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Your demonstrations have got to work

by Sue Owen published Jul 15, 2008 09:25 PM, last modified Apr 05, 2011 11:05 PM
A story of early use of computing, punched cards and failure to deliver, but also of business simulations and 'fellow experimenters' learning together with the teacher

In 1970 I was a pupil in the sixth form of Prestatyn High School in North Wales, a new comprehensive school. They were experimenting with giving the academic pupils the opportunity to learn practical skills, such as metalwork and typing. I was probably one of the very few seventeen-year-old girls who had the opportunity to try out a lathe and arc welding, which was thrilling but rather scary.

As part of this strategy they sent everyone who was studying Maths and/or Physics A level on a computer course at the Flintshire Technical College, now Deeside College, which had close links with the steel and aviation industries, and was famous locally for having a flight simulator. Flintshire County Council’s computer was located there, filling a huge room, which we were allowed to tiptoe into, to gaze reverently upon such a powerful machine. We went back to a classroom where an enthusiastic lecturer showed us how to work out the approximation of a square root in Fortran. The lecturer found this really exciting, and was probably disappointed that we weren’t more responsive to his enthusiasm.

The maths group went on to do some more Fortran and we physicists did some programming in COBOL, the essence of which appeared to be to move things round from place to place and remember to put full stops at the end of each line of code. Our programs had to be typed onto punch cards by typists at the college and if they made a mistake the programs did not run. They were not used to typing Cobol and tended to miss out the full stops. So we were loaned a machine for punching holes in the cards manually, which we took back to school to try out. In fact we found this much more interesting, looking at the key for putting the holes for the different letters.

I’m sure real technology historians can correct me here, but it was something like putting a hole in place 1 and 2 for a letter A, then 1 and 3 for a letter B and so on. But you couldn’t put the letters close enough together using the manual punch, and the software needed to interpret cards with more widely spaces holes didn’t work, so as far as I remember nobody actually got any programs running. The lecturer was very enthusiastic about how wonderful it would have been if it had worked, but that was completely lost on us.

Lessons learnt

The fact was that it hadn’t. And from that I learned a valuable lesson which was useful many years later when I became a teacher and researcher promoting ICT in education. Your demonstrations have got to work. Don’t expect anybody to be impressed by applications which don’t do what you say they will. If I’m teaching something that I’m not sure how it will work out (a recent example is a student e-mail system that I didn’t have an account to try out) then I try to bring the students along with me as fellow experimenters, so that it becomes a positive thing for them to find a flaw and suggest a solution. I apologise to the lecturer in 1970 if this is what he was trying to do, because he met only a bunch of unimpressed schoolchildren.

The course at Deeside did go beyond programming. There was a trip to the ICL factory in Bellvue, Manchester, where we saw book-sized circuit boards being soldered by hundreds of women. We also tried a business game, competing in teams to see who made the most money, the computer providing the feedback. I was in the girls group. We beat one group of boys but lost to another. We wanted to know how the computer made its decisions so we could cheat.

It’s only since getting involved with National Archive of Educational Computing (NAEC) that I realised how pioneering this was, predating government initiatives to bring computing into schools. Sadly though, I avoided having anything to do with computers until the 1980s, even at university where they were very keen on Basic, and at work in the pharmaceutical industry where my friends had PETs and ZX81s. I thought of them in terms of programs that didn’t work in practice, or devices for delivering boring, linear education applications. I was wrong.

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