaced with a an impressive looking black box – the Research Machines 380Z. This was seriously state of the art back in 1977 with it’s dual floppy drives and it’s 4 Mhz processor speed! The whole thing was substantially built, which it needed to be given the classroom environment that it was meant for. There was a story doing the rounds at the time, which I am quite sure is apocryphal, that one had been recovered from a pond and was still in working order. Whilst it was well built I cannot imagine for a minute that it was waterproof in any way. Still it was an impressive machine and, along with that teletype, ensured that Computer Studies was one option I took at ‘O’ level.
My introduction to programming came in the form of CESIL, which stood for Computer Education in Schools Instruction Language. This was by today’s standards a very simplistic language but did introduce a whole generation of children to the art that is programming. Just a few years later I had moved onto BASIC and had written a CESIL interpreter for the Sinclair Spectrum. All of this led to me know exactly what I wanted to do with my life from a very early age. I have no idea how my school came to have a computer of any description but it sparked my imagination and has given me a career.
Computer education in schools these days has changed immeasurably since my days. For a start my school had only the single 380Z. My children’s schools have whole computing suites and their mobiles have more computing power than the 380Z. Regrettably computer studies now seems to consist of how to make the most of Microsoft Office which, while undoubtedly useful in the modern office environment, it isn’t great grounding for the latest generation of developers. Despite the promise of fourth generation languages that would be coded in plain English development seems as complex these days as it did in 1977. How are they learning?