The BBC’s unveiling of the latest incarnation of their Micro Bit computer is something of a watershed moment for IT education. Not only does it represent the resurrection of the beloved BBC Micro scheme of the 1980s, but it marks the start of a coding education revolution. For too long kids have only known how to use a computer – now it’s time to learn why it works.
The Micro Bit currently looks like a computer chip – just a green and gold board, a little bit smaller than a digestive biscuit – but this slightly alienating appearance is perhaps one of the device’s biggest strengths. Children are used to technology that turns code into magic, hiding the hard work and making everything seem effortless and fluid. The Micro Bit doesn’t disguise its innards, directly displaying the board and showing how everything’s connected (and if this approach saves a few pounds, all the better for the scheme’s success!). To make the Micro Bit do something, you don’t just plug it in, you have to sit down and work with it to get results.
Although this might hurt the usability of the machine, the point isn’t to provide a fancy new toy, but a device designed for learning that will lead to fun, imaginative outcomes. Just look at this motion sensing guitar built using the micro bit:
The idea of structuring a series of lessons around creating motion sensing instruments is exciting for kids, teaches real skills and makes full use of the new technology. What’s even more exciting is that once the project is done, the Micro Bit can be removed, backed up and then re-programmed to perform a new task and function, with the guitar still preserved should pupils want to go back to that project. We’re putting a computer in the pencil case, and truly modernising education.
This isn’t just putting a child in front of a smartphone or PC and teaching them how to use software. This is learning the fundamentals – the equivalent of taking science lessons that just say “hydrogen is explosive”, and turning them into lessons about why hydrogen is explosive. It’s a long-overdue overhaul, and it shows that the BBC and its various partners are taking the skills gap seriously.
The need for simple IT literacy has long passed. We are now in a position where students need to be fluent, not just competent. The best way to learn about computers is on computers, and the Micro Bit acts as the perfect tool to introduce students to real coding. So, while the Micro Bit is by itself exciting, it also means it’s time for schools to get serious about their IT education and prepare themselves for the shift. A decent content-management system and virtual learning environment are going to be essential assets in keeping the Micro Bit curriculum up to date and fully supported, so teachers might be interested in looking into our Portfolio and Learn Apps for ideas about how they can prepare their school for the Micro Bit’s arrival.
The change might be coming bit by bit, but it’s not a moment too soon.