The History of Computers in English Schools

The very first computers to appear in UK classrooms (excluding special computer courses in secondary schools and colleges) were early machines such as the Apricot and the Commodore PET. They were introduced by a few pioneering teachers who wanted to experiment with this new technology.

But then, in 1982, the Department of Trade and Industry stepped in and made a half price offer. The ball had begun to roll.

At that time, schools didn't buy PCs for two reasons - firstly, the Department of Trade and Industry only supported three UK manufacturers and secondly, PCs did not have graphics or sound capabilities at that time so they weren't the best choice for children. They may have been replacing typewriters - and introducing spreadsheets - in industry but children needed something more suitable to their needs.

Using DTI funding, schools could choose from

  • the BBC model B (made by Acorn)
  • the 380Z (made by RM)
  • the Spectrum (made by Sinclair)

There were two reasons for these choices. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly at the time, they were all British made. But secondly, unlike the PCs of the time, they all had good graphics and sound for their time. It may only have been eight colours and a range of tones (plus white noise!) but it allowed for an amazing amount of animation and sound.

These were the days before schools managed their own budgets. It was a time when LEAs did central purchasing and decision making so Local Education Authorities each chose their preferred machine and the stage was set for the next ten years. 

My authority, Cambridgeshire, decided on BBC machines since they were made by Acorn who were based in Cambridge. For a similar reason, Oxfordshire chose RM. A few counties chose the Sinclair machine because it was cheaper so you got more for your money but the rest went with Acorn or RM. The Sinclair counties fairly quickly moved over to one of the other brands because the Spectrum, although a superb machine for its day and excellent for home use, really wasn't up to the challenge of busy classrooms.

As I mentioned, these computers could only display eight, rather chunky, colours and make a range of simple sounds but creative programmers - and quite a few few teachers - very quickly began to produce software designed for children, including some excellent music programs.

Graphics, Sounds and Mice
The computers also had no mouse and no icons at which to point, click and drag. Programs were driven by menu choices made using the keyboard. But they could all display remarkably good graphics for the time and they allowed for a very visual approach which was ideal for young children.

In contrast, PCs at that time had monochrome screens (often green and black), no sound and no graphics - other than the IBM set of lines which allowed business forms to be designed on screen. PCs were ideal for business use but they really weren’t the best choice for schools. What children need are materials that help them learn, not run accounts departments. Convincing parents of this simple fact was another matter and I can’t tell you how often I was asked why we were not teaching children DOS because that’s what they would be using when they left school.

Initially the computers came with a tape recorder and several boxes of cassette tapes. There was no printer. The tapes were all the “Educational Game” type of program - practising sums, spelling or colours, for example - except one; but more of this in a moment.

This approach, although it seemed good at the time, did education a great disservice. It led people to believe a number of falsehoods:

  • computers are fiddly, awkward things and very hard to get going
  • software is free or very cheap
  • computers do simple things like rote learning activities which could be better done at a fraction of the cost using pencils, paper and books

It took a few years for the idea of using computers as open-ended tools in other curriculum work to became a reality and even longer before this became embedded in most teachers’ thinking. 

Generic Software
As early as 1985 I attended a lecture entitled 'Learning Environments of the Future' in which the speaker showed us the program from the box of cassette tapes which was not an educational game.

It was called ‘Dart’ and was an early implementation of Logo.

He described how it was completely content free and the computer was not being used as a teaching machine (a concept familiar from the work of the behaviourist psychologists earlier in the century). 

It gave children an open-ended environment in which they could experiment with mathematical ideas and achieve success. There was no such thing as failure. If you sent the dart (later familiar as the on-screen turtle) in the wrong direction, you had not made a mistake; what you had done was learn about lengths, angles or directions. There was no one right answer. Problem-solving, collaboration and good learning were the consequences.

It was an eye opener and showed that the power of IT lay in its use as a creative tool and not as a teaching machine.

The breakthrough came with word processing. A program called Folio, together with a small dot-matrix printer gave young children the ability to use the computer as a tool for writing. For the first time, children were able to rub out cleanly. The eraser (delete key) did not leave a smudge or worse, a hole in your paper! More importantly, your text was malleable and endlessly editable - and the scruffiest child in the class could produce written work as neat as the best.

Even so, many teachers complained, asking why on earth we should use a computer for writing. “They have to learn to use a pen,” they said. But the benefits quickly became established - though sharing printers between classes went on for a long time. It's difficult to imagine a time when the idea of using a computer for writing seemed alien but that's how it was.

It was the National Curriculum which finally moved IT forward with its descriptions of the use of generic software across five 'strands' of activity. This is described fully earlier in this section.

A new generation of computers
In about 1986 RM introduced the Nimbus computer. I feel sure that J.K. Rowling must have been educated in an RM authority because the Nimbus 2000 broomstick that Harry Potter uses seems to be a reflection of her excitement of that time. The Nimbus had a mouse-and-windows environment so it was much easier and more enjoyable to use. It could display more colours and could play real sampled sound. Suddenly, photographs could be displayed on screen and real instrument sounds used to make music!

Many Acorn counties (notably the Inner London Authorities) switched to RM and bought these machines. But in 1987 Acorn launched the Archimedes computer which also had a windows-icons-mouse-and-pointer (WIMP) operating system plus good graphics and sound, so the exodus halted. The Archimedes range included the A3000 which was quickly adopted by primary schools.

Both RM and theAcorn used proprietory operating systems. It can be argued that they were better than DOS - which was found on all PCs - but the increasing ubiquity of PCs meant that people were becoming familiar with DOS at work and at home. Other systems, including Apple, were becoming increasingly marginalised.

'Industry Standard’
In the mid 1990s RM decided to 'go industry standard' and sell PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system to schools. It was made relevant to education by the arrival of the '286' generation of computers which could handle a graphical user interface with 256 colours and digitised sound.

Microsoft also finally managed to get a windows interface to work under DOS - Windows 3.1 in 1992, followed by the better Windows 95 - in 1995. Brilliantly, Bill Gates called his operating system “Windows” so a generation of people began to think of the windows environment as something Microsoft created rather than joined last.

Acorn stayed with its own proprietary operating system - RISCOS - which was rather better than Windows 3.1. The Sinclair computer had meantime become a strong home games machine but had largely disappeared from classrooms. (It was later superseded by other manufacturers who produced dedicated games consoles.)

As an aside, my father bought a Sinclair Spectrum and began writing his life history using the tiny rubber keys and a word processor called 'Tasword’. You can read it here, on this website.

There was also another computer platform in existence back then. Along with RM, it survives to this day. Apple computers introduced the windows and mouse environment way back in the late 1980s and it was by far the easiest to use - but being American it wasn't available for UK schools although a number of Scottish authorities did adopt it.

Eventually, the ubiquitous PC came to dominate the market. This was due to three factors:

  • the technology had improved to the point where PCs came with good graphics and sound capabilities.
  • Microsoft's 'Windows' operating system had eventually become useable - long after Apple and some time after RM and Acorn.
  • perhaps most importantly - funding for schools was devolved to the schools themselves.

It was this third point that spelled the death knell for Acorn and RM.

Devolved funding meant that, instead of LEAs identifying what was best for children, parents controlle where the money was spent. They had long been convinced that 'industry standard' computers were best for their children because they were used in industry - and it was impossible to convince them otherwise. I had been endlessly asked why we didn't teach children DOS "because that's what they'll need when they leave school" and it was endlessly fruitless to explain that what children needed was software suited to their educational needs, not suited to the needs of business.

Luckily, by the time funding was devolved, the PC had grown up to the point where it was a viable option and all the best UK educational software was converted to run on PCs. Prior to that, the best choice really had been Acorn, RM or Apple.

The future
The platform war that raged through the 1990s is long over. All of the competing platforms developed into stunning machines, operating at high speeds and capable of high definition colours graphics, digital sound, WYSYWIG (what you see is what you get) desktop publishing and even full motion video. In the late 1990s Acorn threw in the towel and left the PC to it.

Apple remained strong in the graphical industries and, following the return of Steve Jobs, went on to transform the world of computers. iPods, iPads and the iPhone became copied by other manufacturers and devices scuh as tablets have changed the use of IT in education.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and 24-hour internet access are just two new ideas which could never have been imagined in the wildest fantasies of those of us who worked in schools during the 1980s and 1990s. Those early days were heady and exciting, but the wonderful thing is that the excitement has never stopped. Superfast broadband is the next step and it will bring things that we cannot imagine in our wildest fantasies. I wish I had a crystal ball . . .

Next page: Learning Platforms . . .

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© Brian Smith 2015