A select group of A-level students have been given the chance to step back in time and take part in programming lessons at The National Museum of Computing - learning to code on PDP-8s and BBC Micros.

According to a BBC article, the move comes in an attempt to teach students the underlying concepts behind computing - and to move them back from modern computers which all too often abstract the core concepts away from the user, making it harder to understand precisely what is going on.

Doug Abrams, an ICT teacher at Ousedale School in Newport Pagnell, sent a selection of his students to the Museum in order to take part in the retro lessons, and is quoted as saying that "the computing A-level is about how computers work and if you ask any [students] how it works they will not be able to tell you" - but that's something the course aims to fix.

By learning to code on older machines, a better sense of interaction with the underlying hardware can be gained - Abrams claims that "you can see the instructions happening for real with these [vintage] machines," giving students a greater understanding of how computers really work.

It's an interesting idea, and one that makes a lot of sense. Whereas modern computers dump you straight into a friendly, graphical environment where everything is a click away, the BBC Micro would present you with a BBC BASIC prompt - loaded instantly from ROM - when you switched it on. In order to make computers of that era do anything - even if it's just to start loading a game from a tape - you have to write a simple program.

Programming on the PDP-8 is an even more raw experience, without the relatively high-level BASIC language to fall back on; instead, students have to toggle switches on the front panel to set binary values directly into memory.

Although the experiment appears to have received the thumbs-up from its participants, it isn't known whether such programming classes are to become a regular occurrence at the Museum.

Would you like to experience real programming, as it was in the bad old days, or is the retro lesson nothing more than a gimmick? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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