Edmund Burke


This little tutor is designed both for absolute beginners and "restart" beginners in BBC BASIC. When the BBC Micro was launched some twenty years ago, many excellent tutors in BBC BASIC were published, but these have now largely been rendered obsolete by the rapid pace of development in computer design. The Acorn machine, for which BBC BASIC was originally written, is now obsolete, and there is a need for a tutor adapted to the PC version, which is considerably more advanced than the original version.

In addition to changes in hardware, market trends in computer software have also to be taken into account, on both pragmatic and educational grounds. From the viewpoint of pragmatism, it must be acknowledged that the IBM PC and compatibles have set a clear trend towards the standardisation of applications. Although BBC BASIC is still capable of producing highly sophisticated software, there would be no point in producing a syllabus aimed at training programmers to write ROM applications for a defunct machine. This fact shifts the focus of the agenda to the needs of the individual, or small organisation, using a PC for personal or business purposes. It is here that BBC BASIC, when once acquired as a skill, is more easily tailored to the job in hand than a king-sized software package.

From the viewpoint of educational principle, the question of what we mean by "computer literacy", in relation to personal programming, also needs to be re- examined. There is a clear historical parallel to be drawn between the Victorian educationists, who sought to bring literacy and numeracy to the common people, and the pioneers of the national computer literacy project in Britain in the 1980's, who aimed, under the sponsorship of the BBC, to bring the new and exciting technical breakthrough of the microcomputer within reach of the general public. In 2001 we will be celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the launch of this project, which in its day had the ring of a national institution, on a par with the Boat Race or the last night of the Proms.

Admittedly the family PC, at the start of the new millennium, has become an interactive online magazine, in which programming is reserved largely for the professional expert. Nevertheless, the launch of the BBC Micro in the 1980's testifies to an ideal, on the part of all concerned at the time, in the provision of tools for the development of logic as a feature of adult education.

From this viewpoint of logic as an educational goal, very few PC users have been encouraged to apply the principle of "economies of scale" to choosing software. In other words, a great deal of computer software is economical only in an industrial scenario of mass production. In real life you don't need an articulated lorry to go to the local shops for a few items of mid-week groceries. Equally, you don't need an expensive, high-powered industrial spreadsheet for managing either home accounts or the small business accounts of a sole trader.

The present author happens to be a sole trader, running a language tutorial agency, and has found, after several frustrating years of messing about with king-sized databases, that the easiest way of keeping track of local clients and colleagues is a card index , printed out from a short program written in BBC BASIC. The same applies to invoices and standardised letters. Unquestionably, large-scale industrial software has indeed to be standardised, so that staff who are trained to operate it have job mobility. However, the key challenge facing the home computer user is the ability to distinguish between large-scale operations, for which commercial software is ideal, and small-scale operations, which are best written in BASIC.

From the educational perspective, therefore, although the drive for national computer literacy seems at first sight to have been eminently successful, the truth of the matter is that only one barrel has gone off. The ability to use software, without being able to program, is only half the story of computer literacy. To take a parallel example from household management, nobody would dream of classifying the ability to put freezer foods into a microwave oven as a definition of cookery. Fortunately, at the time of writing, Delia Smith has shown that the tradition of home cooking, made famous by Mrs Beeton from 1859 onwards, is still alive and flourishing. So equally it is the aim of the present author to demonstrate that BBC BASIC, as a versatile programming skill, is not only accessible to all, but ranks as a management skill which is as useful, as creative and as enjoyable as cookery or carpentry.

A new feature of this tutor is the application of current techniques of modern language teaching to the study of BBC BASIC. Although commonly referred to as a "language", BASIC would perhaps be better defined as "the use of written English, in tokenised form, for the special purpose of programming a computer". For several decades now, linguists have switched their attention away from the rules of grammar, for the sake of grammar, to the social transactions that language performs. Ironically, however, some of the early BASIC tutors bore an uncanny resemblance to Victorian Latin schoolbooks. The new scientific skill of computer programming was taught by means of the obsolete technique of encyclopaedic formalism. Thus the key words of BASIC were often alphabetically drawn up, and exercises set to illustrate them, with little reference to the practical jobs that the student needed to do with a programming language.

It is hoped that the present tutor will be found useful in schools which have invested capital, labour and planning into computer literacy under the BBC Micro project, only to find their programme interrupted when the Acorn machine became obsolete. For these schools, BBC BASIC can continue to be taught by means of the PC. (The present author's elder son, a student of aeronautical engineering, who learnt BBC BASIC at school, considers it to have been excellent initial training for using FORTRAN.) It is hoped that the tutor will also be found useful for initial computer training in developing countries, where BBC BASIC can speed up the processes of documentation, in business and administration, without investing in unaffordable software.

The Z88 also still has a popular following, and new software is still being written for it. Users can be assured that most of the routines in this tutor will apply to the Z88 - with the notable exception of graphics, colour, sound and printer commands. Diverging routines will be covered in a separate appendix.

Finally, a warm welcome to disillusioned worshippers from the PC temple, who have exhausted the agenda of computer games, are bored with being told how to behave in chat rooms, and have discovered that the Internet is simply a furniture van - where the driver has no control over the contents. They will find intellectual challenge in BASIC, every bit as stimulating as chess or bridge. The student of BBC BASIC, who works through this tutor stage by stage, will not only be able to devise real-life programs in a short space of time, but will also discover a fascinating and captivating hobby.


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© Edmund Burke 1999