BBC gives naked computers to kids (hmm, code for something?)

Drop the consoles and look at that LED array

Comment The Beeb is trying to recapture the past glories of the BBC Micro with the “Micro Bit”, a single board computer it’s giving to every single 12-year-old in the UK, with the hope of inspiring them to learn programming or (perhaps more politically correct) coding.

This still-in-development device, part of the wider Make it Digital initiative, is not unlike a Raspberry Pi with an ARM-compatible CPU.

However, the BBC and ARM worked decided the devices should have LEDs built in to provide more immediate feedback. A rack of 5X5 LEDs, to be precise, for scrolling messages, patterns or whatever inspires pre-teens to creatively get machines to do things.

It isn’t boxed – which, again, kids like – and of course keeps the (secret) cost down, but if we include partner support this looks like a £15m project.

According to the BBC, over 25 partners (including ARM, Barclays, Microsoft, and Samsung) are already involved, and in addition to the formal partners “the BBC anticipates working with a wider network of informal partners to magnify the educational impact of the project”, which is nice.

Girls seem to like it, some seeing the Micro Bit as an opportunity to create a kind of smart jewellery through code. Given that every single attempt to get them to program has utterly failed, this is really worth trying.

A common whinge from teachers is that the Pi doesn’t have enough USB ports and that wires can be a pain, so the Micro Bit has Bluetooth, enabling it to talk wirelessly to sensors, keyboards or whatever. Trust me when I say kids LOVE sensors, I mean LOVE, be it heat, sound, magnetometers, vibration, or anything that gives a number they can shove into a bit of code or a graph.

Rather than starting with a “developer” interface, like we see for the Arduino and Pi, the final incarnation looks like taking you to what's basically a browser interface, with which we can assume 12 year olds are already comfortable.

But of course this is all about coding, so there’s Microsoft’s TouchDevelop, Python, and for the hardcore kids, C++.

The prototype feels more like a gadget than a computer, not least because you can have graphics scrolling across the LEDs on the board. That fits with the target audience, and it doesn’t feel quite as fragile as it looks, which is a big thing if you’re giving it to kids.

Naturally it needs to be hooked up to other stuff so there are going to be logistical issues and some expense for schools to make best use of the device. This isn’t a big deal, but needs to be prepared for, which it hasn’t … yet.

Not the real codename, and no specs

The name is silly since you can’t have a millionth of a bit, but that doesn’t matter since it doesn’t look like being the real deal, and final form of the Micro Bit is a secret, which is odd for open hardware that’s set to be manufactured and delivered by September.

The BBC refused even to tell me the hardware spec, so I’m not convinced about September at all … which again doesn’t matter. I talk to a lot of teachers (and occasionally listen) and it isn’t just  giving out the gadgets and saying “today we’ll code”. No, lessons are planned, integrated, marked and evaluated.

The BBC is working with partners such as the Open University to develop supporting materials, but that takes time and IT teachers are smart enough not to plan lessons based upon gear that doesn’t even exist yet and they need  training.

The obvious comparison is with the Raspberry Pi and the way the BBC seems to be playing it is to go for younger and less involved kids, so we may be heading for a rematch of the notorious Sinclair Vs BBC Micro fight in the 1980s.

We’re doomed

However, the Beeb simply can’t afford to give away £5-10m every year in hardware, and the partners' generosity is finite. Also, coding is now something kids are supposed to experience from the age of five (yes, really), so we’re talking about several million devices at about the same cost as a Pi, and buying a new bunch each year.

That’s real money, but if we want ALL kids to have a go at coding and other parts of high end digital literacy, there’s a price to be paid, so who’s going to cough up?

This is a risky project. The common theme to Make it Digital is that it’s not aiming at teenagers who already code in C++, but those who haven’t even tried, or might not even want to.

That’s why the Beeb is chucking in Doctor Who, Radio 1 and EastEnders to sweeten the pot. I was accused by one teacher of being a bit sneery which brought home to me that the Beeb’s job is to get everyone coding, not just kids like ours. ®

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