Analysis: IoT future drives BBC Micro:bit experiment

The team behind the BBC Micro:bit handheld computing module has started shipping production hardware and software to schools for use by 11-year-old students, just over a year after the project was unveiled.

The team behind the BBC Micro:bit handheld computing module has started shipping production hardware and software to schools for use by 11-year-old students, just over a year after the project was unveiled.

It is the latest initiative to promote information and communications technology (ICT) to children, following on from the Raspberry Pi, which celebrated its third anniversary at the end of February.

Eben Upton, CEO of the Raspberry Pi company, says the motivation for Pi lay in reversing the falling numbers of students applying to the University of Cambridge’s computer-science courses. Applications dropped by more than a half in the decade to 2006, he claims.

Although they began with similar objectives, the Micro:bit and the Raspberry Pi have taken different paths. The Raspberry Pi has, with the latest iteration launched on its third birthday, moved to a 64bit multicore ARM processor supported by much more memory than the Micro:bit, which is based on ARM’s simplest 32bit processor core.

The Pi follows more closely in the footsteps of the BBC Micro, which was designed to be a home computer, but which Upton and others cite as a key influence in encouraging children to take up ICT.

“We do talk a lot about trying to recreate the legacy of the BBC Micro. But fundamentally there is a sea of change with the Micro:bit,” says Bee Hayes-Thakore, director of marketing programmes for the internet of things (IoT) at ARM, and who worked on the commercial negotiations needed to deliver the Raspberry Pi while at Premier Farnell.

Of the eight million sold so far, more than half of the Pi units have gone to home hobbyists and the maker community. The Micro:bit is shipped exclusively to schools and, under initial plans, only for the current school year.

Whereas the Pi had focus on software development focus, Hayes-Thakore says: “Micro:bit is intended to be complementary to all of that. There is a tangible benefit to having something you can hold in your hand and wear on your uniform. To do things and instrument the world around you.”

Jonny Austin, technical lead for ARM’s contribution to the Micro:bit project, adds: “There is a difference between a tool that solves a problem in the real world and a tool just to learn about computing. We want to give them a Micro:bit and say: ‘We are going to solve a problem. Discover when your brother sneaks into your room.’ We can help them use computers to solve real-world problems.”

To support that, the team designed the board to readily support hardware expansion. “We had a real think to see how to give it as much expansion as possible. There isn’t a single pin on the [Nordic] ’822 [microcontroller] that isn’t taken out to the edge connector,” Austin explains. “We want to see how people can abuse the Micro:bit and see what people can turn it into that we didn’t think of.”

Although the aim of the project was to provide students with access to the same tools as those used by professional developers, work in schools by Microsoft and Code Kingdoms showed that aspects of the software needed to be simplified to make features like Bluetooth more accessible.

“Bluetooth really transforms it from a learning device to a useful IoT device,” Austin claims.

The emphasis on computing experimentation in education appears to be paying off, Upton says. Applications to study computer science at Cambridge are now back above their dot-com boom levels. “We can attribute the credit to the team, the group of organisations that have been putting in effort in this area. It’s a broad front moving forwards.”

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