15/09/2015 12:51 BST | Updated 14/09/2016 06:12 BST

When BASIC Is Good

The word "basic" has a variety of connotations, and allegedly thanks to Kate Moss it is the more negative ones that became fashionable early this summer. But now, as the new school year starts up, BASIC has suddenly found itself being thrust into the headlines in a much more positive way - the computer language that can enable every child to learn to code.

The BASIC coding language was developed at Dartmouth College in the U.S.A. in 1964 by two computer scientists, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, based upon the design philosophy that it had to be easy to use. (BASIC is an acronym for Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). During the mid-1970s and 1980s different versions of BASIC became popular for programming various microcomputers, to the point that many manufacturers would provide BASIC with every computer they shipped. And coding, which in those days was known as "programming", became a popular hobby, particularly with the school-student age group.

So in the 1980s BASIC was the coding language of choice for literally millions of home computer enthusiasts. To quote Wikipedia:

"It became popular on mini computers during the 1960s, and became the standard computing language for microcomputers during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The goals of BASIC were focused on the needs of learning to program easily: be easy for beginners to use, be interactive, provide clear and friendly error messages, respond quickly, do not require an understanding of computer hardware or operating systems. What made BASIC particularly useful for education was the small size of programs. Useful programs to illustrate a concept could be written in a dozen lines. At the same time BASIC did not require mathematical or computer science sophistication. BASIC continues to this day to be a language which is frequently self-taught with excellent tutorials and implementations."

Since the 1980s BASIC has remained a popular coding language, spawning many dialects and new languages whose design was influenced by BASIC, for example Microsoft's Visual Basic. But while many other coding languages have since appeared on the scene, each with its own advantages and its own peculiarities, BASIC has remained a leader in the world of educational programming languages. And BASIC is the coding language being taught in the newly announced "Every Child Can Code" scheme.

This scheme is designed to help teachers and parents to learn how to teach coding, to make it easy for children to teach themselves, and to empower children to create their own programs, written in BASIC, and to run them on their parents' or school's PC - any computer running current versions of Windows. Children will be able to code their own simple programs once they have completed the very first lesson, and when they have completed a course of just ten easy lessons they are encouraged to improve their coding skills by trying their hand at the design of their own games, which is fun to do and which creates programs that are fun to play. The web site provides a wealth of teaching material, as well as all the software tools necessary to learn coding quickly and to run the programs that the child develops during the learning process. All this is free of charge.

For those of you who have not yet been exposed to the simplicity of BASIC, and who might therefore believe that coding is some sort of black art, here is a simple program of just five lines to show you how easy it is, with comments (known as "remarks") below each line of code to explain the effect of that line. This simple program clears the computer's screen, selects the colours for the background, for the border of the background, and for whatever the coder decides to write on the screen, and then it displays a very brief message. Just take a look. What could be easier?


[Clear the screen]


[Choose colour 2, which is blue, for the border]


[Choose colour 7, which is white, for the background (we call it the paper)]


[Choose colour 0, which is black, for what we decide to write on the screen]

PRINT "Hello world"

[Display the message "Hello world" on the screen. It will appear in black letters, on a white background, with a blue border.]