1.7 million Micro:bits have been distributed for free or at low cost in schools, first by the BBC, then by the Micro:bit Foundation, since 2016. This easily accessible microcontroller was designed to teach programming.
London, from our correspondent
It’s a programmable microcontroller, with a screen, sensors and a bunch of outputs. It’s like an Arduino, but its dedicated programming language MakeCode is simpler, and it has more sensors and outputs, says Gareth James, head of education at the Micro:bit Foundation. “You can connect it to a lot of things that are already used in science or technology classes with simple alligator clips or banana plugs.”
Since 2016, the BBC has distributed a million free Micro:bits to students in the UK. Now the responsibility of the dedicated Micro:bit Foundation, this nano-computer was launched internationally in autumn 2017, and the foundation has sold 700,000 units. Among the early adopters, says James, are small countries where the government has a strong influence on the education sector: Sri Lanka, Singapore, Croatia… Others are beginning to deploy the program in pilot cities, such as Vilnius in Lituania. “It took off very fast,” James confirms.
But why does the BBC distribute microcontrollers to schoolchildren? “To understand Micro:bit, you need to go back to the 1980s,” says James. Flashback to a time when computers were still big beige blocks.
1981, the BBC Micro
In 1981, the Beeb had already developed the BBC Micro, a desktop micro-computer created for educational purposes, and distributed it to schools in the UK. “A whole generation had the opportunity to learn to program on computers, at a time when computers were available only to a very limited group of people.” The students could learn to code in BBC Basic language.
But then, James continues, the approach to computers changed in British schools—teaching focused on using software and information technologies rather than computer programming as a science. “We became users rather than people capable of creating and adapting technology to our needs. Students were becoming less and less familiar with programming and no longer took computer courses in universities.”
Mandatory computer programming until age 14
Associations and computer groups, such as the British Computing Society, lobbied the British government to reintroduce computer science to the academic program. But it wasn’t until 2011 and the intervention of a businessman, then CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, that the government heard their grievances. “He thrashed the UK for losing its edge in computer science,” James recalls. Since 2014, computer programming is a mandatory course until age 14.
“The challenge was to introduce a new project into a system that wasn’t ready for it. The teachers weren’t trained, there was no suitable equipment and a general lack of enthusiasm from the students.”
Associations and computer clubs tried various initiatives, without success. The British Computing Society trained teachers, while the EdTech sector expanded with robotics projects, Raspberry Pi… “The problem,” James insists, “was that these projects had a price.”
So the BBC entered the fray with an awareness campaign called “Make it Digital” to celebrate Great Britain’s role in shaping the digital world. The public broadcasting service also did a survey to understand what inspires people. “To get people excited, you need physical things. Creating apps is great, but it lacks interaction.” Teaching computer programming tends to overlook creativity and problem-solving, aspects that would also be more inclusive. “Bringing girls into STEM is a big issue in the UK.”
“Low floor and high ceiling”
Faced with the lack of solutions on the market, in 2015 the BBC brought together 25 companies (Barclays, Microsoft, Technology Will Save Us…), as well as specialized local players (universities, tech communities and programming clubs such as CoderDojo). The group developed Micro:bit, a “versatile” programmable board, according to James, capable of adapting to the various environments in which it would be deployed. “Access to the Internet, equipment and even teacher training are not the same everywhere,” he says. Above all, Micro:bit is a tool with “a low floor and a high ceiling” that can be apprehended without any real computer knowledge but whose functions can be pushed far.
“I used to use Arduino a lot,” says Helen Steer, maker and university educator in programming and design. “But I’m using Micro:bit more and more.” As the founder of Do It Kits (and creator of the Robot Unicorn), she also gives workshops for kids aged 10-18. Because it’s so accessible: “With Arduino, you need to be persistent to see results. It’s a long learning process. With Micro:bit, you can produce something creative in one hour.” Her design, along with her programming environment MakeCode (Python is also available) “is specifically made for kids—it fits in their hand, they can throw it across the room, it’s practically indestructible, I even know someone who put it through the wash!”
In June 2017, one year after its launch, the BBC conducted a survey to evaluate the impact of Micro:bit on students: 90% of them believe that anyone can code, and 45% are certain they want to continue programming at school. Among teachers, 85% believe that the tool makes programming more fun, and 80% believe it helps raise awareness that coding isn’t so complicated.
Shoot selfies, build a Micro:bit guitar, launch a Micro:bit into space… The foundation lists plenty of projects on its website. “So many people can do unbelievable things, at any age and without any prior experience in programming,” says James. “There was the ‘hello world moment’, now it’s the ‘Micro:bit moment’.”
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