Technology For All: the BBC Micro:bit

In October 1 million eleven year olds in the UK will be given a pocket-size codeable computer. It’s taking the maker movement mainstream, and the UK hopes it will solve its shortage of coding talent. I wrote about it for the European Commission’s OEE Portal.

Making Tech Mistakes

Earlier this year I was at a big education technology conference. One of the exhibits stuck in my mind. An enthusiastic demonstrator was showing the power of next generation interactive whiteboard technology. This is a complex piece of kit combining exciting soft- and hardware innovations. It looked resoundingly like it belonged in the future. Well, that was until you noticed that he was teaching the class how to do hand-writing.

The possibilities and uses of technology are often mismatched. If the digital era has opened up new ways of learning, they are often used to teach the same old stuff. It seems to me that rather than using technology to learn hand-writing, or to read about history, all of our kids should really be using technology as a creative medium. I thought that I was the only one who believed this. That was until I heard of the BBC micro:bit.

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A Hi-Tech Paintbrush 

Launched one month ago in the UK (and announced in Wired), the BBC micro:bit is designed to disrupt kids’ experience of technology as sliding fingers across glass screens, and instead, get them to use it creatively. As Sinead Rocks, head of BBC Learning says “We happily give children paint brushes when they’re young, with no experience – it should be exactly the same with technology.” So, working with 29 partners, they’ve designed and launched the micro:bit.

Kids know smartphones can do incredible things. But they have no idea how they work. With the micro:bit, the computer won’t do anything at all – unless it is programmed to by the child. As Rocks says, “it has been designed to encourage children to move away from seeing laptops and tablets as ‘devices you can do things on’ to ‘devices you can use to make other things happen.” In other words, to encourage kids to embrace the potential of learning in the digital era.

The micro:bit is designed to help kids create digital interactions with the physical world. There are programmable buttons and LEDS which lets them make games. It has Bluetooth technology, a USB, accelerometer and sensor to make it responsive to its environment. You can hook it up to other things crocodile clips and banana plugs. It’s a totally open-ended device that will inspire kids to make and do things, and hopefully to encourage them to start coding.

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Tech Will Save Us

It was created by Tech Will Save Us, a London-based company that believes technology is for everyone, all young people are makers, technology makes making awesome and that children should invent the future. Co-founder Daniel Hirschmann says that the micro:bit is unfinished on purpose: “The young person is the computer. They have the processing power, the creativity and capability. It isn’t anything until it is given to a young person to help them solve a problem that they can imagine in the brain.”

The company started after its founders encountered a laptop thrown away in a trash can. They couldn’t believe all of that potential for creativity had just been discarded. He realised that “people don’t have the opportunity to understand how to be creative or what goes into the technology that makes up their lives.” The micro:bit is therefore designed as “the bridge between creative potential and technology. Because it is not finished, it is just an opportunity waiting to be explored.”

In the digital era people are growing more accustomed to computers. As they do, they come to know less and less about how they work. BBC Learning is tackling this problem head-on, and launching a tech revolution that is available to all. But we shouldn’t forget that the micro:bit is addressing inequality in the digital era because it is given away free to 1 million kids. If technology is only a tool to amplify the intentions of people, then we need more good intentions and more access to tech across Europe.

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