BBC unveils free coding devices for Year 7s

Lighting the way: The Micro Bit can be used to create anything from games to metal detectors.

The Micro Bit is a tiny, basic computer that can be programmed to do a huge variety of tasks — and a million of them will be distributed to schools this October. Should we all learn to code?

It’s 5cm long, 4cm wide and dotted with tiny LED lights: the BBC Micro Bit computer doesn’t look like an instrument of technological revolution. But the BBC believes that this simple tool can help turn Britain into a nation of savvy and creative coders.

The Micro Bit, whose final design is unveiled this week, is a versatile and uniquely easy-to-use computer with built in features that allow it to be put to a huge variety of uses. Its two buttons can be used to create a video game controller. A bluetooth chip allows it to be programmed as a DVD remote. It even has a magnetometer, meaning that it could be used as a metal detector.

This October, a million of these Micro Bits will be sent to schools across Britain. They will be given free to students in Year 7, who will be taught how to manipulate them using two simple programming languages. The BBC, in keeping with the ‘educate’ element of its famous mission statement, hopes this will awaken a whole generation of teenagers to the power of code.

‘We all know there’s a critical and growing digital skills gap in this country,’ said BBC Director-General Tony Hall, ‘and that’s why it’s so important that we come together and do something about it.’

The gap he refers to is widely recognised by politicians and business leaders alike. The tech industry is booming in Britain, its growth outstripping GDP by 400%. London has the largest community of tech businesses in Europe. But employers struggle to find workers with the necessary computer expertise to feed their companies’ expansion. A report in 2013 suggested that Britain would need 750,000 more skilled digital workers by 2017 — yet instead of rising, the number of people enrolled in computer science degrees has fallen sharply over the past decade.

Even for those who do not aspire to a career in technology, digital literacy is an increasingly valuable skill. There are ever fewer jobs in which computers do not play a role; understanding how they work can make you freer and more independent in any career.

Code to joy

Few would disagree with the motivations behind the BBC’s scheme: in a digitised world, advanced computer literacy is one of the most vital qualities any person can have. It is crucial both to individuals starting a career and to the economy at large.

This is all true, say more idealistic IT experts, but it misses the most important argument for coding: today, network computing is as much a part of the infrastructure of life as chemistry or history, and we cannot truly understand our world without an education in it. Unless we want to be ‘intellectually crippled’, says technology professor John Naughton, we must educate ourselves at once.

You Decide

  1. ‘Code is as important to understand as reading and arithmetic.’ Do you agree?
  2. Should ICT lessons focus on teaching you how to use computers, or teaching you how they work?

Activities

  1. If you could programme a computer like the Micro Bit to do something, what would it be? Create a simple design and, if you have the opportunity and the skill, try putting it into practice.
  2. Take the first lesson in coding on the Code Academy website — or, if you already know the basics, try something a little more challenging!

Some People Say...

“Computer code is the new Latin.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Ugh, coding — that’s way too nerdy and complicated for me.
It’s easy to see why people feel that way: to the uninitiated, a page of code just looks like a jumble of letters and baffling punctuation marks. But the basic principles really only require the application of simple logic. Like any language, it takes time to grasp how it works.
Still, it’s a bit boring...
To people who really understand it, coding can be not only useful but also aesthetically pleasing. Expert coders often admire a section of code for its ‘beauty’ as much as for its practical function; there’s even such a thing as code poetry.
Okay, convinced. So where can I start?
Easy — just check out the Become an Expert links in this article! And if you’re keen to get some hardware, you can buy a Raspberry Pi for less than £30.

Word Watch

Micro Bit
The name is partly a reference to the BBC Micro, a computer distributed by the BBC in 1981 with the aim of boosting IT literacy. Many British people who are technology experts or entrepreneurs credit the Micro as the initial spark for their interest in computing.
Year 7
The Micro Bit will initially be distributed among 11 and 12-year-olds. If it is successful, however, the BBC plan to make it more generally available, perhaps in collaboration with other technology companies.
Programming languages
There is not just one computer language but many, each with its own particular strengths. Some, like Perl and Python, are general purpose, while others are useful for creating particular types of code (C for computer games, say, or Java for web page designs).
Mission statement
The founder and first director-general of the BBC, Lord Reith, summarised the institution’s purpose in three words: ‘inform, educate, entertain’. This remains a key part of the BBC’s stated mission to this day.

Subjects

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