The home computing revolution can be traced back to a handful of devices that captured the imagination of a generation. The Cambridge-designed Sinclair ZX81, in particular, was sold at a price point that made owning a computer affordable to the mass market for the first time. It launched in 1981 at £69.95 for the assembled version – equivalent to less than £300 in today’s money.
Twenty million of these early computers were sold into homes and schools over the next few years. But, unlike today, they were used almost exclusively by teenagers – who were allowed to play and experiment with them.
Rick Dickinson, senior industrial designer for Sir Clive Sinclair between 1980 and 1987, provides an insight into the excitement of the time – and the legacy. “The energy and creativity of these young people generated a range of industries and a very new breed of software and electronics engineers, fuelled by the sudden affordability, availability, extreme desirability and fast-moving community surrounding these machines,” he said. “It was a phenomenal time.” Thirty years on and many of those teenagers have become today’s electronics industry professionals.
The early machines combined the functions of what we now refer to as a games terminal and a home computer in equal measure. Inquisitive minds could play commercial games one minute and experiment with their own programs the next. Indeed, the commercial games available were often written and sold by other teenagers. The launch of these computers was to play a significant part in popularising high-tech careers for a decade, particularly in electronics and computer science. They created a genuine excitement about technology.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, the home computer landscape had totally changed. Acorn, Sinclair and Commodore had all run into financial difficulties. The computer market was dominated by the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh – and the games terminal had emerged as a separate item. In many ways this marked the end of a brief but golden period of home computer programming.
The most precious raw material of any high-tech organisation is a supply of bright and enthused graduates who are well taught in relevant subjects. But the teaching of computer technology in secondary schools in the US and many European countries, including the UK, has mirrored the evolution in home computing equipment. The focus changed from computer science based around programming during the 1980s to information and communication technology (ICT) based around the use of commercial packages by the 2000s. In many ways the magic has gone, with only the most gifted teenagers now able to program anything of note on a home PC.
This is in contrast to the generally accepted view of education in Asia, with the teaching of maths and science held up in the UK press as excellent in countries like Singapore – in that people score very highly in tests. In practice, though, many of the Asian education systems focus on rote learning and there is definitely a gap between exam performance and real-world application. This is something the Singapore government for one is trying to change, although the education system there is still focused on classroom learning with little practical application.
India is often held up as a computer science and engineering teaching power house producing well over one million graduates per year. So has at least one country in the world got the overall development of computer scientists right? A recent independent study of the quality of computer science teaching in Indian universities found half of computer science and IT engineers do not understand the subtleties of programming concepts, while over 80% of them are unable to apply it to real-world situations.
By the late 1990s, universities in the UK and US were seeing a significant drop in the number and quality of prospective undergraduates applying for engineering and computer science courses. Eben Upton, of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – and formerly of the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory – said this was a key motivation behind the development of the Raspberry Pi computer.
In the UK, former Education Secretary Michael Gove highlighted the significant shortcomings of the ICT syllabus taught in secondary schools – referring to it as “demotivating and dull”. He signalled a return to computer science teaching, with a new qualification developed in conjunction with Microsoft. From September, a new computing syllabus will be compulsory for all UK schoolchildren aged 5-16 – and a ‘Year of Code’ initiative has been launched to raise the profile of computer science in the UK education system.
The need for change to stimulate computer science skills throughout the education system has been acknowledged by other countries too. Estonia has announced it will teach students to program, starting at age seven. And South Korea has announced that a proposed new curriculum with a focus on computer science is in the works.
So with reform of education systems in many countries to boost early years computer science, coupled with the greater availability of low-cost computers like the Raspberry Pi, can high-tech employers look forward to a rapidly increasing pool of talent from which to recruit? Will there soon be an abundance of well-trained and enthused graduate engineers and computer scientists with lots of practical experience knocking on our doors?
Well, the Raspberry Pi has been a huge success measured by the number of units sold – more than two million. It has certainly provided anybody who wants to experiment and program a computer with the hardware and software tools to do so in a way that genuinely lowers the barrier to getting started.
But therein lies the problem. With the best will in the world, the Raspberry Pi can’t recreate the pioneering days of the 1980s, when the home computer was the most sophisticated machine a household was likely to own. Nowadays, an iPhone, Sony PlayStation or Windows laptop computer are all much more powerful yet represent a level of technology that’s simply taken for granted. This is reflected in the demographics of Raspberry Pi ownership – predominantly middle-aged men, students or children who have technical parents.
If the high-tech industries of the future are to have the human raw material that drives progress and innovation, we all need to enthuse the next generation to get more involved in the practical detail of technology – rather than just as consumers, users and in purely academic study. Everybody with a vested interest needs to promote engineering and computer science as a great career choice.
Read more from Geoff and his colleagues in our Interface magazine.