Manchester 1970s Video Computer Science Lectures

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Left side of cover is obscured by library binding.

At The University of Manchester nowadays, every lecturer is a podcaster. Sound from microphones and projected material is automatically recorded in lecture rooms, enabling registered students to revisit a lecture at any time after it has been given. These recording are not used for subsequent lecture delivery, as far as I know, though the recording quality is good. See here for details of the Manchester system.

More than forty years ago the Department of Computer Science in Manchester was pioneering something that is still not widespread here today: videoed lectures that are used to deliver a course. The motivation was the need to teach efficiently the 500 or more students a year from across the university who needed to take computer science as a subsidiary course.

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Simon Lavington and Jeff Rohl developed three video courses, in this order:

  • “Logical Design of Computers” (12 lectures, Simon Lavington),
  • “Programming in Algol” (12 lectures, Jeff Rohl), and
  • “Programming in Fortran” (10 lectures, Jeff Rohl).

I wrote about the latter course in an earlier blog post. All three courses had an accompanying book (Logical Design of Computers, 1969, second edition 1972; Programming in Algol, 1970; Programming in Fortran, 1973).

Each lecture was 20 to 30 minutes long and recorded in a TV studio in one continuous take, with no autocue and no possibility of editing the recording. Information was displayed interactively by the lecturer on a magnet board, using magnetic symbols. For each lecture, the lecturer spent around 20 hours in script preparation and production meetings, and a full day in rehearsal and recording.

The cost of making a 12-lecture course at 1968 prices was estimated at £4,000, excluding the lecturer’s time, which today equates to about £65,000! All three course were sold to other institutions (12 universities and one company in the case of “Logical Design of Computers”).

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Simon Lavington in action in the University’s TV studio in 1968.

Much of the information in the previous two paragraphs comes from a 1971 paper Experience with Television Courses for Computer Science Teaching by Simon Lavington and Jeff Rohl. That paper also describes the mode of delivery of the course (a course tutor provided a tutorial following each lecture) and assesses its success. The authors conclude that “under satisfactory playback conditions and with an understanding course-tutor, the students are enthusiastic about television lectures and respond to the intellectual challenge they offer.”

The following photo shows the replay equipment designed and installed in the Kilburn Building when it first opened in 1972. Jeff Rohl can be seen on the left monitor at the control desk and a diagram for a parallel adder is displayed on the right-hand monitor.

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I can’t help thinking that Simon and Jeff were well ahead of their time in developing these courses. If the University’s Teaching Excellence Awards had been around at the time they would have been worthy winners.

I am grateful to Simon for providing me with information about these courses, along with the paper and the two photos.

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2 Responses to Manchester 1970s Video Computer Science Lectures

  1. Duncan Hull says:

    A sort of MOOC before they were fashionable? As for the “University’s TV studio” – how quaint! Thanks for documenting this, lovely story…

    P.S. is videod or videoed?

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