One million British kids will be on their way to futures in computer science this month, as the BBC distributes tiny Micro Bit computers meant to inspire hands-on coding.
The broadcaster's education division is making good on its 2015 pledge to develop and give away a Micro Bit computer to every Year 7 student (6th grade in the United States) in England and Wales, and similarly-aged students in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although teachers are encouraged to work them into their curricula, the pocket-sized bits are student's to keep, so their programming adventures can grow with them.
The Micro Bit "allows young people to get creative with technology, whatever their level of experience, and aims to help develop a new generation of digital pioneers," as it did with the 1980's BBC Micro, the BBC said in a statement. Students plug their devices into a computer, where they can program it using a code editor or app found on its companion website.
The BBC partnered with 31 companies and organizations, from Microsoft and Samsung to Technology Will Save Us, to produce the coding devices, which include several buttons, a compass, an accelerometer, and LEDs. Their hardware and much of the software will be open-sourced, and can be bought by non-students, as well.
If it works, the project will be the envy of Code for All advocates around the world, who are pushing for schools to agree that digital literacy is as essential as reading, writing, and math. President Obama has encouraged more computer science education with a $4 billion proposal to broaden student access. Only 25 percent of K-12 schools in the US currently offer the courses, according to the White House, and options tend to be better in wealthier schools.
"In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill – it’s a basic skill, right along with the three 'R's'," he said in a January radio address.
But even among tech enthusiasts, there are plenty of skeptics for dramatic tech roll-outs in education. While some believe that other subjects need to take priority, others think the plans often overlook students' and schools' actual needs and purposes in the excitement over high-end gadgets.
In September, Apple settled for $4.2 million with the Los Angeles United School District, after a $1.3 billion plan to provide iPads to every student fell through disastrously. The district says that problems with the Pearson Education materials uploaded on the iPads prevented more than 95 percent of students from using them consistently.
"If one of the country’s largest school districts, one of the world’s largest tech companies, and one of the most established brands in education can’t make it work, can anyone?" Issie Lapowsky asked in Wired magazine.
"LA is emblematic of a problem we’re seeing across the country right now," school innovation expert Michael Horn, from the Clay Christensen Institute, told her. "Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: 'What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?' and then finding technology in service of that."
But code-in-schools advocates say programming skills shouldn't be confused with simply providing high-end gear and expecting it to improve learning. Devices like Micro Bits promote active learning, and, whether used in class or independently, help cement skills and thinking habits that students will need in the future more than we can predict now, they say.
They insist it's crucial that all kids have access to those lessons now, rather than leaving less privileged students to play catch-up later.
"Computer science can help interrupt the cycle of inequality that has determined who has access to this type of high-status knowledge in our schools," education researchers Jane Margolis, from the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education, and Yasmin Kafai, from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, write in a guest column for the Washington Post. "Students who have this knowledge have a jump-start in ... careers, and they have insight into the nature of innovation that is changing how we communicate, learn, recreate, and conduct democracy."
The BBC's Micro Bits are arriving several months behind schedule, leading to fears that it's too late for this year's teachers to work them into lessons, and they'll be relegated to school clubs and breaks. But many teachers say their students have already experimented with the devices, with impressive results they couldn't have worked toward any other way.
One group in West Yorkshire wrote a program to let their Micro Bits sense temperature, then attached it to a helium balloon and sent it to measure the stratosphere (an adventure that led local air traffic authorities to temporarily redirect all planes around Nottingham). Another developed programs to help autistic peers recognize others' emotions.
"One thing which strikes me is that the students clearly understand the place of coding in the world and understand the ways in which it can enhance and improve their lives," Holly Margerison, from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, told the BBC.