BBC digital competency initiative

Made in the UK

Article from Issue 174/2015

The BBC and partners in the United Kingdom start another program to educate young people for the digital future, but FOSS is sorely lacking.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has a history with computers. In the 1980s, they helped produce and distribute to schools, for the use of school children, one of the first micro-computers of the day, the BBC Micro. This week, the BBC announced a new initiative, Make it Digital [1], and a new piece of hardware, the Micro Bit (Figure 1), which they and their partners want to distribute to all seventh graders (11-12 years old) in the United Kingdom next September.

Figure 1: The Micro Bit. The website notes: "The project is still in development and the final name, appearance, and specification is likely to change" [2].

Although there is not a lot of solid information about the Micro Bit, the prototype for it is very small, has an array (5x5) of LEDs, Bluetooth low energy (LE), and various items like an accelerometer, taking its power from a micro USB port. It is advertised as being "wearable" and appears to be more along the lines of an Arduino type of processor, able to run one program at a time, than a computer that could run multiple programs at one time.

The bigger message is not just another small board that students can use to build things, but the "full court press" that the BBC is putting behind the Make it Digital program to try and address the 1.4 million digital professionals that will be needed in the UK over the next five years. More than 25 companies and associations (with indications that might expand to 50) are in the program. The BBC sees a shortage of trained IT people in the UK and, rather than try to import them from other countries, decided to improve the computer skills of students in the seventh grade through the Micro Bit program and in other grades through other programs.

Ten of the partner companies are called "Product Partners" (ARM, Barclays, Element14, Freescale Semiconductor, Lancaster University, Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, Samsung, ScienceScope, Technology Will Save Us) and the other 16 companies are "Product Champions" (Bright Future, CISCO, Code Club, CoderDojo, Code Kingdoms, Creative Digital Solutions, CultureTECH, Decoded, Institution of Engineering and Technology, Kitronik, London Connected Learning Centre, Open University, Python Software Foundation, STEMNET, TeenTech, Tinder Foundation) who will be working with training utilizing the Micro Bit. People should not look at this effort as only Micro Bit-oriented. The group also plans to train 5,000 young, unemployed people to increase their computer skills, so they can get new jobs.

I first became aware of this effort while I was at a CoderDojo meeting recently held in London. Young people of all ages were encouraged to do simple (and not so simple) programming jobs under close mentorship. Jane Wakefield, a technology reporter for the BBC, told me about the Make it Digital program (announcements had already gone out that day) while she was interviewing some of the CoderDojo students.

Later, Jane asked me a question that seemed to be burning in her mind: "Should every child need to program?"

I do not think every child needs to have the skills to write large, complex programs, but I do think basic training is useful so every person knows the basics about how to get a computer to solve a problem. Later, this will help people estimate if what they are requesting is going to take a programmer 10 minutes or 10 years to program, or whether the data needed to solve the problem would fill up a thumb drive or a datacenter. Likewise, technical people should learn more about formal areas of business, although in a lot of ways technical people are exposed to business every day, and the opposite is not always true.

The Micro Bit is a prototype at this stage, and the program itself is still a concept. The Partners have a little time between now and September for tweaking both. One thing that disturbs me, however, is the seeming lack of FOSS entities in the development of both the hardware and the software, the lack of public specifications on what might be going into the Micro Bit, and the lack of openness as to where the training might be headed. If this is simply an oversight, then I hope the BBC starts being more inclusive in their planning and reaches out to organizations such as the Free Software Foundation, the Linux Foundation, and even the general public to review and comment on their plans.

As simple as the Micro Bit is, not needing any binary blobs in its programming might be a refreshing change. And a Free and Open programming tool chain would also be nice.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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