The BBC’s new Micro Bit programmable device is designed to complement computers like the Raspberry Pi rather than compete with them, according to people involved with the project.
The broadcaster is planning to give one million units of the device away in the autumn as part of its Make It Digital initiative, including one for every child in year seven of the British education system – ie 11-12 year-olds.
The BBC hopes that the Micro Bit will get children interested in programming in the same way that its BBC Micro computer did in the 1980s, although the new device is being pitched as a gateway to more complex computers.
“It’s an entry-level device that will enable kids to code and program, and if they enjoy that, clearly they’ll move on to devices like the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi,” games industry veteran Ian Livingstone told the Guardian at the BBC’s Make It Digital launch, where the Micro Bit was unveiled.
“It will actually be very compatible with Raspberry Pi. That’s a full applications processor-based device that runs Linux, with the next one running Windows 10. The Micro Bit is an embedded software platform, so it doesn’t run a full operating system,” added Gary Atkinson, director of emerging technologies at Arm, which is one of the hardware companies involved in the project.
Coding at school: a parent’s guide to England’s new computing curriculum
That simplicity is a deliberate move, with hopes children will relish the process of writing code – either in a text-based editor or a graphical user interface like Scratch or Blockly – then compiling it and running it on the Micro Bit.
“There has been a lot of effort in the industry to abstract away the complexities of how you build something. An SDK from Apple allows you to build an app for an iPhone, but you have no idea: all you’re doing is basically calling APIs within the phone. ‘I want a reading from the GPS’ and so on,” said Atkinson.
“In an embedded environment, you literally have to make those calls. Yes, you can simplify it with some object programming, but what’s really exciting about this is that kids will get real-time feedback on what they’re doing.”
For now, exact details of the Micro Bit hardware are being kept under wraps, with the device still officially at “prototype” stage. It will sport a 5×5 LED display that can be used to scroll letters and flash, among other features.
“It’s going to be small enough and light enough that it will fasten to clothing. And one of the key capabilities that will be in the final device compared to the prototype is Bluetooth LE,” said Atkinson.
“The kids can do their main programming at school – they might have written a piece of code to scroll text and make the lights flash – but then you can imagine them being on the bus on the way home and reprogramming it from their mobile phone over Bluetooth to send messages from the back of the bus.”
Isn’t a technology for children to flash messages at one another on the bus ripe for… misuse? “Potentially, but we’re not promoting that,” laughed Atkinson. “There will be a lot of social interaction around it.”
Giving a million programmable devices away to 11-12 year-olds is one thing, but ensuring teachers are prepared to help them make the most of it quite another.
One of the criticisms of the recently-introduced computing curriculum in England has been that teachers who had no experience in programming (or teaching it) may have needed more time to prepare and train, and more resources to use in the classroom.
“There will be materials to add to the curriculum, teachers will be trained, and there will be all sorts of training materials and tutorials for a choice of development environments depending on your aptitude and interest, whether your journey is teacher-led or for independent study,” said Atkinson.
Livingstone, whose Next Gen report in 2011 was one of the driving forces towards the new curriculum, agreed. “A lot of ICT teachers do not know how to teach the new curriculum, so I would hope that they would facilitate group learning, activities, set up a code club,” he said.
“Learning alongside the children and facilitating a group learning experience. I don’t think we need to maintain that ‘teacher limiting the children by their own knowledge’ any more.”
Livingstone said that another key aim behind the Micro Bit is to ensure children are learning by doing. “We have to move on from getting computing onto the curriculum, which is great, to making sure that it’s not just another dry science,” he said.
“The idea of learning by doing has to be enabled in the classroom, so it’s not just another multiple-choice ‘Who invented the world wide web?’. That’s very interesting and we all need to know, but that’s not going to help us get a job.”
What about children who aren’t in year seven this year, though? At some point, as yet unspecified, they’ll be able to get their hands on a Micro Bit too.
“Every child who gets given one will be able to take it home and use it there. I would imagine their siblings will want one as well, so essentially the follow-on next generation will be able to fulfil those needs,” said Atkinson.
“There is going to be an independent launch of the hardware platform, but the timing of that has yet to be confirmed,” added Edmund Gemmell, Arm’s director of PR and brand marketing. “Phase one is every year seven kid, and then there’s obviously ambition beyond that.”
There is more information to come, too, on exactly what the Micro Bit will be capable of beyond showing text and flashing lights, and also how it will interact with the Raspberry Pi, Kano, Arduino and other computers. Helping children collaborate on their coding appears to be high on the agenda, though.
“The device is equivalent to an Internet of Things-type device. You could have multiples of these Micro Bits talking to a Raspberry Pi-based gateway that’s orchestrating them. There’ll be potential to bring these two worlds together so they’re not in competition at all,” said Atkinson.
“And one of the efforts we’re looking into is having a shared coding environment: not only for teacher / student, but for three or four kids together to be coding in real-time in the same development environment – “How about we add this and add that?” – and then getting those devices to interact with each other after the fact.”
There are plenty of experts on hand to help make that happen. Arm’s manufacturing and distribution partners on the project include Barclays, Freescale, Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, Samsung, element14, ScienceScope and Technology Will Save Us.
There’s a whole host of “product champions” on the education side too, from organisations like Code Club, CoderDojo and Teen Tech through to the Open University and Python Software Foundation.
“We want to channel the spirit of the BBC Micro for the digital age,” said BBC director-general Tony Hall at the Make It Digital launch. “The BBC, our partners and everyone involved want this to be a defining moment for digital creativity, and a vital one for our country’s digital economy.”
In the autumn, we’ll find out whether the finished Micro Bit device can live up to these high expectations, and provide that promised gateway to the other kinds of computers and programming platforms for children.
Taken from The Guardian.