Can the BBC restage its milestone 'Computer Programme', or should it 'think different'? asks Tony Parkin
BBC owl logoIn an exciting reminder of its ‘golden era of educational computing’, the BBC has revealed that it is considering a computer literacy programme for the 21st century.

Educational computing in the early 1980s was kickstarted by the BBC Computer Literacy Project with its BBC Micro computer, The Computer Programme and its distinctive owl logo (right). This time around however, the idea seems to be accompanied by a degree of uncertainty that feels very different to the bullish enthusiasm of the original project.

The weight of history seems to hang heavy on the BBC staff considering the project. Aware of the huge success and impact of the first programme, they appear to feel both challenged to replicate the success – “nothing less will do” – and anxious about whether the similarities in the climate, and the need, are outweighed by today’s different circumstances.

BBC consultations already taking place

While the first programme was clearly a milestone, it now acts as something of a millstone around the necks of those with aspirations for a second version in a BBC with far less bravado and derring-do than in the heady 1980s. Despite that, BBC staff are busy sounding out opinions widely, and popping up at events linked to computing to find out what the assembled community thinks of the idea.

They have involved Keri Facer, professor of education specialising in digital cultures, social justice and educational change at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and a much-respected member of the educational ICT community, in helping to capture these views. Keri’s team is working with the BBC to gather the views of teachers, lecturers, computer scientists, programmers and others with an interest in computational thinking, about a potential new project.

For thoKeri FacerKeri Facerse who are perhaps too young to remember the first BBC Micro and Computer Literacy programme, Keri Facer and Nicola Whitton at MMU, along with the BBC’s Howard Baker, outlined the context in their request for responses: “In the early 1980s, the BBC started what became known as the BBC Computer Literacy Project in response to predictions of a coming microcomputer revolution and its likely future impacts on UK economy and society. The BBC based its project around a computer and programming language capable of being used to perform various tasks which would be demonstrated in a TV series, The Computer Programme.

"The list of topics in the TV programme included graphics, programming, sound and music, controlling external hardware, artificial intelligence and teletext. The computer selected was the Acorn Proton, which was then re-badged the BBC Micro. The government funded the purchase and distribution of 12,000 of the computers to UK schools for use alongside the TV programme. In turn this stimulated a significant growth in domestic use of the Micro.”

Early days of punch cards and programming

RM 380ZRM 380ZPrior to those days, what little computing there had been in schools was largely confined to school maths departments with enthusiastic teachers using tools like RM’s 380Z computer, or possibly accessing their old university’s computing facilities. Teachers would pedal off with bags full of punched cards to their former college, hopefully to return with results the next day, or maybe several days later. By and large, if you wanted any computer that you had managed to get into your school (or even your bedroom) to do anything, you HAD to program it.

Then came the BBC initiative, educational software, the blossoming of schools ICT, the RM Nimbus, Microsoft Windows, Apple Macs, more educational software, and ultimately the decline of the Acorn Archimedes computers and of BBC computing. This was followed by the shift from IT to ICT in the mid-1990’s, and the takeover of ICT in its "across the curriculum" guise, with the concomitant diminution of 'computing' to the point of its virtual disappearance from most schools today.

The BBC MicroThe BBC MicroThe consultative team is keen to explore the opportunity for the BBC to re-engage with the support of 'computational thinking'. It carefully uses this term rather than computer science, programming, or ICT skills because it doesn’t wish to imply pre-judgement, or assume one particular view of what is important in this area.

In the email seeking opinions on the project, Keri, Howard and Nichola say: “Today there is criticism of the ICT curriculum and the teaching of programming (or computational thinking) in schools. The Royal Society, among others, believes that the design and delivery of ICT and computer science curricula in schools is so poor that students’ understanding and enjoyment of the subject is severely limited. In response to this the BBC is exploring the possibility of developing a project with the specific purpose of encouraging an interest in computers, computer science and computer programming among young people.

"We would like to know your views on what the BBC could do in this area. In particular, what you would see as the desirable equivalent of the BBC Micro and The Computer Programme today? What technologies and processes, what tools and skills would such a project need to develop? In particular, we would appreciate answers to some specific questions:
Key questions:

  • "What aspects of computational thinking (eg understanding how ‘computers think/work’, using programming languages, understanding systems thinking or other issues) should a BBC Micro 2.0 project focus on? What do you think people should be able to learn to do with computers today? Why?
  • "What are the best ways to support and encourage those young people (aged 9-14) with an interest in this area, to develop their interest and skills in computational thinking? Can you suggest any examples of resources or activities that you know of?
  • "What are the best ways to support and encourage young people (aged 9-14) with other interests to develop an interest in and understanding of computational thinking? Can you suggest any examples of resources or activities that you know of?
  • "What are the key obstacles to learning computational thinking and how might these best be overcome?
  • "If you were to make hardware available to schools in the same way as the BBC Micro in 1981, what sorts of hardware would you think was essential to develop the skills and understanding needed?
  • "If you were designing a TV programme today that sought to have the same effect as The Computer Programme in stimulating interest in the most important new area of technological development, what area would you expect it to address and what topics would you expect it to cover? Would it still be in the field of computer science? What areas?
  • "Do you know of any projects, resources and activities that would be examples that this project could learn from?
  • "Do you have any other comments on the idea of a new BBC Micro project?”

Some of the pressures and anxieties of the 2011 BBC clearly show through this series of questions. In a climate where there have been huge cutbacks in funds, criticism of the BBC’s use of licence-payers money (especially the ill-fated BBC Jam), and a huge upheaval, including the move from its West London White City base up to Salford, Manchester, it is perhaps understandable that a greater note of caution would be adopted.  

The BBC Academy is already launching professional training of software developers, recognising that there is a large shortfall of nationally-recognised support, and hence a massive opportunity for its expertise. A computer literacy programme would be a natural way to raise awareness and the profiles of careers such as software development; a need that has been highlighted by many, including Government ministers such as David Willetts MP and Ed Vaizey MP. The original Computer Literacy project had similar political support in the form of Kenneth Baker, who was heavily involved in its promotion (and still retains an interest in technology).

"A fantastic response' – Keri Facer

Keri Facer’s work is at a very early stage, and is still being developed, but she says: “There has been a fantastic response.“ Clearly there could be a massive demand for such a project, and widespread excitement at the idea, which brings its own challenges. “One of the things we'll probably need to do is manage expectations a bit, and remind people that it was the Government that funded much of the project in the early 1980s”, adds Keri. “So it's not really down to the BBC alone – it's about whether there would be government support or funding for such a project.”

But maybe here is a key area of challenge for the BBC project? While ministers in government departments like BIS and DCMS understand the challenge and are keen to engage, Michael Gove’s Department for Education (DfE) is regarded by many as the most Luddite department in government, and its lack of an interest in, and a strategy for, IT in schools has been widely criticised. Though BIS has vocally supported the Behind the Screens initiative, a wider computer literacy programme aimed at children at home and at school could possibly risk ruffling feathers in a reluctant DfE.

However, with not only the Royal Society criticising the curriculum gaps, but also an international luminary, Google’s Eric Schmidt, making it a central focus of his recent MacTaggart Lecture, pressure is surely building. The excellent Raspberry Pi project potentially offers hardware that would be affordable by every home, and Eben Upton at the Bletchley Park Summit made little secret of his hope that the BBC would get behind the project and back the production of a device aimed at helping children be producers rather than consumers of computing.

The pent up desire for more hands-on computing is emerging through initiatives such as Young Rewired State, Apps for Good and Computing at Schools. Surely there is already clear evidence of an overwhelming demand for the BBC to have the courage of its convictions? Insiders consider it an ideal time for another BBC programme to help engage a new generation in the exciting world of programming, and to promote opportunities for the young and UKplc in digital creativity.

One thing the BBC will have to recognise is that the world is very different to the 1980s: needs have changed. Above all it doesn't need to set itself the monumental challenge of outdoing its earlier initiative, or matching each and every aspect and component from 1981. What's required is to get on and harness the energies and needs of those engaged in the fields of digital creativity, computational thinking and entrepreneurship – now.

More information

Wikipedia entry for The Computer Programme 
Keri Facer at MMU 
"The long wait – the Tories on ICT and learning" 
Eric Schmidt's MacTaggart lecture - full text 
Bletchley Park Summit 
Young Rewired State 
Apps for Good   
Computing at Schools   
BBC's "Why is Google in love with Bletchley Park?"  
Opening titles for The Computer Programme & first appearance of BBC Micro (YouTube, below)

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter via @tonyparkin

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