A history of the geeks and the land they lived in

When a colleague asked if anyone had any stories of the development of computers in the 50’s and 60’s I had to own up to a family secret; my dad was one of the first geeks.  He was invited to the first meeting of the British Computing Society in 1959 and, until his death in 1974, he remained close to the cutting edge of hardware and software development. 

So, what do I know about the ‘early days’ ..?

Not many people realise that much of the pioneering work to make computers useful to business was carried out here in the UK and that, for a time, Britain was the world leader in developing hardware and software for commercial use. Most of us have heard of Bletchley Park, only a few miles from Northampton, and of how our need to crack German military codes led to the creation of the world’s first true computer there, but, after the war, the head-start provided by the Park’s code-breakers was largely lost due to the government decision to keep the invention a secret.  That allowed the USA to take up the running, creating room-sized computers that mainly ended up in universities and in government departments.  Then a British company called Lyons, famous mainly for their corner teashops, decided it needed a better way of keeping track of its payroll, and so its forward-looking directors decided that one of those new-fangled computer machines being produced in the States might just be the answer. Little did anyone know that a corner-shop business would end up spawning a new generation of computers and software specifically designed to help run businesses. From selling tea and cakes, Lyons moved into making computers, with the first one being called – naturally – Leo. Leo, and its descendants, gave a new impetus to computers in the UK and a new lease of life to geekdom in the UK.  Which is where I come in …

I was born in a semi in Kingston-upon-Thames. Here’s the inside of our house; just look at our TV! I remember watching Andy Pandy and the Woodentops on it, and also ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio.  My Dad was a prototype geek, as you can probably tell from the photo, and after studying maths at University and learning Russian for his national service, he went on to work for Leo Computers, English Electric and ICL in the ‘50s and ‘60s, helping to develop the earliest business computer applications.

Leo actually stood for Lyons Electric Office, and the first Leo computer was as big as two bus-shelters and relied on punched cards and card readers for its inputs. It had 7,000 valves and a memory of just … 2K!  But it was a world-beater.

Leo soon had offices in Prague and Moscow, and, looking back through their archives, it must have been a very exciting field to be in.  Here’s Ernest Kaye, one of the original design team sharing his memories about it in a BBC podcast.  Read some more memories from the era here and here and here’s a fascinating video about Leo computers which shows what one ‘bit’ looked like then:

What comes across is that these people were real pioneers, reinventing computer technology to meet commercial needs. Ralph Land, talking in the video below gives a real flavour of the time, ‘It’s difficult to imagine now the sheer excitement of the group we worked in.….there was a constant buzz….you were doing something new almost every single day and that made it constantly exciting…you came home in the evening and thought about what had been done and it was quite exceptional’.

The Leo Computers Society website has a great collection of photos and evocative recordings of the sound of Leo, which was surprisingly noisy.

In 1963, Leo Computers merged with English Electric who opened a new computer factory in Kidsgrove near Stafford. In 1968, English Electric merged with ICL. And of course there were other companies working in the field across the world. In 1964 my dad represented Leo Computers on the programming standards committee ECMA alongside people from IBM, Siemens, and Ferranti. ECMA was an industry association started in 1961 to help standardise ICT systems, and it is still doing the same thing today. Sadly, my dad’s early death meant he missed out on the post 60’s explosion in the use of personal computers that came about as result of the invention of the microprocessor in the early ‘70s.

If this brief taste of the era inspires you to find out more, I can highly recommend the Sunday afternoon guided tour of The National Computing Museum at Bletchley Park  where you can see a working replica of the code-breaking Colossus computer that was used there in 1943.

All fascinating stuff, but of course, I was just a young child while this was going on, and although I can remember my dad using words like Algol, Fortran and Cobol at the tea table, I could never make sense of it at the time.  However, I can remember steam trains and cars without seat belts, and in 1963 we went on a package holiday to Yugoslavia, in a turbo-prop plane. There was a sense of the world changing fast, of a new era coming in. So, what kind of world did the geeks inhabit?

In the mid ‘60s we moved into a brand new housing estate in Cheshire so Dad could work at English Electric at Kidsgrove. The brave-new-world of the 1960’s not only had computers, it also embraced vivid colours and funky gadgets … I well remember living with wallpaper that required sunglasses to be able to look at it in the day, and design statements such as our orange perspex cube lamp and glass-topped table. Not to mention my dad suddenly taking to wearing patterned shirts and throwing out our large radiogram in favour of a set of the latest Quad hi-fi equipment, which he then put on our Danish teak wall shelves …

With Dad being into technology, we were one of the first families on the estate to have a colour TV in 1966 and I can remember friends coming round just to watch the test card! We also watched the moon landing in 1969. I remember being surprised as a 9 year old that no-one had been to the moon before.  Another trend was Saturday visits to the ‘Freezer Centre’ to buy frozen food for our new chest freezer.  Packaged food like chocolate mousse in a plastic tub replaced homemade junket and we made fizzy drinks with a soda siphon on Sunday lunchtimes. We were the computer generation, and we were Modern!

Children’s clothes changed too during this decade and my sisters and I went from wearing knee-length handmade (sometimes hand-smocked) cotton dresses to short skirts made of synthetic fabrics such as crimpoline. In the last year of primary school, I was proud of owning a chain belt and ‘wet-look’ skirt, but really coveted my friend’s patent white boots!

In the 1980’s of course, we saw the miniaturization and the popularisation of computers. From being so big that they needed their own rooms they could suddenly sit on a desk-top, and from being the province of the geek, they became the toy for everyman. The price dropped and the power rose, exponentially. In came the Sinclair ZX and the Commodore 64, the BBC machine and the first Apple computer. The mouse appeared and the use of windows and icons, and all the things we take for granted today.  My dad would have loved it if he’d had the chance to make the journey from Leo to the iPad, though I suspect he would have thought his generation lived through the most exciting time of all, when it was all new and the possibilities were just dawning.  Perhaps he’d smile if he knew that I work in ICT and that I get excited by the possibilities …

Plan-Write-Publish digitally

I’d like to think about how the process of creating digital products such as e-stories, slideshows, presentations and multimedia posters compares to the writing process, and how we can combine tools and software to make this engaging and meaningful for children.

The skill of capturing thoughts on paper is something that children need to practise and learn, and a common approach to helping them do this is to guide them through a writing process of planning, drafting, editing, revising and publishing. These are often presented as stages and writers may go back and forth between them:

The Plan>Write>Publish process  applies equally well to the creation of digital products  and we can draw from a wealth of online tools to support thinking at each stage.

Firstly, let’s look at planning. How can we support children to gather and organise their ideas, whether they are planning a story or presenting on a theme?

Three of my favourite ideas-gathering tools, which all work well on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) are Wallwisher, Wordle and Bubble.us. Wallwisher is basically an online noticeboard, on which anyone can post stickies if they have the URL. Here’s how.  One of the advantages of gathering ideas this way is that you can then move them around to decide which to keep and what order to put them in. This works for planning or analysing a story plot as well as for preparing a presentation on a theme. Another plus is that it encourages contributions from the children who don’t always join in class discussions. In this example from Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways series they have collected text and images about fast food and stacked them into arguments in preparation for writing:

Wordle makes word clouds from any text you type.  Repeated words are displayed more prominently and you can link words in phrases using the tilde symbol (~).  One use of this could be to gather phrases describing a character from a book chapter and display them in Wordle in preparation for writing a character description. The example below is based on a downloaded extract from Eek the Runaway Alien by Karen Inglis on the LoveReading4Kids website:




Alongside these, you may want to think about mindmapping and brainstorming planning tools  such as bubble.us and popplet which I looked at here.

Moving on to thinking about drafting, I would suggest investigating Primary Pad or Google Docs.  Primary Pad describes itself as a ‘superfunky collaborative writing tool’ and in my experience it really is! Children love the fact that they can write together in real time and see each other’s contributions appearing in different colours on their screens. In my classroom they got hooked on the process and begged to be allowed to use it at home.

Having gathered ideas and explored them, you’ll be ready to choose a publishing tool for your work. You will be spoilt for choice as there are so many engaging ways of combining words, images and sometimes sound and video into a shareable digital product. Here’s my top ten, well eleven actually.

Photopeach and Photostory are similar, but the first is online and the second a free download. They combine photos, music and text in a lively way by panning around the images.  These students have used Photopeach to make summaries of novels, an idea which could be adapted for younger ages. Animoto goes one stage further by choreographing the panning in time to the music you choose. Last year some of our student teachers used Animoto to interpret poems. Watch them here and here.

When you make a presentation in Prezi you place your media on a virtual canvas and zoom in and out to show them to your audience. You can jump around your content in a non-linear way and respond to your audience’s input rather than just go from slide to slide.  This prezi on the theme of rainforests makes good use of the zoom feature.  Here’s my prezi on story tools. Click on the arrow to view.

With Glogster you can mix text, websites, images, music and video to make multimedia posters, which you can then embed in a blog and ask for peers to respond to them.  This provides a great summative assessment activity where pupils show what they know.

Some presentation tools are designed for story-making and the creation of eBooks. Storybird, Storyjumper, BookR and Little Bird Tales let you put together images and text to make page-turnable books online. Have a look at Oxenhope Primary School’s Storybirds.  Zooburst is an interesting example of the genre as you can make 3D pop-up books and even include augmented reality.  Also worth looking at is StoryScrapbook, a free download that allows you to make multimedia pages, similar to Glogster.









Issues to think about when using these tools include: making sure to use creative commons images and attributing them correctly; checking whether there is an advert-free ‘edu’ version of the tool; and testing the tools in your setting to see how your broadband copes. It is a good idea for you to demonstrate safe practice in selecting and uploading appropriate images.

Bearing these issues in mind, once you’ve made your digital product, whether it be a themed presentation or an eBook, there will usually be a facility within the tool for peer review via comments.  This provides an opportunity to revise and edit in response to feedback before publishing to the wider world, which is a great way to help develop critical skills and self-assessment in the context of a real sense of purpose.

Once your young authors are happy with their work  we can draw upon technology again for opportunities for presenting and publishing to the school community and further afield.  Most of the above sites have their own galleries, there are your school blogs, and you can often email products to parents or share the unique URL for their children’s work, all of which can give a tremendous boost to children’s self-esteem as writers.

At the end of the day, I agree with Mr G Online that the tools and apps can’t improve learning without good teaching, ‘Of course, all of this is pointless if we don’t have teaching and learning strategies in place. The apps don’t create the text. But they do make teaching writing and writing  itself a better experience.’


Reframing and rebooting the ICT curriculum

Image from Chantal Wagner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This year has seen a real shake up in ICT teaching. In January, at the BETT education show, we heard Michael Gove state that children are ‘bored out of their minds’ by a ‘demotivating’ and ‘dull’ ICT curriculum.  He may have been focusing on secondary students, but the Primary curriculum has also hardly changed since it was first introduced in 1999, whereas technology has advanced rapidly in recent years.

Gove was responding to several sources of criticism, including: lobbying from a number of industry bodies denigrating our young people’s computing abilities; Ofsted’s findings that ICT teaching was good or outstanding in less than half of the secondary and less than two thirds of primary schools surveyed; and reports from specialist groups such as The Royal Society calling for more computing in schools and for a rebranding of key terms. The answer, Gove suggested, is to free up schools to develop their own lessons and to encourage them to focus on more creative uses of computing.

So, after a public consultation the DfE announced in June that the ICT programmes of study would be scrapped this Autumn and that there is likely to be a two year gap until they are replaced in Sept 2014, alongside the revised curriculum for other subjects.  It is a myth that ICT is being removed altogether; it remains a compulsory subject for all key stages.

There is, therefore, a two-year vacuum to fill. From September 2012, schools are free to design and deliver their own ICT provision and this has stimulated a range of proposals and a renewed debate on what ICT in schools should be about. It’s not easy, however, to define a subject that, as Miles Berry notes, has a ‘dual nature as a subject to study and a tool to support study across the curriculum.’

Gove’s answer to the difficulty of redefining the curriculum is to suggest we crowd-source ideas for developing ICT through a ‘wiki curriculum’, and there is growing evidence that educators are starting to do that for themselves. The grass roots organisation Computing at School (CAS) has come up with a detailed computer science curriculum and NAACE has consulted with its members to produce a framework for Early Years, KS1 and KS2 with ‘digital wisdom’ at the centre of five areas of study. Both organisations have issued a joint statement with ITTE  entitled ICT and Computer Science in UK Schools.  In another example of collaboration, the Guardian has teamed up with Google to campaign for the promotion of digital literacy. Local Authorities, such as Lancashire and Wokingham, are updating and sharing their schemes of work. Chris Leach has drawn together thoughts from 28 educators on reshaping the curriculum and in June 2012 hosted a conference on Rethinking ICT, resulting in a wiki for the on-going gathering of ideas for a Programme of Study for KS2.   Matt Lovegrove and colleagues have documented their efforts to redesign the Primary ICT curriculum, using Matt’s Primary ICT Teaching and Learning Framework as a starting point. Another collaborative work in progress is PeterTwining’s A4 ICT POS for key stages 1-4 available as a google doc editable by all.

The key themes emerging from these initiatives are an increased focus on giving children the chance to work creatively with code and to gain a technical understanding of computer science; an emphasis on re-presenting and re-mixing ideas and media; developing a shared understanding of what we mean by digital literacy, digital making and managing digital identities; and how to balance the core elements of the curriculum.  There is also a movement away from discussion of hardware and software towards the idea of transliteracy; the capacity to read, write and interact across a range of platforms and media.

In the end, schools may prefer not to rely on a static document, but to allow a flexible and responsive ICT curriculum to evolve through tapping into professional dialogues and collaborative spaces such as these. And there will undoubtedly be opportunities for more specialists within the field.

All of these ideas are gathering momentum, but it remains to be seen whether the two-year hiatus turns out to be an opportunity or a threat for educators and their pupils; it could turn out well for those whose teachers who have a strong vision and can provide creative and inspiring experiences, but for other teachers it may be an excuse to let ICT fall by the wayside, as they wait to be told what to do next. And in our rush to demonstrate our newfound capacity to teach the basics of computer science, we risk losing sight of the way ICT can transform learning across the curriculum in the hands of an innovative teacher with a strong grasp of a range of technologies.

Miles Berry envisages a new freedom to devise ICT lessons where pupils explore their own interests through collaborative projects, communities of enquiry and challenge-based learning,  ‘There’s now the chance to make ICT in primary schools much more about exploring a landscape than completing a journey, with the ICT suite much closer to a design studio than a typing pool or call centre.’  I like this suggestion that children are engaging in a problem-solving and knowledge-sharing cycle, rather than just learning skills.

In January, Gove predicted that ‘From this September, all schools will be free to use the amazing resources that already exist on the web.’ I’d like to hear your perceptions so far. Do you think that our children have returned to a radically changed ICT curriculum? Are we in the process of defining a place for digital literacy alongside reading, writing and numeracy, as The Guardian suggests?  What key components would you like to see in the ICT curriculum and what should the new era focus on developing? Please add your thoughts to the answer garden below.

Key components of an ICT curriculum… at AnswerGarden.ch.