‘For us, education about technology is about equitable access on a social level’ – chief of learning, Micro:bit Educational Foundation

Magda Wood talks to ET about how the micro:bit is making coding interesting for kids and why computer science should be compulsory in schools

Micro:bit Educational Foundation is an education non-profit that creates pocket-size entry-level coding devices designed to make learning about coding and computer science enjoyable for kids. The foundation launched micro:bit in 2016 by giving free devices to every year seven student in the UK as part of BBC’s Make it Digital, a year-long campaign to support digital skills. In 2022, over six million of the devices are already in use by children aged 5–14 across the world. All primary schools in Scotland own micro:bits, and all Scottish secondary schools will receive them this autumn, after the Scottish government decided they should be available in all schools.

The project is backed by around 25 partners including some of the UK’s biggest tech organisations such as ARM, Nominet, and Lenovo, who helped design and manufacture micro:bit hardware.

The foundation also fundraises for education programmes. In the last year it funded teacher training for female teachers in West Bengal, developing their confidence in digital skills and computing so they could use the micro:bit with their pupils.

Firstly, what is the micro:bit?

The product itself is a small computer – it’s a hardware board with a number of sensors that act as inputs sensing changes in temperature, light, sound, movement, and magnetism, so it can act as a compass as well. It’s great for music-making, for example, as it has a microphone and speaker, and can register seven different gestures of movement. You can trigger changes in volume by just moving your hands up or down. It also has radio, meaning you can communicate between micro:bits or form groups of them.

Can you talk a bit about why the micro:bit came about?

So the micro:bit was introduced to make it easy and simple for teachers to learn new subject matter and to teach technical skills. The impact research from the BBC project showed that micro:bit motivates kids to learn skills that can come with a lot of preconceptions about geeky techy stuff and it appeals to girls and boys as a non-gendered product. In other words, girls don’t think it’s designed for boys, which I think is probably the most significant part.

It gets kids excited about learning a subject that is usually presented in a very theoretical way in the curriculum. In England, the national curriculum is very knowledge-based rather than skills-based, and there are limitations when teaching these skills in school. 

We’ve learned a lot about how to teach a deeply theoretical concept-based subject in a broad, more creative way, in order to help children to deepen their understanding of mathematical concepts.

For us, education about technology is about equitable access on a social level. Diversity and representation of women in the design and creation of the technology that we use and impacts our lives is narrow. Definitely in our organisation we value diverse thinking and participation.

What does the micro:bit add to teaching?

It’s a good teaching device for learning about networks, which typically are very theoretical and quite dry. So when you’re teaching, say, eight-year-olds, you might reference things like WiFi, but being able to comprehend what that actually means and how it works is pretty tricky territory for students.

So why do children need to know how things like WiFi work?

Cyber security is a good example. It’s an issue from a national security point of view, as well as a personal safeguarding point of view, and includes banking, personal data for kids, using the internet safely with young children, and learning about how much information you share with other people, whether you know them or not. 

It’s about understanding and being up to date with how the contemporary world works, and learning about the positive impacts of communication and information transfer. A common experience for kids and young people is coping with social pressures and bullying through digital platforms. In the same way that in science we learn about electricity and circuits, it’s important we have some foundational understanding about how the wifi network works at home, because you need to learn to set it up for school or work and in order to have some life skills, you need to know how to be connected and learn what happens if you’re not. Unless we explicitly teach kids how it works, they won’t know.

The process of education is about working out what you want to do, so you can go on and be successful as a young person. And that includes having those life skills to make technology work for you and also understanding how it might impact your life whether or not you want to be involved in the creation and design of it – you need to be able to speak the same language.

Should computer science be a compulsory subject all through school?

I think it’s time for us to start having that conversation because it’s a vital part of the real world and if we don’t make it compulsory, then we can’t ensure good access to it. Perhaps it’s not so obvious exactly why it is a vital subject, but it’s in everything we do. Whether or not we go on to make it a central part of a career, it’s a new literacy I think everybody needs to have.

I absolutely understand the pressures on teaching time but it has to be part of modern curriculum and there’s lots of opportunity for fantastic cross-disciplinary work with it. What’s clear is that to have a good quality education that is designed for the world that we live in now, and how the world is changing because of technology, you need to include computer science in the school curriculum. 

There’s a need for technical skills in employment – industry needs it. And there isn’t enough kids coming out of school and going into these industries and showing an interest in them.

It will certainly contribute to making us a competitive nation when it comes to being equipped as a nation with suitable subject knowledge as well as technical skills.

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