Gary McNab, Code Show founder and computer history advocate, explains why teaching children the keyboard and mouse basics is essential in this tablet-focused world. He shares a little of his PC-passion with Johanna Hamilton AMBCS.

The PC: beige, boxy and boring. Overtaken, out-cooled and overshadowed by iPhones and tablets - but COVID-19 has changed all of this. Global PC sales jumped by 13% in 2020. Why? Because we all need to work and educate our children from home and you can't do that on a phone...

‘Exactly,’ agrees McNab. ‘The introduction there is perfect. It sums up the PC over the past 20 years. If we go back to 2010 and the introduction of the iPad, it became the “in” thing, everybody needed / wanted one. What we found, certainly in primary school, is that children are coming in with the ability to swipe across the screen, but those keyboard and mouse skills have now gone and we're having to reintroduce them.’

While the swiping left or right might be suited to internet shopping or reading, it’s obviously not conducive to, say, touch typing. ‘It's frightening to see everybody's reliance on this one finger swipe and one finger typing,’ says McNab. ‘We’re losing fine motor skills with the keyboard and mouse. And yet, to do any actual computing, you have to go back to the PC. The tablet is a sterile experience because you're sat there and you're essentially window shopping. You're just browsing. You can't do anything in depth like communicate with the operating system because it's a locked-out environment.’

Locking out a generation of would-be coders

So, for a generation of children who only need to lift a finger for entertainment - literally - just how do you get them started on learning, coding and exploring computing?

McNab has a plan: ‘When lockdown ends, we’ll start by teaching dance mat typing which is a BBC app that introduces children to touch typing. Then, we will get them onto text - we’ll do that “ten print ‘hello my name is’ twenty go to ten,” and it gives them just that bit of interaction that they are actually talking to the computer rather than just a spectator.’

While it is common for children to have a tablet to watch cartoons or to play on - almost before they can speak - when should a child’s tech education actually begin?
‘In the early years foundation stage (EYFS) we use Bee-Bots and Code-a-Pillars, then introduce Scratch Junior through years one and two, then by the end of that year, we’ll move them up to using normal Scratch.

It’s not until years five and six that we’ll start looking at Python. CodeCombat introduces a game element and it's another area of learning where it isn't just a piece of code and a problem to fix. Putting that game environment in there gives the children a challenge and they feel like they're completing the game without actually thinking, oh I'm having to code again, boring. They like that interactive challenge.

‘I look at it from an end goal: say, by the end of year six, I want them to know about Python and I'll drop it in as early as I can, getting them familiar with it, playing with it and then when they get home, they can go on CodeCombat or Raspberry Pi and just get familiar with the interface and the commands. It needs to be a continuation, building on previous skills not a start again situation.

A living history lesson

While many of us “forty-somethings” grew up with home computing, ZX Spectrums, BBC computers in schools, the Code Show is a history lesson for the new generation. What happens when children, who have never seen 1980s tech, go into a room full of it?

‘The children just walk in and go “wow”,’ says McNab. ‘I will put 15-20 machines on display, all making their own unique sounds and beeps and what have you, with videos on in the background from the time, promoting the hardware. In every school, the boys will head for the arcade sounds and the gaming sounds and the girls will look in the opposite direction at all the hardware and think, “what's this?”

‘Boys are just looking at the end result. I'm already going to the moon - but I don't know how to build a rocket. The boys just want to interact with the hardware and play and the girls want to look at the uses and how it's all evolved.’

‘In 1980, when I started secondary school, the only computer was in a metal work room. It was a Commodore Pet and the first interaction I had with the computer was a reaction test to press the keyboard as soon as the cursor appeared on the screen. That started my journey. I thought, I've managed to talk to a television screen. That just blew me away. Ever since, it’s been any excuse to use a computer!’

The PC of the future

When asked what the future holds for the PC, McNab believes evolution is key. ‘The PC has evolved. Operating systems have evolved. Hardware has evolved. End users have evolved. And our demands on the PC have evolved.

‘Everyone is connecting to the cloud. Society needs the cloud. We now need to think about data sharing, GDPR, what we’re sharing... But there’s no going back. The fact is, society is reliant on that big data now.

‘As our demands on big data increase, the PC will always be ahead of the curve. I don't see a time where we're having to reinvent another piece of technology that will supersede the PC - because it's lasted.

'Look how far we've come from the mid-70s with the introduction of microchips to where we are now - on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution. The PC is here to stay. ‘Certainly from an eSports / gaming angle we could argue that the gaming industry has revived the PC sector and the PC.’

School computers

When asked whether computer suites still exist in schools, McNab confirms: ‘They do in mine! We’ve got 30 desktops in my ICT suite we’ve also got 60 mini iPads. I wouldn't like to teach them via iPad only; I've looked at iPad-only curricula and I've done one or two things with the iPad, I just don't see it as a reliable tool. PC is your bread and butter and it does exactly what you want it to do, when you want to do it.

‘Apple didn’t design the iPad for educational use and hasn’t adapted it for the classroom. Also, having a lot of Apple products, especially in education, isn’t affordable. I buy my Core i5 computers refurbished at £150 a time. A limited expense, as opposed to renewing 60 iPad mini’s, which would be over £20,000.’

Style over substance

Cost certainly plays a part in the decision making, not only of school budgets, but also domestic accounts. So should you choose something that looks aesthetically pleasing over something that will be a less attractive workhorse?

‘You're certainly paying for the design aspect rather than the actual computing power,’ says McNab. ‘Looking at the traditional MacBook Pro, if you were to spend £1,500 on a PC, it would be infinitely better computing-wise than the relative Apple product. It's just that it's going to be super thin, sleek, lightweight and maybe have a better glass display screen. So, are you paying for the cosmetics, or are you paying for the actual raw power inside the machine?’

While deciding whether to choose a Mac or a PC is something of a first world problem, for some 8m people in the UK who don’t have a digital device or internet access, there are more pressing issues ahead, both practically and politically.

The impact of lockdown on computing education

McNab reflects on what the past 12 months has taught us regarding how much we rely on technology. ‘We need to think about communication rather than politics,’ he says. ‘The department of education needs to invigorate IT and IT teaching in schools. The introduction of the computing curriculum, a few years ago was another tool in that in that armoury.

‘Tech is massively needed by everybody - and everybody needs to be given the same opportunity. I certainly want to knock on the Department of Education's door and ask, “Why are we not teaching IT history?”

‘We need to have a manifesto for computing again and push for it to become a core teaching subject. Look at it retrospectively: this is what we struggled with; this is what we did well with. How can we make it better? How can we make it more seamless? How can we make it more secure? How can we make it relevant?

'As much as the Raspberry Pi foundation and others do really good work and it's fantastic to see where we were ten years ago to where we are now, I see it as a bit disjointed. We need to come together.

'If that past year has taught us anything it's our reliance on technology to work and play. We need to become that 21st century digital society and educate our children to become 21st century digital citizens.

'In the Mid 1970s the BBC Adult Literacy programme was supporting adults to read and write via TV and radio content, yet five years later the BBC computer literacy programme was democratising computing and we as children were bringing the country into the computing age. It’s this mindset we need once again.

‘We need to have one manifesto so that we can get these learners to where we want them to be in the next 10-15 years - to join up all the avenues of computer learning. And we need funding to make sure that no one is left behind in the revolution.’