Microcomputer Club goes Back to the Future

You might ask, if computer programming is so important, shouldn’t a modern school equip its students to succeed in the modern world? So why have I kitted out my microcomputer club in the Physics lab with computers that were first released in 1980 and discontinued in 1984? 

There is of course an assumption with technology that the very latest thing is the best and the thing from last week is out of date and useless. That’s what corporations want to us think. I prefer to look at what job needs doing and chose the appropriate tool to get it done.

Let’s put it this way. Imagine you wanted your ten year old to play in an orchestra, perhaps the clarinet or cello. With no musical theory knowledge, no experience of scales and no practice in dexterity of finger movement or lips and breath techniques giving them a cello or clarinet and placing them in a live orchestra would not be a successful learning approach. 

So what do we do instead? We give them a simpler tool on which to learn the basics: music notation, scales as so on. Most often the tool is the recorder*. But you could say the recorder is a baby instrument. It only has a few notes. It can’t be used to play a tune that anyone would actually want to listen to. It has no place in the modern orchestra. No-one’s going to give a record deal to a recorder player. It’s just not an instrument that is taken seriously. Yet the recorder does the job it was designed to do. Results are quick and the theory can be learnt before moving on to a more sophisticated instrument. This is how it’s done in musical training, this is how you become a professional musician and yet this is not, as a nation, how we have treated computer science learning over the past few decades. 

It’s no wonder then that people enter the world of work unable to program any computer. We’ve all had access to the full orchestra with no idea how any parts of it work. Give a child a modern, expensive PC, Mac or iPad type device and the last thing they’ll do is want to take it apart to find out how it works. The last thing they have time for is learning how to program it when at the click of a finger amazing games, videos and chats can be had. 

This is where my commodore VIC20s** come in. They are the recorders of the computing orchestra. With them we can learn that the computer is nothing more than a bank of digital switches called transistors miniaturised to fit millions of them on a microchip called the 6502. The arrangement of the circuitry on the 6502 allows codes to be sent (in ones and zeros) which will have certain effects like change a colour or print the letter A on a screen. We can learn a stylised language that’s easier than feeding in those zeros and ones that lets us structure what we want the computer to do. Here we’re talking directing to the computer, in a language very close to its own, without the layers of other people’s code of a mouse cursor, windows and folders. All those graphical metaphors make things easier but are really multiple programs stacked on top taking us further and further away from the science of the computer. 

Just because we can find a clip on YouTube, spend hours on Fortnite or get loads of likes on Instagram doesn’t make us a computer expert, it makes us a user in the same was that we are machine or vacuum cleaner users. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but we need to have at least a few of us who still know how things work. That’s my job as a science teacher. As the cosmologist Carl Sagan said, “We live in an advanced technological society in which no-one knows anything about technology.”

It turns out I’m not alone in taking this approach. There are various companies attempting to strip down a modern PC into a more straightforward device that can be used just as a learning tool without the temptation to just go on the internet and check your notifications. There’s a massive retro computer community out there as I found out when I was asked to be interviewed for one channel. You can watch the interview here. I made a tour of the lab set up that was edited for use in the interview.

You can view the whole tour here.

(I even got some tips from the actual guys who designed the VIC20 for commodore, wrote the manuals and games through groups on Facebook!)

I was delighted to see that after a year of running my club and fixing up old machines, the commodore VIC20/64 is back into production as of December last year (called TheC64 from RetroGames for £109). You can actually now go and buy a brand new one, plug into any new monitor and easily save and load your programs (I got one of these the very day they came out).

At Fyling Hall we are teaching computing as part of ICT for all years using introductory languages such as Scratch, Logo and Python***. In my club we’re focusing on computer science using BASIC and assembler language (which is machine code in hexadecimal). It’s the technological equivalent of teaching Latin, which may not be used as a spoken language now but it’s the root of many modern languages and supports the learning of them.

The language of the computer is mathematics. Learning how to program enhances maths skills and gives a deep understanding of logic as well as developing imaginative creative problem solving. In many ways it’s at odds with how we typical use computers today in that the other skill you need most of all is patience: programming is not quick, it’s a slower and more thoughtful process than we give credence to these days in our high speed fast results world.

But most of all, typing your own program, that you’ve written, into a computer that up until that point simply sat there doing nothing, waiting for you with a flashing cursor saying ‘Ready.’ and then to type RUN so the computer begins to execute something you designed yourself, is actually quite rewarding and fun. Microcomputer Club is at 4:30-5:30pm on Tuesdays in the Physics Lab.

* The recorder, by the way is the earliest known musical instrument. One has been found dating from 60,000 years ago. It was made from a bear bone and has three notes: Do, Re and Mi. It wasn’t even made by humans like us, but by Neanderthals. See here [linkto: https://slovenia.si/art-and-cultural-heritage/the-neanderthal-flute-from-divje-babe/]

** The commodore VIC20 was the first computer of any kind to sell over a million units and one of the first colour computers. Its graphics and sound were improved to make the even more popular commodore 64 which went on to sell nearly 20 million units and is still the biggest selling computer in history (although the Raspberry pi is getting close).

*** Python is the modern version of BASIC which we will gravitate too when designing Raspberry pi electronics projects later on.

by Ayd Instone, Head of Physics, Enrichment and Extra-Curricular