My (8-bit) Computer Club: part 2


Don’t let the title ‘computing’ put you off. This is more about teaching and learning as a whole than I realised since I wrote part one.

Computer use has gone though a few different phases since the home computing revolution of the 1980s: 

Programming > gaming > admin > multimedia > communications

Initially microcomputers were novelties where users could understand how the machine worked and learn how to do things with it from scratch. Over 60 books were published  for the commodore VIC20 between 1982 and 1984 (and just as many for every other platform). There was even a term, now long forgotten, for someone who used computers in this way: a computerist. But just as we now don’t have true motorists, we just have drivers, the computerists have by and large gone. Today we just have computer drivers who are users of the software that only a few experts know how to make.

All the books on the VIC20 I could find.

We were promised as computerists that we could do our accounts, control our central heating, manage our entertainment – but we couldn’t, not yet anyway. What we could do was play games and as the machines gained more memory and higher resolution graphics, that’s what everyone did. 

Then in the 1990s we saw the rise of the IBM PC clone and Microsoft productivity software. Suddenly you could be your own personal assistant, your own typist and data manager. We entered the age of Admin.

The late 1990s brought Steve Jobs back to Apple where he launched the iMac and iPod, devices that could manage your multimedia. With Photoshop and desktop publishing, the computer became a creative tool to manage photos, music and later, movies.

As the new millennium began, the internet started to become fast enough to be useful and computers could be used for shopping, banking and research. The shift to the then-called Web 2.0 gave rise to two-way communication between websites and the era of mass social communication networking began. This became so much more powerful in 2008 with the launch of the first proper mobile smart internet devices. 

If course, people obviously still do all of the five types of computer use today but it’s the first one that fascinates me the most. In the rush to get better games, better graphics, more useful apps and entertainment, I believe we have lost touch with what a computer is and how it works. I think this is detrimental to society and especially the next generation who were born into this closed magic box world. With the next stage of the internet well underway (the so-called ‘internet of things’) where computers upload and download data to the internet themselves, we need a new generation of computerists to design and shape this technology for the greater good, for themselves and us.

It was with all this in mind that I set up my computer club at Fyling Hall School. It’s been running for three terms now (since September 2018) so what have we learnt?

There have been a few students who came, then didn’t come back, but a few have been coming back every week, girls and boys aged 11 to 17.

The initial idea was to create a text adventure game (see my previous blog). But I found I’d have to back-track a little further than even that. I wrongly assumed that kids would know what a simple text adventure was. It was only by explaining it that I actually realised what it was: a simple, primordial artificial intelligence. You think about it: the user enters a two word phrase (a verb and a noun) and the computer has to take apart that entry, work out if it makes sense compared to its database, work out what the verb and the noun is and respond accordingly. It is Siri. It is Alexia. It is and Cortina (or whatever that thing is called). 

We’re not just making a pointless old fashioned game here. We were looking at the basis of AI, with a direct link to present systems and the future.

Some people might frown that I’m using a suite of commodore VIC20s, 39 year old technology, to do this. They might think it quaint, amusingly retro, or crudely out of date. But no one teaches music by giving the kids an orchestra to play with and expect them to write a symphony: you give than a recorder to learn the basics – even though a recorder isn’t in the professional orchestra. You don’t teach electricity by showing them the controls for the National Grid or expect them to safely wire a house: you give them batteries, bulbs and wires. You start simple, you start basic and you start from first principles. Otherwise you’re just giving instructions to prepare the simplest type of microwave meal, a user of food, when we need them to be a chef, a designer and creator.

You can’t deny the facts: kids do use technology. This is why there is a big debate on whether phones and such like should be allowed in schools or not (we’ll save that for another day). But whatever they are using their devices for, for good or bad, it’s not programming that they’re doing on their phones, iPads and laptops. They’re spending all their time being really good users of someone else’s app.

In our lust for the latest tech we’ve lost sight of the idea of having a device that does one thing well. Your laptop is an unlimited multitrack recording studio. (The Beatles recorded Sgt Pepper on tape with just four tracks. What would they have done with a MacBook?). It is a high resolution graphic design and photo studio, greater than Fleet Street in its heyday. It has more productive movie making power than Hollywood had in its first 80 years. It has access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge. (And yet what do we do with it all? Look at videos of skateboarding cats and play Candy Crush. Clearly having a great tool doesn’t make you an engineer. Give a paintbrush to an elephant and it’ll paint a picture. It might be an amusing novelty but it won’t be a match for the Sistine Chapel.)

It’s of no surprise that when you have decent ICT suit in a school in which you can research any fact or image, watch the latest tv or movie and listen to any record, it’s hard to say to a student, ‘ok, we’re going to forget all that useful exciting stuff and learn how to move a single character around the screen’ or something. Teaching coding on an all-singing-all-dancing PC is horrendous, it’s so dull and we all know it.

Most schools in the UK are using Scratch to animate characters and that apparently ticks the box for ‘coding’. It’s a bit like the Logo system of old. A high level language that has done all the hard work for you. All the students are doing is clipping bits of pre-made code tother presented to them as simple graphical building blocks. This is fine for showing the flow of logic and its a bit of fun for younger ones. But is this really the best we can do?

Give these kids access to the isolated sandbox which is a microcomputer that won’t do anything at all unless you program it, it’s a different story: they get excited by it. That’s what I’ve found. 

Here are a few recent comments from people on a VIC20 users forum about what I’ve been doing:

“Is one of the best educational computers ever made. The weak BASIC that requires PEEKS and POKES to do graphics and sound is even an advantage.”

“I used to truck around a pair of Vic-20 systems to homeschoolers’ homes to give private computer lessons to kids whose families couldn’t afford a computer. Though the current systems ranged from 386s to Pentium 4s during that time, the kids learned more with the “old” Vics. Several of my former students have crossed paths with me over the years, telling me how much that prepared them for college compared to what their friends who only used PCs had going for them in the same situation.”

“I have programmed all my life, including Vic-20. It is alien to me that I cannot do the same things I could do then, on modern platforms. I just want a language and an output. It all seems so complicated and inaccessible these days.”

“To learn electronics, you need to know what a resistor does, and how a transistor works. You learn the building block first, not from a chip that has millions of interconnected transistors and resistors in it.”

“The principles of programming are the same. Variables, loops etc. Also the discipline is the same. I was self taught programming on the Vic20 and I now programme c# .net. Most importantly 8 bit computers fire the imagination.”

Elon Musk learned to program on his VIC20, he went on to do quite well. Linus Torvalds invented Linux, the open source operating system used worldwide. The BASIC language we’re using on the VIC was actually designed by none other than Bill Gates.

But first we had to get back to basics, I mean real basics. When my generation first used a microcomputer, we brought with us knowledge of the keyboard from the typewriter. That’s how we knew what ‘carriage return’ was, it returned the carriage typing head to the next line. So when faced with a terminal text window, we knew what the ‘Return’ key was going to do. Kids today think it’s all a Word document. They’ve no idea that pressing ‘Return’ means something. They thought they were just arranging characters own a screen, not entering lines of code into the chip.

They’ve heard of Mega or Gigabytes but don’t know what they are. Some think it’s a power rating. This sort of misconception is up there with ‘the Moon only comes out at night’, ‘the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer’ or ‘plants get their food from the soil’, which I have to deal with when teaching year 7 science as clear and as fast as I can. The misconceptions of computer lore have gone unchecked.

The pace of any school curriculum in any subject is super fast. We have hardly any time to reflect, to teach patience or to teach self-drive. All of these issues have come up in the club. I’ve had kids type in their relatively short lines of code, try to RUN it and find it doesn’t work: 

Their first port of call is to tell me. I ask, ‘have you checked it?’. ‘No’ They reply. I can scan the screen and immediately see they’ve missed off quote marks or used a semi-colon instead of a colon or whatever. ‘How can you see that so fast sir?’ they might ask. ‘Because continued effort into directed practice has enabled me to spot patterns of syntax quicker’ I reply. (That by the way is the most profound definition of learning you’ll come across today).

Our kids (and to a large degree all of us) are an instant gratification generation. If we have to wait, it’s boring, and we get distracted. If we have to do something again to correct it, that’s too much like hard work. It we get something wrong, the immediate reaction is to give up.

So, yes, I may be using 39 year old technology. I may be teaching them a hard programming language that is only one step up from machine code assembler but what I’m really showing them is far more important than I realised.

After all, what is a computer programer if not someone who is skilled, logical and creative, who has immense patience and accuracy, willing to keep going until the job is done? Hang on, isn’t that a description of any expert in the workplace?

It’s no wonder industry doesn’t have enough of them.

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Bring back Tomorrow’s World


I really enjoyed the Tomorrow’s World Live special last night. But it should be back every week. We’ve got more and faster changes in technology than in 2003 so why is it off air? Why are we overrun with dancing, cooking and idiots pretending to be entrepreneurs?

The Family Scientist by Judith Hann

The Family Scientist by Judith Hann

I watched it every Thursday (at 7pm before Top of the Pops) and when I was eight my parents bought me Judith Hann’s book, The Family Scientist, full of experiments its you could do at home. No wonder then that I continued this interest in science to university and beyond. I’m now Head of Physics at Fyling Hall School in North Yorkshire.

A couple of years ago I ran a project with my year 9 Physics class on technology, inspired by Tomorrow’s World. We looked at the origin of the technology that is part of their lives: mobile broadcasting, LEDs, digital sound and images, the microchip, the internet and artificial intelligence. I showed them some Tomorrow’s World archive clips along the way.

The students produced a report at the end of term about their vision for the technological leaps we may see in the next 50 years and a prize was awarded in assembly with this certificate:

Tomorows World cert

Watching the 90 minute edition on BBC4 last night reminded me what the point of Tomorrow’s World was – where else can we get to see and hear cutting edge science explained by the scientists that are working on it put into context by expert journalism?

It needs to be brought back to help to inspire the next generation. 

The overwhelming feeling I got from the show was… hope. Hope for the future. That’s what we’ve been missing and what we need so much.

Some may say that Tomorrow’s World represents a past where we looked optimistically forward to a glorious future, and now that optimism is long gone and such a programme has no place in today’s venom filled fear and instant gratification world. They said in 2005 that Doctor Who shouldn’t come back because it was out-of-date with modern viewing but it became the BBCs most successful programme of the last 13 years.

Wasn’t the BBC’s remit to Educate, Entertain and Inform? It shouldn’t just reflect it’s audience back at itself but also attempt to improve it? Shouldn’t it lead the change we want to see in the country rather than continue to dumb us all down to the resigned lowest common denominator?

We need more scientists and engineers. That’s a fact. So why not make some attempt, however feeble, to inspire our children to have an interest? That;’s what Tomorrow’s World did for so many of us. Start doing it again BBC.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bs6c8f/tomorrows-world-live-for-one-night-only

The (8-bit) Adventure Game: part 1


I’m starting a Computer Coding Club at my school this term. It’s called The Adventure Game. This is the story of why and how. I’ll post later to let you know how it’s going…

commodore VIC 20 Apple computer

Me outside the Apple Store in Newcastle this year, organising a VIC20 ‘flash mob’… of one…

It all began on Christmas Day 1982 when I was lucky enough to find this box and its exciting contents under the Christmas tree. In case you don’t recognise it, it’s one of the the first ever home colour computers, the first to sell over a million units (it ended up selling over 5 million) and was replaced by the very similar commodore 64 (which is still the biggest selling computer ever with estimates of over 20 million sold between 1982 and 1994 and becoming available to but again soon, watch this space).

commodore VIC20 box

But that’s all irrelevant for the moment. The point is it was a programmable computer. You type things in and it does things. You can make your own games and figure out how computers work. And that’s exactly what I did for for four years.

Then, like everyone else I moved onto a more sophisticated IMG_3690computer, in my case an Atari ST, at Christmas 1986. I then did what almost everyone else did with their computers as they became more and more powerful: I stopped programming and started using them as multimedia controllers: making music, artwork, desktop publishing, then managing photography, music libraries, video, animation and so on (getting my first Apple Macintosh in 1995). My much loved VIC20 went back in its box and into the loft.
But when I started teaching, it came back down. I set it up and took a photo of it (that was turned into a Top Trumps card by the makers of The Commodore Story see above). I set it up in my lab and left it on the side with this poster next to it, as teaching took over my life (as any new teacher will tell you).

commodore VIC20 A4 posterThe more I got into teaching and found out what kids of today could do, and not do, and saw the skills and ideas they had, and didn’t have, I came too a conclusion that many of the opportunities for learning that I got from my VIC20 are missing from so many of my students:

• they lack patience
• they lack resilience to overcome failure
• they lack strategies to process ideas logically
• they lack outlets to develop their imagination and creativity
• they struggle to organise thoughts
and
• they use technology but don’t understand it.

 

This advert for the commodore VIC20 from 1981 sums it all up: being able to use technology and play games is not a skill that will set you apart from anyone else. If you only use technology to surf the internet, use office productivity tools like Word, Powerpoint and Excel, great, but you’re a user, you’re an administrative clerk. If you only play games, great fun, but you’re living within the bounds of someone else’s imagination.

ian-mcnaught-davis.png

Hero: Ian McNaught Davis

The next piece of the puzzle came from the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project Archive (visit it here) and I started watching all the BBC’s excellent TV programmes from the 1980s hosted by the genius of computer expert Ian McNaught Davis and journalist expert Chris Serle. The way they introduced computers to a nation who knew nothing about computers was brilliant and I felt a similar approach could be used for a generation who used computers but knew nothing about computers.

If that wasn’t exciting enough, re-watching the excellent BBC docudrama ‘Micromen‘ about the beginning of the first computer revolution of the 1980s and the clash between Acorn and Sinclair made we want to get involved in something even more.

Computer programming (or ‘coding’ as it’s now known) isn’t taught very consistently in today’s schools. In the UK, it is now part of the National Curriculum, but there aren’t enough qualified teachers out there to deliver it and schools are left to their own devices on how to tackle it. The result is that it’s tagged onto ICT lessons, usually using a visual high level tool like Scratch, ran in an IT computer room on PCs running Windows.

Why I think this isn’t a good idea is because using a modern powerful multimedia PC to learn to programme is a little like using a Rugby field to play tiddlywinks in. Computer programs today are very sophisticated and have had in most cases thousands of experts working on them for many years. To use a modern powerful PC to play around with simple programming feels like a waste of time. It’s like using the Large Hadron Collider to understand simple electric circuits: the tool is just too sophisticated.

VIC20 circuits.jpgUsing a self-contained microcomputer to do the task is not only more appropriate, it’s more fun. And why not simplify things down a bit? It’s what we do in all the other sciences. In Physics, Chemistry and Biology, we teach smaller systems and model attributes of larger more complex systems. We use little motors and bulbs, make batteries from lemons, copper and zinc and make models of DNA from sweets and straws. We can’t investigate black holes or do neurosurgery in a school lab and no one would even question that we don’t. So why not use a similar approach and use the appropriate tool to teach computing?

IMG_3033

My own computer notebook from my own experiments when I was 12.

I played with electronics as a child. When I show components to many kids today, they’ve never even seen them before. They just don’t take things apart. They’d certainly not take their MacBook or iPhone apart, and even if they did, the miniaturisation is such that you’d learn very little. Understanding how an 8-bit microcomputer works is so interesting as you can get right down there to the actual 6502 chip, send it commands and see the result straight away. Learning to programme on a modern PC feels like theoretical gardening – you just don’t feel you’re getting your hands dirty. There’s so much learning that can be done on a self contained micro.

So I had decided. Somehow I’d teach what I knew about programming and make it fun. But which computers to use? The perfect tool was and is, the Acorn BBC B microcomputer. That’s what it was designed for. (You HAVE to see Micromen!). I managed to get hold of three of them, they’ve still retained their value and as such are comparatively expensive. Plus, when they go wrong, I don’t know how to fix them (as I do the VIC20).

Raspberry-Pi-3-Ports-1-1833x1080The perfect tool would be the Raspberry pi. At £32 you can’t go wrong, except that is for the actual micro, you still need a keyboard, case, SD card, screen, mouse and a load of cables: not so good for setting up in a classroom – easily messy, prone to breakages and things going missing.

IMG_4114

The brilliant FUZE

I briefly toyed with the idea of setting up my own computer company, making a Raspberry pi in a case like the BBC B or VIC20. How cool would that be! But I haven’t got the funds, connections or time to make that work quick enough. But then to my delight I found that someone else has already done it: FUZE.

They are doing exactly what I wanted too do: put a Raspberry pi in a durable (metal) case with a keyboard, all the ports (including a very useful breadboard for attaching external electronic equipment) plus a new version of BASIC, the computer language I learnt on.

IMG_3822When you add up what you get with a FUZE and add a screen, it comes to a cheaper price than what you’d spend if you bought a Raspberry pi and all the bits separately. The Raspberry pi is built with the Acorn ARM chip (and also in most mobile phones) as designed by Acorn originally for the BBC B. Things have indeed come full circle. I now have three FUZEs so far.

Commodore VIC20

My commodore VIC20s set up in my Physics lab to promote the idea of the club.

But what I know best is still the commodore VIC20 and the BASIC language (which was originally written by a certain Bill Gates. It stands for Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code). I bought some more VICs from eBay, got some old TVs from local guys around Robin Hood’s Bay where I am, and decided that I’d start off where I first began: typing in BASIC. Interestingly enough, I can get the FUZE to emulate a VIC20 (or a commodore 64 or a BBC B or run the latest RISC based ARM OS).

So the stage is set. Next Wednesday we begin properly (after a few teasers, assemblies and a look at the equipment last term).

But what is our project? We can’t just mess around playing games, there has to be a goal. This is where The Adventure Game title comes in.

Scott Adams

Scott Adams then, and today.

In the late seventies, a new type of computer game was pioneered by a man called Scott Adams. He developed a range of text adventures (initially for the VIC20) and later added graphics and the technology evolved into the games of today. Those original games are effectively the origin of what we now would call  Artificial Intelligence, the ability for a computer algorithm to anticipate an outcome from an input and its internally stored data. Those early games were 33313-1actually the first use of Databases. The goal of my club has become for the students to learn enough about computer coding to be able to create such a database, to create their own original text adventure game and by doing so understand a computer language, the microchip, how artificial intelligence starts out and hopefully have a lot of satisfaction and fun along the way, just as I did when I was 11…

To do this we’re going to use the book by Usborne ‘Write Your Own Adventure Games’. All Usborne’s excellent books are available to download for free.

Using BASIC on the VIC20 and on the FUZE is a great point to start as long as we employ structured programming skills along the way. Then, the students will be able to translate their learning into other languages such as Python, Java or C++ just as those who now run the technology giant companies do, many of whom began on commodore machines. The adventure begins…

adventure game logo

Let me know what you think in comments below was well as any memories you have of programming your 8-bit micro.

IMG_3029

My six VIC20s set up in my lab last term to generate interest in the idea of a club.