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article imageBBC micro:bit to teach 'hundreds of millions' to code

By James Walker     Oct 19, 2016 in Technology
The BBC has handed over control of its micro:bit mini-computer to a non-profit organisation that will promote it worldwide. For the first time, the tiny educational device will be available internationally, exposing "tens of millions" of children to code.
The micro:bit was conceived as a device to get children interested in computers, emulating the excitement around early PCs like the BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum in the 1980s. With the micro:bit, the BBC aimed to get computing back on the timetable in U.K. schools. In March, a free micro:bit was given to every Year 7 schoolchild (11-12-year-olds) in the U.K.
Unfortunately, the BBC's vision hasn't played out as planned. It was supposed to deliver the micro:bits in October 2015, coinciding with the start of the new school year. The lengthy delay caused issues for teachers who had less time to prepare lessons on the devices than they'd anticipated. Some schools have also found distributing the computers to be a challenge. There's been an element of reluctance when trusting students to take responsibility for their own device.
The BBC is now hoping to put the rough start behind the micro:bit by handing over the reins to the non-profit Micro:bit Educational Foundation. It says its mission is "to lower barriers to technology invention for young people, makers and developers globally." It aims to spread "tens of millions" of the devices around the world.
The Foundation is managed by seven companies and organisations, the BBC, chip-maker ARM, Microsoft, Samsung, Nominet and the Institution of Engineering and Technology. It will be responsible for all future Micro:bit development. The Foundation has already brought the micro:bit to Iceland and the Netherlands and has expressions of interest from 20 other countries. CEO Zach Shelby, a former ARM employee, told WIRED that countries as far afield as Bangladesh and Singapore want to teach children to code with the micro:bit.
"My vision is that we would like to reach 100 million people with micro:bit in the foreseeable future," said Shelby. "That's not just devices, as our goal is not to sell devices as we're not a company like that."
The Foundation will gauge its success based on how many lives micro:bit impacts. It believes the palm-sized computer, consisting of 25 programmable LEDs, a Bluetooth adapter and built-in sensor attachments, will ignite the interests of a new generation of computer literate hardware hackers.
"Three quarters of those that have used the BBC micro:bit say they either like or love it," said the BBC. "They value its hands on nature and love being able to see what they have coded come to life.  A massive 86 percent said it made computer science more interesting whilst 88 percent of children said it showed them that coding isn’t as difficult as they had previously imagined."
Part of the original goal for the micro:bit was to rival devices like the Raspberry Pi, the credit-card sized computer that in large part inspired the micro:bit. The Pi has an established reputation in schools and is capable of powering serious hardware projects, unlike the basic micro:bit. It could be a challenge for micro:bit to rival the Pi outside of formal education.
The BBC originally expected micro:bit to undercut the Pi on cost. The micro:bit retails at £13, compared with around £30 for a Raspberry Pi. However, in November 2015, the Raspberry Pi Foundation launched the Raspberry Pi Zero, a version of the computer that costs just £4.20. It still runs a full version of Linux and offers far greater connectivity than the micro:bit. The Micro:bit Foundation is now touting the computer's ease of use as its key advantage over the Pi.
The Foundation is now beginning work on an upgraded version of the device. "We have a lot more processor power coming," Shelby told WIRED. He also added that a bigger screen is on the way to support Chinese and Japanese characters, alongside support for device-to-device connections enabling "Pokémon Go-style activities."
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