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 8.

    I had exposure to coding; I hated it. I had to feed computer cards through a reader; I hated it. Maybe I wouldn't hate the Raspberry Pi, but probably I would. I belong on other side of computer screen - analyzing, thinking, analyzing, thinking...& then taking words/debates apart.
    Could it be coders use left brain; users, right, and therein lies the difference?

  • 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 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 2.

    Rory, try to get this through your cerebellum:

    You do not need hardware to code.

    There are( and have been for years) excellent tools available for (free) download that can let you code.


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