Education Technology
New BBC Micro:bit Is Free for Preteens in the UK
The new BBC MicroBit (Credit: Rory Cellan-Jones/BBC News)
The new BBC Micro:bit. (Credit: Rory Cellan-Jones/BBC News)

Earlier today the BBC announced the final design of its Micro:bit. Intended to allow children to get creative with technology, the Micro:bit is one of the cornerstones of the BBC’s “Make it Digital” campaign, the corporation’s most ambitious educational initiative for 35 years.

A lot of us cut our teeth on BASIC programming back in the late 70’s and early 80’s — we owned a Tandy TRS-80, an Apple II, or a BBC Micro — and spent hours in front of glowing phosphor screens hacking away, writing our own version of Space Invaders. The BBC Micro was a familiar sight in British schools, and it has left a lasting legacy which still looms over how computing is taught here in the UK.

“As the Micro:bit is able to connect to everything from mobile phones to plant pots and Raspberry Pis, this could be for the Internet of Things what the BBC Micro was to the British gaming industry.”

The BBC Micro was also where ARM was born. The company’s processor technology may now be more-or-less ubiquitous in mobile phones and tablets, but the first ARM application was as a second processor for the BBC Micro.

“The BBC and Acorn Computers, where ARM technology was first created, came together 35 years ago to develop the BBC Micro and that inspired the engineers now at the forefront of shaping our increasingly connected world.” — Simon Segars, CEO, ARM

Unlike the original BBC Micro, the Micro:bit will be given to every 11 or 12 year old child across the UK, for free. The technical specifications for the board will also be open-sourced, and a not-for-profit company will oversee future development, allowing additional Micro:bits to be made commercially available in the UK, and possibly internationally, by the end of the year.

One of ARM's engineers helped design its hardware while on a flight over Russia (Credit: ARM)
One of ARM’s engineers helping design the Micro:bit hardware while on a flight over Russia. (Credit: ARM)

However, today’s final design is a big departure from the original prototype shown off in March. This could well be due to the controversy surrounding the opening stages of the project which generated recriminations between members of the initial team, and it has been suggested led to the Codebug board being spun out onto Kickstarter by some of those involved.

The final Micro:bit board is based around an ARM Cortex M0 processor and features a programmable array of 25 red LEDs, two programmable buttons and a built-in accelerometer and magnetometer. However, unlike the prototype, it no longer has a slot for a CR2032 battery on the back, instead relying on USB power or an external battery pack. This might well compromise its appeal as a wearable device.

The BBC Micro:bit explained. (Credit: BBC)
The BBC Micro:bit explained. (Credit: BBC)

Interestingly the board also comes with a Bluetooth LE, based around the nRF51822 chipset from Nordic Semiconductor, allowing the Micro:bits to connect to each other, but also to most smart phones and tablets.

“There were a lot of engineers working hard to design an incredible piece of hardware, but the key challenge was making sure it was designed for the user, and not for engineers and adults as the focus.  By empathising with the age group, we were able to make decisions that will plant the right kind of seed — and with continued play, exploration, and learning, that seed will grow into an incredible tech powered everyday life supporting ability to make gadgets. ” — Daniel Hirschmann, co-founder of Technology Will Save Us

Finally the board has three I/O ‘rings’ allowing the Micro:bit to be connected to external hardware, either using crocodile clips or banana plugs as well as a GND and +3V power ring which means that power can be supplied to the board using the same method. While it hasn’t been discussed, the 20-pin edge connector is suggestive that more of the ARM’s capabilities are accessible, beyond the three pins broken out by the I/O rings.

On the software side the BBC has partnered with Microsoft to develop a web based drag-and-drop programming interface called TouchDevelop. Both an Android and iOS app to allow programming the Micro:bit from your mobile phone are in the works, as well as a Javascript programming environment built by Code Kingdoms.

Like the original BBC Micro, the BBC’s aim with the Micro:bit is to promote digital literacy in schools.

“Channelling the spirit of the Micro for the digital age, the BBC Micro:bit will inspire a new generation in a defining moment for digital creativity here in the UK. All you need is your curiosity, creativity and imagination – we’ll provide the tools. This has the power to be transformative for the UK.” — Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC

This is an aim shared by the Raspberry Pi, and while it has found a place in the Maker community, the original idea behind the Raspberry Pi was to build a tiny and cheap computer for kids, and to reinvent computing education in schools.

In the last few years the Raspberry Pi Foundation has made a lot of progress toward that goal — assisted by companies like Google  — and at least, in the minds of many, already inherited mantle of the BBC Micro. So there are questions being raised about whether the BBC should have cooperated with the Raspberry Pi foundation, and other existing platforms, like Arduino.

“There are a number of amazing platforms out there already. The Micro:bit isn’t meant to be just ‘another one in an already crowded ecosystem’ but rather it has been designed to be specifically for year 7 students (11 & 12 year olds).  A lot of the platforms out there are meant for creative expression with physical technologies — but the barrier to entry is still high for this particular age group — and for the teachers and parents who are interested in supporting their children / students learning these sorts of skills.” — Daniel Hirschmann, co-founder of Technology Will Save Us

Today’s announcement has also generated disappointment in some quarters. The original BBC Micro was, at at the time, ground breaking and it’s arguable that the Micro:bit, while a nice microcontroller board, isn’t in any way ‘special.’

“It’s great that the BBC is promoting digital literacy in schools, but I think they’re missing a crucial point. The Micro:bit can’t be a child’s ‘go-to’ computer, because it doesn’t have any way to access it without another computer. Learning to program starts with being able to read the program, and to enter it into the computer.

A kid’s de facto go-to computer, for those that can afford it, is a smartphone or tablet. It’s got everything the Micro:bit’s got, plus a touchscreen for human-readable output and input. With that, kids can really swap code on the playground. A more forward-thinking approach would have been to find a way to make sure every kid can have 24/7 access to tablet or smartphone, and to make that device easily programmable. That would be revolutionary.” — Tom Igoe, ITP, NYU, and co-founder of Arduino.cc

However whilst it’s clear that the BBC could well have done something more innovative in hardware, it’s also arguable that the hardware itself is irrelevant. The test of whether the Micro:bit succeeds will be in the materials to support its use in the curriculum.

“I’m a big fan of microcontrollers, obviously, and I applaud the BBC’s enthusiasm for teaching kids to program. But programming is only a small part of digital literacy. We need to teach kids that ‘computer’ is not a one-size-fits-all term. Deciding what type of computer is right for a given context, and how it senses and communicates with the physical world, are equally important. I’m hoping that’s in the BBC’s curriculum.” — Tom Igoe, ITP, NYU, and co-founder of Arduino.cc

This is something that Technology Will Save Us, who were one of the partners working with the BBC on the Micro:bit are well aware.

[youtube https://youtu.be/os22HCsghDU]

In fact both Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann, the co-founders of Technology Will Save Us, are very clear that the Micro:bit isn’t just about programming and that the computer for today’s generation is all about physical computing and how computing interacts with the real world.

“The Micro:bits are being given to young people — not schools — for them to be able to play with at school and at home. It’s designed to offer jumping in points to connect their interests. It will only be limited by their imagination — and there will be a vast and immediate community created at the launch of this project! So it will be about collectively building confidence and ideas using their awesome little physical and digital platform.” — Daniel Hirschmann, co-founder of Technology Will Save Us

Despite today’s announcement, it’s still early days for the Micro:bit and its success or failure will take years to judge. In the same way that it’s really only today, looking back 35 years to the launch of the BBC Micro, we can judge the social impact that it — and in the US computers like the Apple II, and the Tandy TRS-80 — had with my own generation.

25 thoughts on “New BBC Micro:bit Is Free for Preteens in the UK

  1. Expect to see most Micro:bits end up in the garbage. I’d estimate 95% of 11 and 12 year olds have no interest in this sort of thing.

    1. At 11 and 12, I was building computers. I would have killed for a chance to have one of the old programmable chips. (I lived with having an old computer instead, since those were expensive.)

      Show them it can be used to talk secretly, and you will turn that 95% into 25%, which leaves the other 75% of idiots as future laborers and grunt workers. 5% is already more than the 0.001% of kids that were interested in technology back then. (Well, we all were, but few were able to use it well or could afford it. Today, us, the past children, have embraced this tech 100%. The kids now, 11-12, all have cell-phones and facebook pages… Unless you are still suppressing them from knowledge and life.)

  2. The problem with this is that modern children have grown up with computers from birth unlike back in the 70’s when most children had never seen one never mind tried had the use of one when the first ones arrived like the Acorn Atom and the ZX80 children wanted to try using one along with programming one

    1. Unmodern children have grown-up with computers from birth… Even still, for those who do not, they were not stalled by developing and learning computers.

      Actually, there are more programmers and kids learning this stuff then back then. They teach some of it in school and the rest can easily be found online.

      The difference is, it takes them a day to learn enough to program what took kids/adults years to program back in the 70’s/80’s/90’s… That’s advancement. Even basic code was hard to learn. (Not because the code was hard, but because the computers were slow and didn’t have many functions.)

      Today… We are almost down to a one-chip computer that actually “does it all”. Costing nearly $20 where, back then, it cost you $500 for a chip that made lights blink, and that was about it.

      1. How on earth did you come to believe “it takes them a day to learn enough to program what took kids/adults years to program back in the 70’s/80’s/90’s… ” even back in the 70’s it use to take the same time it now takes to write a program, (unless you have taken a speed typing course) the main difference today is that you can buy small low cost boards that you can program to operate other things like led’s, motors etc the only thing that has changed is the speed that the programs operate at just because a computer runs faster does not make a person program it faster. back in the 70’s when someone started to program the only thing they had to do was not wast a lot of space in the program unlike today’s programmers, back in the 70’s I wrote a program which was the same as the arcade game “space invaders” and I managed to do it all in 2K of ram and the machine used .5K to run the operating system (the machine was a home built Acorn Atom the forrunner to the BBC micro) now if you see anyone write the same program it will be at least 10 times as large if not 100 times the size as programmers have become lazy

        1. You are comparing “you reinventing the wheel” (Programming something someone already made, a whole level or two.) To kids now who make whole multi-level games with large content on high-level programming devices, compared to low-level blinking lights…

          Space invaders still consumes about 2k even on high-level programming. That is the OS’s fault, not theirs.

          The point was… It took you months to figure out the language, months to find someones code to duplicate, and a week or four I am sure, to make something that loosely resembles an existing arcade game that is just a few blinking lights. (I doubt you recreated all 80 levels of game-play, but then “You” didn’t program it, you just typed another person’s code and called it yours. Such as high-level programming is.)

          Five minutes, I can program a web-browser to rip images by selection off any website. (I do it often actually.)

          Five minutes, I can make any pixel-blinker game emulated by MAME, by simple bit-shifting and/or using new lower-memory images. Honestly, not all programs are that bloated.

          Five minutes, I can make a raw socket connection across wifi, or any other network, including making my own hand-made protocol with per-packet bit-stream error-checking and correction.

          And back in the 70’s… Still blinking lights, and not in five minutes, unless you already knew that code for the whole program. Which has nothing to do with “Kids learning faster now”, and “kids being interested in programming toys”. Which was the point.

          You were one of about 0.000001% interested in the 70’s, who could actually learn it. (Thus, your personal experience is moot, because YOU WERE THE MINORITY that you are claiming exists now.)

          Now, there are millions of kids programming and learning to program. Just look at any game-engine and game with mods. Look at “Sparky electronics”… Kids are everywhere programming the crappy low-level stuff to the fast high-level stuff.

          Who is making bloat-ware… old adults, trying to learn, but they can’t. It isn’t kids making bloatware, in which-case, you would still be wrong, as that would mean kids ARE INTERESTED and learning. (Even if they are learning bad programming, they are learning. What do you expect from horrible bloated programming teachers? The kids figure it out and stop listening to the teachers. That is how most kids learn, by stopping listening to the teachers who only turn kids into horribly squeaky parrots.)

          The best thinkers learned the most when they stopped listening to preachers of old news. That is how you spark creation and invention and exploration and INTEREST. The only things anyone can ever teach is what OLD info they learned, constantly reinventing the wheel. Kids are making cars without wheels, because they are sick of running around in circles and going nowhere.

          1. it actuality took me 5 days from buying the bits to build the computer building it took 4 days and finishing the program and no I did not copy someone else’s program there were none to copy (I was lucky as I had one of the first Acorn Atom kits to go on sale) I had seen the arcade version of the game so I started to program and by the end of the day I managed to finish it it would have been quicker but I had to keep trying to make it smaller to fit the ram as I only had the 2K to work with yes it was pure machine code there was no way of writing it in basic which was the only other choice at the time whilst I accept that I did not write the 80 levels I just did the first few but the graphics were identical to the arcade version. back then there were no nice simple graphics available you just had to program the screen memory and turn on and off each pixel

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

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