The BBC have a track record in leading the way in technology and innovation. I have much thank them for. By providing my school with a BBC microcomputer in the 1980’s it provided me access to a new and exciting discipline that I was to be immersed in from that day to this – Computing Science. Because of inspirational teaching at secondary school I studied computing at O & A Level and as my first degree before retraining to be a primary teacher.
The BBC’s latest move is to provide every year 7 schoolchild with their newest innovation – the micro:bit. As part of their Make it Digital initiative and in collaboration with a number of others, the main aim is to inspire the next generation of ‘coders’ with the hope of bridging the huge skills gap we face in the forthcoming years and diversify computer science by appealing to girls. But will it achieve those laudable aims or create it’s own set of problems?
I, more than most, am aware of the stereotypes associated with computer scientists. Geeks and nerds. Oh, and mainly male. I’m proud to dispel most of them – I think! But I am female (was one of two in my university year) and I have taught both genders computing for longer than most as I introduced it before it became statutory. I feel I’m qualified to comment on what inspires and motivates both boys and girls in becoming digital creators rather than consumers. The thing is, I’m not sure this is it.
In a previous post about a similar device, the Raspberry Pi, I expressed my concerns about introducing bare board computers to primary children. Thankfully, the partnership behind the micro:bit favoured year 7 children over the proposed year 5’s so the issues I have with the fragility of such devices do not necessarily apply with that age group. I have other concerns though. Firstly, the devices are going directly to the children. They can take them home, investigate, explore and keep forever. Or – as I fear is more likely without some speedy training and resources in place – not. Some are going to teachers just before they are given to the pupils in October, during the summer. So that teachers can have a poke around and play using the supporting website and wealth of resources that will be up and running during the summer too at www.microbit.co.uk. Summer? Teachers?
Then there’s my worry that, well, they’re just not that interesting to children. Remember, today’s 11&12 year olds have incredibly powerful computers on them most of the time that do really great things already – without having to add bits to them: their smartphones and tablets. There’s a danger that handing them a device (without exploring their potential beforehand) that, on the surface, does nothing will see them gathering dust on the bookshelf – next to that book their mum said was a ‘must read’. I can’t see children engaging in self-directed learning with them. Sinead Rocks, Head of BBC Learning, stated here that ‘We happily give children paint brushes when they’re young, with no experience – it should be exactly the same with technology’. Most though, I’m afraid, don’t go on to be the next Monet. To me, it’s like suggesting we give kids a bunsen burner each, minus the gas and chemicals, and see how many of them get into chemistry. Interest and talent needs inspiring, nurturing and, arguably, directing. Budding computer scientists need, as I did, someone to inspire and engage and I’m not sure that hardware is that inspiring or engaging – especially to girls. In my experience, without wishing to generalise, girls are less interested in the engineering of devices than in how the software that sits on them can be engineered in creative and expressive ways.
The micro:bit has a lot of competition on its hands for children’s attention in the digital world we live in but I’m confident it has it’s part to play in computing classrooms. I’m just not sure it’ll make it into them after they’ve been given to the children. Teachers are already grappling with a subject few of them have been adequately been trained to teach and the micro:bit risks creating further fear and panic. The BBC and its partners are to be applauded for their efforts in resourcing and promoting a subject I am passionate about. I would have preferred they be given to schools, backed up with a fully developed, creative, curriculum and robust training that would allow the people we pay to teach computing to do so with confidence and, above all, enthusiasm!