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BBC Micro creators with birthday cake in 2012 – now a new way of teaching coding is needed


This autumn, digital literacy is going to be big on the agenda – particularly Britain’s skills shortage in coding.

It was getting on for 25 years ago that the BBC gave most schools in the UK a BBC Micro self-contained code to screen computer made by Acorn, described by Margaret Rhodes in Wired  as ‘a beige box that looked a lot like a typewriter and taught children how to code. Like the Commodore 64, the Micro ushered in a wave of computer literacy among kids who came of age in the 1980s.’

She claimed that since that coding teaching program ‘as people grew more accustomed to computers, they came to know less and less about how they work. People just stroke a screen, so now there is a shortage of talent for programming jobs.’

Skills Shortages


Two years ago the BBC highlighted the growing problems being faced by companies including Facebook who argued that they struggle to find skilled youngsters in the UK and ‘people from other countries are often better qualified.’

Some commentators felt then we were 100,000 short in the digital sector. Since then, the situation has deteriorated.

The government has changed the curriculum to make children ‘active participants in the digital world by focussing on programming and coding. That’s why the new project is so timely.

Micro:bit Is Much Needed

This October a credit card sized computer will be distributed. Rhodes said that the new Micro:bit ‘fosters digital interactions with the physical world. The Micro:bit features programmable buttons and LEDs, so it can become a handheld game. It uses Bluetooth to communicate with other devices. An accelerometer, compass, and temperature and moisture sensors make it responsive to its immediate environment. Crocodile clips and banana plugs make hooking it up to other things a breeze.’

She gave it a ringing endorsement, ‘ All told, it’s an incredibly open-ended device, by design.’

To be given to every 12-year in the UK it is being promoted by Technology Will Save Us and has come about as the result of a year-long partnership between the BBC and 29 others including Microsoft and Samsung.

Youngsters will find that through making and doing they will start coding. Unlike phones and tablets, the Micro:bit will not do anything until code is written for it.

Education Will Be the Key

To overcome the fears of teenagers intimidated by being digitally illiterate (some are, apparently), there are DIY gamer kits  available which ‘combine retro gaming and garage hacking.’

The first challenge is to assemble the kit. The more young people do things for themselves, the more they learn. We are rediscovering the obvious. And if it takes a kit to excite interest, then so be it.

And to make sure that most of the one million Micro:bits don’t suffer the fate of many new toys and gadgets (forgotten as soon as the novelty has faded) the BBC team are working with teachers to develop curricula that include the devices.

And determined not to confine it to classrooms, it is also deigned to ‘become a game or smartphone companion that takes selfies as much as it could easily hitch onto a science experiment.’

Coding should now really take off in this country.

Further details:

Coding at school: a parent’s guide to England’s new computing curriculum, The Guardian

BBC News on coding and young children

Image: Trevor Johnson