The release date was put back twice, teachers complain that it’s too late to use them in this school year, and critics snipe that focusing on one age group won’t ease the digital skills shortage. But the children who’ve already had their hands on a BBC micro:bit computer are loving its creative possibilities.
First impressions are that children are going to love them. At least those that are into programming computers. Whether it makes the difference that the BBC and its partners from the commercial and educational world want it to, experts are not so sure.
For too long, British children have learnt only administrative IT skills at school. Programming is now part of a revised IT curriculum, but it’s early days. To speed up the process of teaching the skills that industry needs, the BBC decided that something needed to be done to encourage more children to find and embrace their inner geek.
A study released by digital skills charity Go ON UK in October 2015 says that over 12 million people and one million small businesses in the UK lack the skills needed to succeed in the digital era.
This report came out just 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.
Problem-solving graduates needed
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 mindset, as there are many ways to do this.”
On 19 March, Moulden, speaking at a pre micro:bit launch event for children, parents and teachers at Schneider Electric’s offices on the Warwick University Science Park, explained that children using the micro:bit are doing, at a very basic level, what his staff do in a more advanced way.
“The children 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.”
Peter Ashton, a trainee IT teacher from Warwick University, was also at the Schneider event. Ashton, who last year switched careers to teaching after many years working in engineering for BT, thinks that it’s a lack of creativity and understanding of process, rather than insufficient knowledge, which sees graduates struggle when they first join the industry.
“Last year, a friend of mine recruited two engineering graduates with first-class honours degrees and then spent the entire nine months of the project trying to teach them how to generate their own experiments to solve problems and answer questions that arose,” he says. “At university, everything had been written down for them to follow. They couldn’t problem-solve at all. It nearly broke the project.”
Simpler coding is fun for beginners
In the 1980s, a whole generation of technophiles learned how to code and create on programmable machines. Over the last couple of years, new releases such as the Raspberry Pi have encouraged people to get back under the bonnet of their computers.
However, 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. That’s what the micro:bit is.
The single-board computer measures 4cm by 5cm. It contains a magnetometer, which detects direction, an accelerometer for movement, Bluetooth, five input and output rings that connect the micro:bit to devices or sensors, 25 red LED lights and two programmable buttons.
“It’s so easy to get going that it overcomes the first hurdle of getting children 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.
11- and 12-year-olds don’t care much about curriculum, though. Nor skills shortages, the state of UK business and hard-hitting surveys. What they care about is enjoying themselves, getting into cool stuff and looking good in front of their friends. With the micro:bit, children can do all those things.
The Warwick University event is one of 129 local and regional events taking place between January and June 2016. So far, IET Faraday Challenge leader Dr Kiera Sewell has seen children use the micro:bit to create simple games, bag alarms, stress-level indicators, smart dog collars, doorbells for deaf people and burglar alarms.
When someone steps on a pressure switch on the floor, the micro:bit knows when the circuit is connected and sets off a buzzer. Then there’s Dr Sewell’s favourite, a parent pester alarm.
“One child 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 children real-life ways of working with an application,” says Moulden. “You set a goal and make something work to achieve it.”
If anyone gets stuck, the BBC and the IET Faraday websites have tips. There’s also a host of online video demos and tutorials where people talk through how the coding works, many of them posted by children.
The BBC hopes that this initiative will start a domino effect – that more children accessing coding 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 UK industry can celebrate.
Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. Not when it comes to adults with good ideas trying to get young people to do things with their time and with their lives. Particularly when those adults want schools – which have their own organisational needs, pressures and agendas – to act as the middle man.
Over the last few months 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. Firstly, why give the computers to one group of children, when schools could have the machines to use with everyone? Surely half the children will 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.
“Give teachers time to get used to a new resource and they’ll encourage children to experiment,” master computer teacher Ames says. “If they’re not confident with it, they’ll either not use it or, if they do, micro-manage lessons.”
Drew Buddie, an ICT teacher and chair of Naace, the National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education, adds: “Teachers won’t invest time planning lessons for a year group if they know that they’re not going to have the resource the following year.”
All of this is understandable. Teachers are judged by results and tend to think in terms of how many pupils achieve how much. Use schools as a delivery mechanism and this is the type of thinking you get. But how else could the BBC get that many computers out to children? Send them through the mail?
Schneider Electric’s Moulden says that this sort of discussion misses the point of the micro:bit and that “the idea is for children to use them at home; that’s not necessarily linked to the academic year”.
Moulden adds that schools could provide a start point for children. They could host open events, run lunchtime or after-school clubs, perhaps even weekend workshops, where parents can be involved. Ames thinks that for maximum impact, one computer should be given to each of the year 7s, but also an extra 30 to each school to use in lessons.
Whoever ends up with the computers, Warwick University’s Ashton believes that organised challenges pitched at different levels are needed to encourage children to move from basic to more advanced coding. Ames adds that coding competitions, national and local, would also get more children using their micro:bit, not just those who are already into programming.
Of course, there is a more simple solution to all of this – 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 announced plans to sell micro:bits through a not-for-profit company. However, if they’re too expensive, or you can’t wait for them to go on sale, there’ll no doubt be a few thousand turning up on eBay and Gumtree over the school holidays.