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.
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.
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.
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
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.