New initiative gifts 1 million BBC Micro successors to UK kids

13 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

BBC Giving U.K. Students ‘Micro Bit’ PCs.

The move—part of the BBC’s new Make it Digital nationwide initiative to inspire the next generation of developers—will give a micro computer to every child in year 7 (the equivalent of sixth grade). In a move that will bring a nostalgic smile to some British kids (and teachers) of the 80s, the BBC has annunced that it is to produce a new educational mini-computer — codenamed the ‘Micro Bit’, a play on the broadcasters original ‘BBC Micro‘ computer — and will give way 1 million devices to British school kids aged 11. It gave legions of digital virgins their first exposure to the intricate wonders of computing, and was widely acknowledged as A Good Thing, if not by Clive Sinclair, who lost out to Acorn in the battle for the contract to build the machines. So the network is resurrecting an old standard: the BBC Micro, which helped Britain comes to grips with the first wave of personal computers in the 1980s.

Now the Corporation is doing something similar with their Micro Bits project, which will see all children starting secondary school in September being given a Micro Bit, a stripped-down computer similar to a Raspberry Pi, the credit card-sized module whose second generation was announced last month. The BBC’s Micro Bit coding gadget helps children learn basic coding and programming, acting as a springboard for more advanced products like the Raspberry Pi (slideshow below). It’s clearly a terrific idea – who could complain about a scheme that gets young people thinking about and experiencing how computers work, as the BBC says in its launch literature, helping shift the emphasis from consumption to creation? The broadcaster also announced it is partnering with 50 organisations, including Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Apps for Good and Code Club, and will host a range of educational events and activities.

The move, which sees the BBC partner with 25 organisations to develop the Micro Bit, including chip-makers ARM and Nordic Semiconductor, Microsoft, and Samsung, is also interesting in that it seems determined to address issues that caused controversy when the original BBC Micro was released. To help get people excited about learning these new skills, the BBC said it plans to leverage its biggest brands, such as popular sci-fi show Doctor Who, as well as introduce a new drama based on popular video-game series Grand Theft Auto and a new talent show called Girls Can Code.

The 1980s personal computer was too expensive to truly democrotise computer programming, often seeing only a handful of devices purchased by each school. It’s unclear how much TV licence cash is being used – the Beeb isn’t shouldering the entire burden, and has organisations like Barclays, Microsoft and the Open University as partners – but many licence-holders will ask, is this something that every 11-year-old needs? A 2014 employment-trends survey from Accenture and the Confederation of British Industry highlighted critical shortages around digital skills in Britain, and called on businesses and educators to be more flexible about how talent is developed and can enter the workforce. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson, whose Top Gear nets £150m annually for the Corporation, will be thrilled to know that a generation of snot-nosed sprogs, both common and posh, will benefit from the fruits of his talent.

However, the PR related to the device is keen to pitch the hardware as a ‘gateway drug’ to more sophisticated educational and hobby computing, such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi. It will be a standalone, entry-level coding device that allows children to pick it up, plug it into a computer and start creating with it immediately. As the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall put it, “This is exactly what the BBC is all about – bringing the industry together on an unprecedented scale and making a difference to millions.” I think he’s right. I sometimes think the letters should stand for the British Britishness Corporation, so central is it to how we view ourselves as a nation – which is why right-wingers get it so wrong when they view it as just another bottom line which would be considerably improved by cutting off public funding and having adverts instead. Many years ago I sat in on a private meeting between commercial broadcasters and others in the digital learning space, and the BBC was enemy number one.

BBC Learning’s Gareth Stockdale is quoted by BBC News as saying: “The BBC’s role is to bring focus to the issue, and then we will withdraw from the market.”

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