The hour of golden oldies

21st June 1996 at 01:00
The early days of computers in schools were strange times. A computer had school-made programs on the one hand, and office software on the other. When people cried for industry standard software, they meant they wanted quality.

This set brains storming. Local education authorities opted for Acorn or Research Machines and set about writing educational software. They made some compelling programs offering benefits that didn't come any other way. It's only natural, evolution even, that some ideas lived longer than others.

Developing Tray (Inner London Educational Computing Centre) was praised in the first software wave. It's a word processor that would take something you typed, like a poem, and pepper it with gaps which the pupils had to puzzle out. They could guess at "-h-" but soon had to look for clues from the context. If anything focused minds on text this did, and it was a treat to see the teamwork.

All kinds of subject teachers discovered the Tray program. They used text about the planets and the water cycles. They even used it as a way to introduce the computer, but however much their aims differed, no subject could claim it as theirs.

Another program, Sorting Game (Micros and Primary Education), was better known as the animal game, an idea as old as the computer. The computer asked you to think of an animal, and then tried to guess it by asking questions like "does it fly?" If it didn't guess right, it would ask you to think of a question to distinguish your animal from others.

Unlike a game, it set children observing and classifying in much the way of scientists. And like Tray, this was a generic icon that even advanced students could use gainfully, classifying anything from chemicals to armadillos.

There were others. Eureka (Microelectronics Education Programme) taught about graphs using a "man" in a bath. You pressed T to turn on a tap, P to put in the plug and as you played with the buttons, you could watch a graph of the water level in the bath. Moving Molecules (Cambridge University Press) taught pupils about kinetic theory as they played with a screenful of molecules.

If evolution were at work, these programs would be part of today's educational software. But many never made it on to today's computers. The soul of the idea survived, but its floppy disc will be buried with that BBC. There's no need to mourn, or cherish the days when we'd ask, "Does it run on a Nimbus?" But software designers must reflect on what worked, as well as what's needed.

* Do you have a favourite program? Let us hear about it: Write to the Computers Editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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