16th March '15
Some would argue that the British software industry (especially video games) can be traced back almost entirely to the bedroom coders of the 80s. The affordability of machines like the ZX Spectrum and Acorn Electron gave school children across the country the tools they needed to turn their ideas into reality, and give them skills that would eventually lead to the creation and stimulation of industries worth billions to the British economy every year.
Unfortunately, the rising complexity of computer hardware and software in the last couple of decades has created something of a void when it comes to new programming talent.
Until recently, the teaching of computing skills has focused more on the use of productivity software and has rarely, if ever, touched on the concept of creating your own software – so there’s not much impetus for children to develop their own ideas. What’s more, those that do often fall at the first hurdle as computer software and programming languages are much harder to learn.
Consequently, the BBC recently announced that as part of their Make It Digital initiative they will be developing a small computer that will be distributed freely to nearly 1 million school children in the UK, with the aim of building a new generation of computer programmers.
The new computer, currently being called the Micro Bit, is apparently designed to be a “stepping stone” to encourage kids to learn the basics of coding before moving on to more advanced programming using other devices, such as the Raspberry Pi or Arduino.
However, as much as I like the idea – after all, my first experience of programming was on a ZX Spectrum at the tender age of 6 – I do have to question the wisdom of spending a fair chunk of money on the development of a new platform, when the Raspberry Pi is plenty capable already.
Details on the Micro Bit’s technical specifications are sketchy, but the involvement of ARM suggests that it will use an ARM microprocessor. Not unusual, pretty much every mobile computing device uses one these days, and ARM themselves rose out of the ashes of Acorn Computer, the company that the BBC contracted to build the BBC Micro back in the 80s.
But the Raspberry Pi also uses one, so although transitioning from one to the other should be easy, why not just get kids started with the Pi itself? Included with every Pi is Scratch, a “visual” coding system designed specifically to make coding easier for children to understand. Once they’re comfortable with that they can progress to “proper” programming with Python, again included as standard on the Pi.
[ update: further research suggests that it is not an ARM microprocessor being used on the Micro Bit ]
The only downside to the Raspberry Pi is the initial cost – around £28 per unit at retail prices, which is presumably higher than the expected cost of the Micro Bit. The latest upgrades to the Raspberry Pi have greatly increased its capabilities without increasing this retail price though, so could it be possible to manufacture older Raspberry Pi models for use with the project, at a lower cost?
I should reiterate that I think the Make It Digital initiative is a superb idea. Generally speaking, children these days have very little concept of what makes a computer work – whether it’s their parents’ laptop, or their games consoles, phones or tablets – and this is a real shame.
The bedroom coders of the 80s have gone on to do wonderful things with their skills and knowledge – David Braben, co-creator of the original Elite on the BBC Micro, is a co-founder of the Raspberry Pi project. It’s key that the next generation’s creative thinkers be given all of the tools they need to bring their ideas to fruition and keep the British creative industries running at full speed.
But, would it be more cost-effective for the BBC to use tried and tested hardware and focus on enhancing knowledge, rather than creating a new platform that fundamentally is not that different to the many others already available?