Nearly 34 years on from sponsoring the most influential British-designed personal computer ever made, the BBC B Micro, the Corporation has announced a second intriguing coming in the form of the BBC Micro Bit, aka the 'Micro:bit'.
Developed in conjunction with ARM (a spin-off from Acorn, designer of the BBC B) and a long list of other notables, to look at the Micro Bit is nothing special. It features a compass, an accelerometer, Bluetooth, a USB port and a 25-LED array with an all-important reset button, powered from a pack ordinary AA/AAA batteries. The BBC plans to give away one million of these to its target audience of 11 and 12 year-old school children later in 2015.
Capable of being hooked up to almost anything, including a tablet or smartphone, as a programming workhorse its intention is entirely educational - it is designed as a platform for would-be programmers to explore and tinker, expanding their horizons and understanding. Part digital lego, a toy it is not.
If the wondrous Raspberry Pi started the latest home-brew revolution it is the Micro Bit that could end up being even more important.
The Micro Bit was born of the realisation that has been debated for years without anyone coming up with an answer - today’s consumers, especially the young, have been conditioned to consume technology rather than understand it.
Seemingly enslaved by retail cults such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and others, consumers have grown used to being spoon-fed all sorts of technologies they didn’t build or have any influence over. What goes on under the hood is a total mystery for a population that has come to depend on answers thought up by other people, mostly a technical elite living in the California and parts of Asia.
Good business for some, this is turning out to be a bad idea on other levels. At the beginning of an era of cybercrime we are constantly told can only be solved with improved education, but how to inform a population many of whom have only the vaguest idea how these products work?
Without more involvement and a deeper engagement with technology, civil society could be in it for the long haul. The Micro Bit is a start engaging youngsters early, showing them that the technical side of computing isn’t after all, an alien science that should be left to others.
The UK Government talks up the economic benefits of better computing education as if education is a production line that should be turning out more units of production. If that’s the limit of their ambition, it’s misguided.
Another way of thinking about the ‘skills gap’ middle-aged politicians have become obsessed with is that we don’t understand the fundamental technologies on which the future depends.
The Micro Bit might be a small answer to that problem but it’s where we need to start.
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