The BBC micro:bit computer has finally been unveiled, after the release date was put back twice. Over the next few weeks, around one million of them will be sent into schools, to be distributed to eleven and twelve year olds in year seven.
Following the delays, teachers have complained that it’s too late to use them in schools this year, while critics have sniped that focusing on one age group will not make a difference to the UK digital skills shortage.
The story behind the BBC micro:bit began when it was accepted that British children have been learning only administrative skills in IT lessons at school. Programming is now part of a revised IT curriculum, and in order to speed up the process of giving school-leavers the skills that industry needs, the BBC decided that something needed to be done to encourage more children to learn how to code.
In October 2015, a study released by digital skills charity Go On UK said that over twelve million people and one million small businesses in the UK lack the skills needed to succeed in the digital era. This report came out a few weeks after the Boston Consulting Group warned that a talent shortage could undermine Britain’s rapidly growing digital economy. The British Chamber of Commerce’s latest workforce survey found that a quarter of firms report digital skills shortages.
According to Phil Moulden Pre Sales and Services Director with Schneider Electric, one of the BBC micro:bit partners, industry needs graduate entrants with an intuitive understanding of computers and a desire to figure out how things work.
"Coding is a big part of what we do. Problem solving, looking at a customer’s application and working out how to adapt what you’re doing with that environment," he says. "This requires a creative mind-set, as there are many ways to do this."
Moulden, speaking at a pre micro:bit launch event for kids, parents and teachers, at Schneider Electric’s offices on the Warwick University Science Park, last Saturday, explained that kids using the micro:bit are doing, at a very basic level, what his staff do in a more advanced way.
"The kids decide what they want to achieve and then work out how they can make the micro:bit do what they need it to do," he says. "Then they write the bit of code that makes this happen, fault find, when something doesn’t work, and add to it when they want to change something."
Simpler coding is fun for beginners
In the 1980s, a generation leaned how to code and create on programmable machines. Over the last couple of years new releases like the Raspberry Pi have encouraged people to get back under the bonnet of their computers.
The BBC and its micro:bit allies decided that beginners needed a machine that would enable them to engage with coding at a simpler level.
"It’s so easy to get going that it overcomes the first hurdle of getting kids involved with programming: that coding is too hard," says Dave Ames, one of the government’s recently appointed Master Computer Teachers, an advanced skills practitioner who supports and trains teachers to deliver the new computer science curriculum.
The Warwick University event was one of 129 local and regional events taking place between January and June, this year. So far, IET Faraday Challenge Leader, Dr Kiera Sewell, has seen kids use the micro: bit to create simple games, bag alarms, stress level indicators, smart dog collars, door bells for deaf people. And burglar alarms.
When someone steps on a pressure switch on the floor, the micro:bit knows when circuit is connected and sets off a buzzer. Then there’s Dr Sewell’s favourite, a parent pester alarm.
"One kid wanted a pet tortoise, his parents said no, so he programmed his micro:bit to ask the same question," she says. "When that didn’t work, the next time he asked and the parent said no, a high pitch buzzer went off."
A pet tortoise would be a lot less trouble.
"The micro: bit helps teach the kids real life ways of working with an application," says Phil Moulden. "You set a goal and make something work to achieve it."
If anyone gets stuck, the BBC website has tips, as does the IET Faraday website. There’s also a host of online video demos and tutorials, where people talk through how the coding works, many of them, posted by kids.
The BBC hopes that their initiative will start a domino effect. That more kids accessing coding, aged eleven and twelve, will, with an understanding of basic coding in place, move onto more complex programming, take exams, move on to University and eventually become the sort of graduate programmers that British industry can celebrate rather than complain about.
Over the last few months, though, there have been a lot of complaints from schools, not about the actual micro: bit, teachers seem to think that’s a great idea, but more about what the BBC plans to do with it.
Schools have two main gripes. Why give the computers to one group of kids, when schools could have the machines, to use with everyone? Surely half the kids will either break, lose or sell their computers, anyhow.
Secondly, sending the computers out, in the Easter holidays, with only the exam term to go before the end of the school year, means teachers, who plan their curriculum months in advance, have no time to think about how best to use the micro:bit in lessons.
This is understandable. Teachers are judged by results. Because of this, they tend to think in terms of how many pupils achieve how much.
Phil Moulden says that this sort of discussion misses the point of the micro:bit. ‘The idea is for children to use them at home, that’s not necessarily linked to academic year,’ he says.
Moulden adds schools could provide a start point for kids. They could host open events, run lunchtime or after school clubs, perhaps even weekend workshops, where parents can be involved. Dave Ames thinks that for maximum impact one computer should be given to each of the year sevens, but also an extra thirty to each school, to use in lessons.
Whoever ends up with the computers, Peter Ashton believes that organised challenges, pitched at different levels, are needed to encourage children to move from basic, on to more advanced coding. Dave Ames adds that coding competitions, national and local, would also get more kids using their micro:bit, not just those kids who are already into programming.
There is a more simple solution to all of this, of course. More micro: bits. Cheap enough so that parents can buy one, or maybe a few, if the first one gets turned into a burglar alarm or a flood detector. Cheap enough for schools to get hold of as many as they need to teach their classes.
The BBC has already announced plans to sell micro: bits through a not-for-profit company, but if they’re too expensive - or you can’t wait for them to go on sale - there’ll no doubt be a few thousand micro:bits turning up on auction sites over the school holidays.