The Spectrum, the Pi - and the coding backlash

ZX Spectrum

A wave of nostalgia is sweeping Britain today, with men in their 40s the group most affected. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the first computer to enter many a teenage bedroom, is 30 today, and its birthday has sparked a deal of soul-searching about the technology available to today's teens.

Millions of misty-eyed middle-aged men - and I'm pretty sure the Spectrum was mainly a boy's toy - are remembering that their first experience of computing meant getting their hands dirty. Before doing anything interesting like playing a game, they had first to go through the laborious job of typing in a program - and, the argument goes, that very process meant that programming itself became interesting.

Whereas today's teenagers turn on their computers, their tablet computers and smartphones, and start playing games without any of the creative input that programming involves. The result, say the nostalgists, is that today's "digital natives" are in fact a lot less savvy about computers than their dinosaur dads who grew up with the Spectrum and the BBC Micro in the 1980s.

One possible solution to this problem arrived in my home over the weekend, the first computer that has ever come into the house via the letterbox. (Here's a video showing just how small it is.) The tiny Raspberry Pi, a cheap credit card sized computer, is a project which has caught the imagination of the same crowd which remembers the Spectrum with such affection.

Timelapse footage of Rory unwrapping his Raspberry Pi

While it has a processor 200 times faster and a memory bigger by an order of thousands, the Pi is in some ways even more basic - and more demanding of its users - than its 1980s predecessor. You have to find not only a television, but a keyboard, mouse and your own power adapter before you can actually get going.

So will the digital generation have the patience to tackle the Raspberry Pi? "My impression is that the attention span of young people over the last 30 years has probably not lengthened," Richard Altwasser, who designed the ZX Spectrum, told the BBC.

Richard Altwasser Mr Altwasser designed the ZX Spectrum

But amongst some of those who learned their computing the hard way there is something of a backlash against the idea that today's children - or older beginners - need to be given an easy introduction into the world of coding. My post last week on a one day course promising an introduction to coding provoked quite a response.

Many people were enthusiastic, but some coders felt that I was belittling their profession, that web languages like HTML, CSS and Javascript were a long way from proper coding, and that the idea that you could learn anything in a day was a joke.

Leading the charge was Andrew Orlowski, a brilliant but provocative software engineer turned writer, whose articles in The Register are always a good read - even if he's talking arrant nonsense. In a piece headlined Compulsory coding in schools - the new nerd tourism, he describes the sudden burst of interest in coding by "bien pensant media folk" as "staggeringly ignorant and misplaced" and says it could end up doing far more harm than good.

Really? There is certainly a move to reform the teaching of ICT in schools - but it has been led by teachers themselves, by computer and games industry executives and by coders, not by "bien pensant media folk". And the picture Mr Orlowski paints of weeping children being frog-marched into compulsory coding classes owes more to his overheated imagination than reality.

Far from ordering schools to teach programming, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has effectively told them to do whatever they like about ICT, leaving many unsure what computing education will look like next September.

Mr Orlowski may, however, have a point about one thing - coding is unlikely to become a mass market activity. The same of course was true of the 1980s. The ZX Spectrum may have been Britain's best-selling computer but it was still a minority sport and millions grew up without learning anything about coding.

But what's the better message to send to today's schoolchildren? Don't even think about coding, it's much too hard. Or have a go, you might just like it.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I wrote my first program, a slot machine game in BASIC, on a Tandy TRS-80 in around 1980 but really got into coding on a BBC B. It eventually led to a job working in IT and whilst I think many jobs require use of applications and support there's much less demand for coders and only those with a real flair will find employment as one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    28 hippoellie

    It would be interesting to see some numbers regarding home computer use in the 1980's. My personal recollection (though clouded by the passing years!), was that home computers were indeed seen as more of a "boy" thing at the time. It's not sexist to acknowledge that sexist views existed in the past. To shy away from that perception is to risk repeating it in the present.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    DEEPLY sexist!!! Programming was introduced in comprehensive schools, thanks to BBC computers, all of which were co-ed, so girls and boys started programming together. My brother and I spent equal time with our Spectrum (in fact it was a house rule that we did have equal time). He went on to be an engineer, I'm the girl with the computing qualification, and have taught computing for many years!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I think people are sometimes missing the point. Computer science is not always about coding. Understanding computer architecture is vital; CPU, prog memory, data memory; interfacing with USB.Try unravelling a program developed to run on a windows platform to see why a simplier hw platform can provide the insight to grasp the fundamentals of any computer system. All kids should have a slice of PI

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    My first computer (1971) was a CDC 6600 at the University of London Computer Centre. It was the size of a football pitch, and we programmed it in FORTRAN. The Pi running Linux will also be able to run FORTRAN and is more powerful than the 6600. Just need to figure out how to interface the card reader to run my old programs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Programming should be a mandatory part of the schols IT syllabus. Show children how to programme a basic routine and then let those who want, follow-up their interest. Hopefully into the world of apps or software developers. It more important than ever that they understand how technology is driven...

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I buiit hardware using 74xx chips. I built a ZX80 from the kit because it was £50 cheaper than a ready built. I built a Microtan65 (6502 based) kit.

    Then I went to work on mainframes. I'm one of the old grumpies who moan about the kids being taught HTML and powerpoint and not the hardware or the bare bones.

    I can't wait for a Raspberry Pi to join my Arduino so I can teach my 12 yr old son IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    19 G

    I think John_from_Hendon meant to say you don't need *new* hardware to code. In many ways I can see his point - having a "special" computer for coding perhaps risks divorcing it from "real world" devices (as well as adding extra cost) - but I still think the benefits of a small, uniform platform, not to mention the "buzz" effect that the Pi has generated, make it well worthwhile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The folks behind Raspberry PI have misread the situation with respect to programming.

    They see the fact students are not reading Computer Science as a sign that computers are too expensive.

    More likely it's that they don't want to compete with the millions of overseas developers working for a fraction of UK rates to which jobs have been outsourced en masse. And very wise too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @Dr Mouse. No FUD intended joining Linux to a domain is easy, I find it easy, you find it easy but surely you would not go onto argue that school technicians do?

    Pi is a standalone computer and that's what it will do. Hopefully it wont standalone on the shelf next to its netbook cousins. I think Ninja Blocks with their Beagle board devices are nearer the mark for how coding will develop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    What we need is a PI simulation app and website, so you can teach it on phones (for fun), on existing computers too though perhaps a webpage. Then when you want to make LEDs flash use the actual board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Umm.. John_from_Hendon, you may not need hardware to code but there's not much joy in writing your script on paper and just staring at it! All code runs on hardware ultimately!
    A low cost 'unbreakable' computer is ideal to play and test on. As a dinosaur dad I learnt lots about coding/ computing in general from my time with a ZX80 and BBC B. They were my own machines to push to the limit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @16: "Unfortunately it runs Linux which will foil the demands to 'network it' onto the domain."
    Nope. Networking in Linux is easy, joining it to a Windows domain has been available for at least 10 years & isn't difficult if you have minimal Linux knowledge and access to the internet (for instructions).

    Stop spreading the "linux is too difficult" FUD. It's not difficult, it's just different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    8 Bluesberry

    So you didn't like it: fair enough. At least you got the chance to try. That's the point of bringing a bit of coding into schools. It won't turn anyone into a fully-fledged software engineer but it will give pupils a taste of programming. Some will love it, some will hate it and most will be somewhere between - as with any other subject on the curriculum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I looked up 'bien pensant' (Wikitionary) and conjoined with 'media-types' it seems to me to be an accurate phrase to apply to the coding-for-kids argument.

    If Pi is to find a place in a schools it will be as a low cost low energy computer. Unfortunately it runs Linux which will foil the demands to 'network it' onto the me on'll join the pile of RM Linux netbooks

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I think one of the main problems Orlowski was pointing out was that HTML & CSS are not programming languages. They are merely ways to describe how a document should look. Javascript can be termed a programming language, just about.

    If schools teach programming, great. If schools teach HTML and call it programming... That's not good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    " about teaching typing as a core IT skill"

    @Nick - perhaps they'd be better off starting teaching English, because so many of the kids these days only understand some strange guttural text style language that they use on Facebook.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I learned to code on the ZX spectrum and now work as a software designer for a small company.

    Without the ZX spectrum I would not have taken that path, I was originally spurred on by modifying programs printed in the spectrum magazines of that time and soon started writing my own programs.

    I learned Z80 machine code to speed up my programs and even managed to sell a couple of games for the it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Whilst I understand that comment is free, I think Rory is wasting bandwidth by attempting to defend his honour using a BBC blog. I agree that children should be introduced to programming to determine their own level of interest, however I also think that from a technical standpoint Rory is once again arguing from a point of very little knowledge and thus misinforming others in the same boat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I am one of those middle aged men, but John is right. Anyone with a PC can start coding or building web sites with coded content for free. As for teaching in schools, how about teaching typing as a core IT skill.


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