Computer programming then and now
This piece was kindly sent in by Chris Dell, a retired computer programmer with an insight into his experiences on the development of the computer.
Ask any of our young school students today, believes CHRIS DELL (retired computer programmer), about early electronic computers, or magnetic tape, hard disc or magnetic card random access memory, punched cards, paper tape, unipunches and the programming and de-bugging that was needed ….. and they will surely look blankly at you. However, ask them if they use the Internet, have face to face chats with their friends anywhere in the world on a hand-held smartphone, use tablets, laptops and even voice recognition − and they’ll brighten up enthusiastically.
The explosion into ‘personal computers’ and the Internet leading to today’s hand-held brilliant and so-powerful products, started in the 1980s. Today our youngsters have taken to this modern IT age and its marvels as though from birth. Whereas I, starting 53 years ago as a trainee programmer at NCR in London, had a long yet fascinating learning curve in mastering the essential programming of those bulky second and third generation systems – equally marvellous in their time. Today? My son Rob is headmaster of Rosemary Works Independent School in North London, and liaises closely with his specialist computer teacher. I asked him, for this article, to report on the school and its computer education.
He says, “Our children need no formal introduction to computers − a hot topic with young parents, mindful of how crucial they are in the modern world and their children’s futures. We work to ensure children make the best use of technology in
understanding algorithms and computational thinking. We are impressed with how adept many of them become in learning how to create code from an early age in different ways.
“They start with devices like Beebots and Cubetto (to make images move on the screen) and Lego software power tools (to create virtual 3D Lego models). We then move on to laptops, tablets, Raspberry Pi and a whole myriad of other commercially driven devices. Children in Year 4 are programming with Scratch. This is a questionnaire-based coding screen by which children from Years 3 – 6 can create and play their own games.” (May I, this author, just mention that it parallels NCR’s sophisticated BEST questionnaire-based program generator, from the 1960s, mentioned later).
A young pupil with clear thinking and imagination creating a game using the Scratch software application by filling in the on-screen questionnaire with his own data.
Headmaster Rob continues (unlike me today retired, he is today there, with his IT teacher, guiding their young students). He emphasises that “Our 11 year olds are mostly familiar with the ‘big leaguers’ like Microsoft Office (Word, Excel etc.) and Apple iLife (Garage Band, iMovie etc.), but they also are experienced with sophisticated browsers including Google and Safari. They see computers as a tool to help them with aspects of their learning − for example using YouTube videos to learn how to draw, play an instrument, solve the Rubik Cube, and so on.
“They also research topics, but in so doing come to understand that they can get ‘under the bonnet’ and tinker with the computer’s ‘inner workings’ to affect change. We believe our youngsters, though at primary level, are mostly aware of how computers are used in business outside of school. They see their parents use smartphones (what happened to the red telephone boxes?) or tablets in retail environments but teaching programming for them is mainly about creating games. The ‘serious stuff’ comes later.
“My computer teacher and myself are familiar with the quote by Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder ‘Everyone should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think’. It’s partly why we enter the Bebras computational challenge annually − and our children do very well! These challenges comprise a set of short tasks delivered online. They are engaging and fun and based on problems that computer specialists often meet – requiring analytical thinking, an essential ingredient in understanding the logic inherent in computers from the past to the present”.
This headmaster and IT teacher are also well aware that “Computing is one of many composites that help children think better. Softer skills like mindfulness, yoga and empathy alongside the more academic pillars all help to focus the mind and to think critically”.
Part two follows soon.