Nesta Report - Legacy of the BBC Micro

May 23, 2012 at 11:21 PM | categories: BBC, programming, reports, nesta, kidscoding | View Comments

Earlier in the year we visited MOSI - which is (these days) a Manchester branch of the Science Museum. Anyhow, one of the long standing exhibits is of the Manchester Baby - or more specifically a restored version of the Baby which has been lovingly restored with many original parts. The Manchester Baby is significant because it was the worlds first stored program computer, and was switched on and ran it's first programs in June 1948.

The exhibition it was in was in a celebration of computing, including the BBC Micro. They had a survey, which would feed into a study on the legacy of the BBC Micro, you popped your answers in and they'd forward you the results if you were interested. I ticked the box, and duely today recieved the following email:

Thank you for responding to the BBC Micro survey that the Science Museum
conducted in March 2012. We received 372 responses which is amazing given
that the survey was only open for a couple of weeks. Many people left
detailed responses about their experiences of using computers in the
1980s and the influence it had on their subsequent careers paths.

As you took part in the survey I thought you might be interested to know that the Nesta report on the Legacy of the BBC Micro has been published today and is available to download here:

It's an interesting report, and from what I've skim read it seems to be a good report. If I had to pick out one part, the final chapter - "A New Computer Literacy Project ? Lessons and Recommendations" in particular is something I think is very good food for thought, and motivational.

In particular it makes 7 recommendations which I'll aim to summarise:

1. A vision for computer literacy matters

The report singles out John Radcliffe as a single motivating force in the original Computer Literacy Project as being a key driver in the success in the past. it goes on to say:

    Today, there is no single vision holder creating the partnership between industry, education and the range of actors who want to change things. {...} personal leadership and vision, based on a level of knowledge and understanding of the industry that inspires respect, and backed up by significant skills in diplomacy, is vital at this point in time.

I'm not sure I agree on the point of regarding a lack of a vision, but possibly agree on their being no single vision.

2. We need a systemic approach to computer literacy and leadership.

The key points brought out here is that the reason why the CLP worked last time around was due to there being efforts at many levels - all the way from grass roots, all the way to high level government buy in, which included resources and that the key reason for success was the many micro-networks that existed, which were assisted in co-ordination (in part) by the BBC's Broadcasting Support Services. (which I don't think have a modern equivalent) Crucially though, individuals and local groups had to take ownership and did.

It makes two interesting points:

    A key part of this plan will be empowering local and regional bodies to take part and own this new movement for computer literacy. Organisations leading this effort need the commitment, the capability, the skills and the scale to deliver. At present there are many candidates, but no one organisation that meets all these criteria. Someone needs to step up to the plate.

In particular, it then does on to single out the BBC, but with some caveats:

    The BBC may be able to replicate their previous role, by providing supporting television and online programming, but to deliver at the scale of the original CLP would require not only significant buy-in at a senior level but significant institutional re-engineering and resources.

This final caveat of buy-in at a senior level, and buy in with resources is an important point. After all, it's one thing for someone to say "this is a good idea" and another for someone to say "yes, this matters, here's resources" - which may only be time and space.

3. Delivering change means reaching homes as well as schools.

While I really like the last part of this recommendation because it really says what should be done clearly and succinctly...

    We need a contemporary media campaign: television programmes that legitimise an interest in coding, co-ordinated with social media that can connect learners with opportunities and resources. This is a vital but supporting role, arguably still best played by the BBC.

... it gets there by making a point a point which I emphatically agree with - that the focus of this must reach out into the home, rather than just into schools. In particular it notes a point I've made repeatedly:

    Despite the BBC Micro now being considered ‘the schools machine’, the computer was actually more important in its impact of changing the culture of computing in the home, particularly through the legitimising effect of the television programmes.

The key point brought out is that it's this aspect - which boils down to engaging children in their time - that really matters.

4. There is a need to build networks with education.

Again, the executive summary is nicer/kinder than the final chapter, and in particular calls out a real issue from the BBC side of things:

    At the core of the original CLP were the BBC’s educational liaison officers {...} These two-way networks provided an invaluable way of both listening and delivering appropriate tools and training for adult, continuing and schools education. {...} These days, the BBC has neither the equivalent staff nor the resources to play such a role.

That's pretty harsh. However, it's interesting to note that there are some groups actively looking at improving this sort of thing. I think however there's a long way to go based on what I've seen. There's misunderstanding about how schools work, how academia works, how industry really builds good systems/works, how the BBC operates today, etc.

On a positive note, people are talking, listening and trying to figure out how to move forward - which IMO supports this recommendation.

5. There are lots of potential platforms for creative computing; they need to be open and interoperable.

This point really brings summarises the issue I've described before of "ask a hundred engineers what the BBC Micro of Today would be and you get a 100 different answers". Furthermore though it points out that the reason why the Micro worked was because it helped provide a clear common platform for talking about things.

Today the issue is that we have a collection of micro-development environments which aren't joined up, either in practical terms or conceptually, but if they were more joined up, even in just a conceptual framework for discussing things we could make progress. Without this, it makes the task of teaching this in schools hard, and even harder in the home for someone to say "where do I start?"

It's probably worth noting at this point that there is a project which may result in just such a common platform or framework. It's a project I've helped spec out, and Salford University are hiring someone to work on it. It's target is really to do with "the internet of things", but is spec'd out in terms of pluggable micro-development environments. It's my hope that this could help head towards a common platform spec. We'll see.

6. Kit, clubs and formal learning need to be augmented by support for individual learners; they may be the entrepreneurs of the future.

Again, this reiterates the need for support outside schools and notes that last time round the informal learning was more influential than formal. This relies belies something quite incredible - it succeeded primarily because people found it fun and had sufficient support.

Not only this it specifically points out that these things need to go beyond after-school clubs, and that whilst those are good, these run the risk of following a route of formal learning rather than the motivations that encourage longevity. The former could be said to be "I am doing this because I've been told I should", whereas the real motivator is "I am doing this because it's fun and I want to". I think this is one place where the executive summary is punchier than the main recommendations:

    There is a need for supporting resources that can develop learning about computers outside the classroom. These may be delivered through online services or social networks, but must bring learning resources and interaction, not just software and hardware, into the home.

7. We should actively aim to generate economic benefits.

This recommendation points out a handful of things:

  • The CLP built upon pre-existing skills in industry
  • That this stimulated a market - that boosted that industry
  • That that boost also then led to much larger take up that you'd expect otherwise
  • That this then drove the industry further down the line

It notes that whilst the third and fourth points may be the goal, that there's real benefits from the second point, and this time around any boost could from international opportunities as well as national and regional, and that including economic benefit is a good idea.

Personally I think that final point is more important than people realise. I still remember to this day hearing about a kid writing a game in his bedroom and getting paid £2000 for it. This was 1982/1983 or so, and that was an absolute fortune from my perspective, and the idea that you could get paid for creating something fun was an astounding thought. So you'd get something fun out of the process. You'd have fun making the thing. And you'd get paid for doing it. A bit like the idea you have tea testers excites people who like tea. You don't get interested in tea because you'll get paid for it, but it's an intriguing thought. Likewise, you don't write code because you'll get a fortune - you probably won't. What you might get to do though is something which is fun that you can live on, because it's outputs are useful to people. That's a pretty neat combination really.

Anyway, I hope the above points have whetted your appetite to read the whole thing - it's an interesting read. Go on. You know you want to.

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