I’ve just registered for the new Raspberry Pi. It’s a credit card sized computer, no case, just the basics and it will run Linux (Debian). It only costs £22+VAT and I’m getting one. Why? Because for the first time, since the advent of the ZX80, there is a computer that will allow hardware and software experimentation for almost no cost at all, except the time that is put into it, and is compatible with the world around us. This also started me thinking. Will it be the butterfly, flapping its wings now, to create a storm in the future? Personally, I think it will.
The problem with today’s school curriculum is that IT is taught with an emphasis on how to use applications, rather than how to create them. How to use computers rather than how to get into the ‘nuts & bolts’ or ‘bits & bytes’ of building them and how they work. I wonder how many children leave school with the ability to calculate a binary sequence. But then, the interest has to be there as well. In the real world there is not much call for binary sequences, admittedly but, where will our next generation of programmers come from? Who will come up with new innovations if those who are interested are not given the opportunity to learn and show their skills?
When the ZX80 came out, followed by the ZX81 & Spectrum, it spawned a whole new generation of computer enthusiasts, including myself. Had these machines came when they did, we may not have learned of our interests and talents until much later in life, maybe not at all, but they came, and we did. We learned how these machines worked, about the central processing unit and how it interfaced to the counter timer chip and the difference between RAM and ROM, (and how to reprogramme the ROM). We learned how to program in BASIC, FORTH and, mostly for me, machine language, (hence the title). We learned how to interface these machines to other equipment such as keyboards, audio kit, other machines. All of this without a single IT lesson in school. (The closest I came was our school computer club, run by our mildly psychotic physics teacher. With my trusty ZX Spectrum and the RML 380Z I learned how to code in Z80 machine language and hand-compile it to enter it. (There was the Blast compiler, but this used so much RAM that you could only compile a few lines of code before running out of memory). This stood me in good stead when moving up to x86-based machines as the machine language is very, very similar to the Z80). Then came such wonders as the Commodore 64, Dragon 32, Ace, BBC Micro A & B. All were subject to our generations detailed scrutiny, and none were found wanting (except maybe the Ace).
It seems, though, these days, all I hear from the younger generation are strange words such as XBox, PS3, WII. I must admit that the creation of the games market clobbered us as well with such products as Atic Atac, Manic Miner, Jetset Willy, Elite, Daley Thompson Sports, The Hobbit, etc. Many fell to the siren lure of the game, myself included. But these were all played on the machines that we used to program and tinker with. These days it’s all dedicated consoles, albeit with networking capability, but games consoles nontheless.
With the advent of the Pi, maybe a new generation of programmers will discover the joys of programming and fiddling with hardware, learning how to think in binary when creating an interface to another machine, imagining the sequence of events and then writing an application to make it a reality. The Pi, though, cannot do this on it’s own. Unlike the days of the ZX80 et al, things are far more complex. It will require the introduction of a proper computer science curriculum, teaching everything from simple binary arithmetic to object orientated programming, including how computers work, hardware as well as software. It will also take teachers who can not only recognise budding talent and interest, but foster that interest, allowing it to grow, otherwise, in 10, maybe fifteen, years time, IT will become an import business, with our IT infrastructure being sold to the lowest bidder.