Of Mice and Programmers

Marshal Anderson argues that technological advance does not always mean educational benefit

Educational Computing and Technology, January ‘94

There is no doubt that the nature of the educational software for the Acorn 32-bit platform (the Archimedes and ‘A’ series) is very different from that for the old (8-bit) BBC Micro... in the range and depth of what is available, at least. For example, there has been a trend towards content-free applications. There are many wordprocessors, DTP suites, databases, spreadsheets, art packages and so on. But there are comparatively few content-based programs.

In general the drive towards the Archimedes market by software publishers has been quick. Compare it with the move to 16 and 32-bit educational software in the USA: there, the basic workhorse in elementary schools is the Apple IIe family, machines introduced at roughly the same time as the BBC. There have been much more sophisticated Apple machines around since before the Archimedes and yet the lIe is still the most widely supported. In the UK few if any companies are developing BBC software in 1993.

Even though the Archimedes has been around for over six years, there are still many more BBCs in schools. The latest survey by ECT suggests that 57% of primaries have a 32-bit computer whilst 84% have at least one Master. More interesting are recent DfE figures: 52% of all machines in schools being BBCs, Compacts or Masters; only 18% are 32bit machines.

Laying the blame
I'm not suggesting that the Archimedes should not have been supported over that time. Rather, that - considering the enormous changes in the curriculum - it's a shame that such a huge resource as all those BBCs is not being exploited.

So what's happening to them? Visiting schools, I often see BBCs in cupboards or used at wet playtime while classes vie for time on one or two Archimedes.

Gloves off now: there is a section of the teaching profession that must take at least some of the blame for this waste of a resource - I'm talking about the 'teckies'.

We know who you are
This bunch has simply got to have the latest gizmo; they will fight tooth and claw to get funding for new equipment and to hell with the school library. They create animosity amongst staff and jealously guard machines and the knowledge of how to run them. Anyone seeking information will be bombarded with a stream of jargon forcing staff to accept what they are told. These people have the ear of the publishers and are dismissive of software for the wrong reasons: I had just produced a couple of illustrated text adventures once. You know the sort of thing: You are in a cave. You can see a well known Education Minister. You have a cattle-prod. What now? This is a language exercise, about reading information and constructing sentences. Sentences you type in. The teckies arrived, 'But it doesn't use the mouse. Why doesn't it use the mouse? I don't want it if it doesn't use the mouse!'

The programmer's tale
Publishers policy on what is produced is based on more than the rantings of this misguided few, but the latter are too vocal; we could do without them. They compound the felony by foisting unsuitable software on 'ordinary' teachers who become more and more alienated: the link between the publishers and the real world of the school seems ever more tenuous.

But once, long ago, people who wrote educational programs for the BBC were, for the most part, teachers. They worked at the weekends, in the evenings and wrote what they thought people needed. This was a hobby. Though for a few it turned into a profession, and educational considerations were paramount. Because of this we got some very exciting software from people directly in touch with the kids; we also had people who would take risks. A teacher/hobbyist could beaver away at a good idea over six months for a publisher. The risk was low both for the author and publisher who paid little or nothing up-front for development. Several good selling titles could support worthy but less popular software.

Not so with Archimedes software. Eureka, for instance, took well over a year to write. Authors involved in this sort of thing want advances on royalties and the publishers want guaranteed sales. Some backing is available; NCET is an instance. But people are unwilling to take risks. Risks go with innovation. The next big idea is out there somewhere but, in this climate, it is unlikely to see the light of day.

As various companies vie with one other to sell you their database, spreadsheet or whatever, the software becomes more complex. The most common example is the educational wordprocessor. What is it actually for? How has it been improved? As a composing tool is the 32-bit version of PenDown is any better than its BBC predecessor? The spellchecker is all that has improved it.

WordWise with Spellmaster make excellent wordprocessors with all the tools for composition. The Archimedes offers the addition of pictures, hard copies of which are still disappointing and more fonts than you can shake a stick at. But these are a distraction from the language process.

The future is not so much bleak as boring. The Archimedes is a huge, powerful machine capable of supporting whole new worlds, we just need a few brave individuals to stick their toes back in the water.