Micro:bit is an open source hardware system designed by the BBC.
The size of a credit card, a micro:bit was provided to 1 million children in year 7 across Britain.
The micro:bit posseses a motion detector, 25 LEDs to flash messages, bluetooth technology, a compass and input/output rings to connect to other devices. The BBC worked in conjunction with partners such as Microsoft, Barclays and Samsung to develop the product
Micro:bit is an evolved product of the BBC Micro from the 1980s. It works by connecting it to a computer and coding lines to program the micro:bit however you wish, i.e a watch, a football game, automatic plant watering and so on. The device is compatible with languages such as C++ and Python and can work on any other device; smartphones, laptops, tablets.
Internet connectivity is only needed to install the Microsoft Block Editor, making the devices suitable to Eritrea, a country with low internet connectivity.
The Micro:bit Educational Program partners with academics and donates samples of the micro:bits to individuals or organisations across the globe.
Sue Sentance, Chief Learning Officer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation and prior Computer Science Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, conducted research in collaboration with the BBC’s Micro:bit, which serves to be the first study investigating its usability (Sentance et al., 2017).
The study interviewed 15 teachers and 54 students in England, to measure the micro:bits’ usability, creativity, tangibility and programming skills developed.
Whilst the paper is based on findings in a developed country, it does refer to the benefits of physical computing experiences, citing that in lieu to the constructivist learning theory ‘learning happens most readily in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a real, visible thing’.
The paper also refers to research where girls grow confidence in computing as a result of physical computing in particular.
Physical computing has a positive effect on ‘collaborative and active learning’ and fostering ‘interpersonal skills’
Lessons from the methodology of this paper can be applied when conducting feedback after the trial in Eritrea. A qualitative approach was taken in the form of face-to-face semi-structured interviews. This data was analysed using QSR’s NVivo software.
All feedback was positive in regards to motivation, tangibility, collaboration and creativity. The study quoted students’ positive experiences and how it is an easy route into programming with no experience necessary. Micro:bits have the potential to enhance learning but this is ‘determined in large part by the way teachers choose to use it’.
Another report ‘Teaching with physical computing devices' by Sentance et al (2017) refers to the same study but in relation to feedback for teachers. The interviews are sectioned into five areas which can be leveraged as indicators to assess when conducting my own feedback.
Imagination and creativity
Learning and knowledge
Programming and the relationship to physical computing
Technology and the future
The report also indicates the many ways in which the micro:bit can be ‘taught’ to students. For example, a ‘use-modify-create’ method was utilised by one teacher, where students read and then, edit the code. Another teacher used tutorials and students felt limited by determined activities.
Sufficient preparation is advised as imperative for teachers to combat reliance on worksheets. Ultimately a correlation was found between the confidence of teachers and their ability to inspire their students (this isn’t surprising but important).
The study segmented three approaches to teaching with physical computing:
Uses open-ended activities
“How are you going to make the world a better place with your micro:bit? Or how are you going to make your world a better place?” Teachers created their own lesson material i.e. running code, debugging incorrect code and writing your own code
Uses a structured approach
“Yes, so what I tend to do is we do especially when we’re doing challenges they have to screenshot their code, put it onto a document and then they explain it.” Teachers followed videos, text, exercising ‘muscle memory’. A pattern of task, challenge, task, challenge.
Uses ready-made exercises to motivate
“They’ve enjoyed the creation of the projects which are there, but my problem is are they going to remember it for themselves and can they actually use it for themselves and create something new?”
Teachers are skeptical and do not devote time to the micro:bits.
King’s College in Guyana
Sentance also reports her work with micro:bits in Guyana. The micro:bit was introduced to two school where presentations and workshops took place within a week.
A teacher workshop took place to set up micro:bits and computers and pre-programming the devices. The teaching session included:
Programming with the micro:bit
Strategies for teaching programming
Two student workshops for 11-12 year olds and 14-15 year olds focused on programming. A carousel approach was adopted (students move around four activities).
University of Gothenburg
A report published by the University of Gothenburg examines ‘What is important to consider when designing teaching materials’ for micro:bits in Sweden. The report examines stakeholders such as the students (4th – 6th grade), teachers and government institutions who were all involved in the 21 workshops.
The paper similar to Sentance’s, examines theories such as constructionism, self-determination, and computational thinking. The methodology included an Empathy map, ‘Fly on the Wall’ observations, semi-structured interviews, journey maps and so on. Integrating feedback and iterations (somewhat similar to the delphi method) was also used a methodology, which can be leveraged for this trial in Eritrea.
The workshop feedback notes that children were motivated and eager to only play games (name badges) which can hinder the learning component. To combat this, a second revised workshop had a longer demonstration where the blocks were explained in greater detail and analogies (box/variables and values).
Researchers found ‘a mix of showing and doing’ is the best fit with ‘extra attention… explaining how the blocks work’. Further workshops adopting analog examples where students would physically play, as findings suggested those who had gone through the analog workshops found the micro:bit easier to work with.
17 students with 2 facilitators were encouraged to play with the editor for 10 minutes before using the micro:bit. Students programmed a step counter by co-coding with the teacher and their projector. Worth noting, this might be necessary to bring to Eritrea to compliment large class numbers. Co-coding allowed for a ‘useful hybrid’ between presentations and autonomous exercises.
The report lists the following examples to replicate via co-coding. This approach would be akin to the ‘Consumer/Provider’ approaches mentioned in Sentance et al’s (2017) study.
Table listing examples of exercises from the Gothenburg report
Students become familiar with the micro:bit by creating different led blocks.
Scrolls name (Text string) on led display.
Send text strings via bluetooth (fosters collaboration)
Introduction to boolean (Use of analogies i.e. ‘IF the teacher claps THEN you pull your ears; IF the teacher snaps her fingers THEN you scratch your head… this exercise got tons of laughter and nicely explained the If-Then-Else conditional statement’)
Shake the device to receive a number
Rock, Paper, Scissors
Rock paper scissors game - unsure if this is something the kids are familiar with?
Basic step counter. Can edit code to store steps on demand.
Self composed melody
Can create your own sound through code.
Radio Messages (collaboration)
Students can send each other text strings using the bluetooth feature.
The report also illustrates a ‘scope of autonomy’ model to aid teachers of the distribution of autonomy between them and their students when using the micro:bit. This can also be mapped to Sentance et al’s (2017) observations on inspirers, providers and consumers, where inspirers would promote a larger scope of student autonomy and vice versa.
Illustrations of how the scope autonomy and assignment methods can change based on the teacher's activity by the University of Gothenburg
The images above have been dissected into the following with examples which can be considered as progress points for different workshops.
Students program the string text ‘hello world’ and are encouraged to customise the text however they want.
Teacher draws an animation and encourages students to program the micro:bit to show the animation.
Teacher does not know outcome of the final design.
Students make a step counter using only four blocks in total. Students are free to create a design so long as it meets this requirement.
Teachers tell students to create whatever they want.
Students worked with iPads and therefore required passwords well in advance.
Using Kano devices instead, which will be tested prior.
The MakeCode Editor can work offline but an online compilation has to be made. Instruction videos proved difficult to play.
Set up devices with internet connection prior travel.
Pairing mode bugs
Difficult to pair the micro:bits to iPads so students have to press three buttons in an order. They grasp this when shown the full procedure.
‘This bug is resolved by simply having a computer nearby and flash any type of program from the computer to that BBC micro:bit via USB-cable. This way the BBC micro:bit gets reset and can be paired with an iPad again.’
Other insights include:
Allowing for a short ‘tinkering’ time where students can become familiar with the content at first.
Clarifying to students that ‘computers are stupid’ as they merely follow their instructions.
Students ignore printed papers, conversations and facilitators help better.
Students need to learn how to navigate the editor first, this mustn’t be overlooked.
Self instructing material allows students to work at their own pace. This may be done by printing worksheets which contradicts the points above.
Concluding the workshop in a positive state versus leaving students confused or frustrated is important. Perhaps a fun exercise at the end?
Verify material and software in case any updates have been made.
Micro:bits have been trialed in many locations, spanning the UK to rural China and India, of which testimonials can be found online. I’ve condensed them so it’s easier to refer.
Initial reactions: ‘part of a motherboard’ ‘intrigued’ Enjoyed the device: ‘see their code come to life’Aided programming: ‘helped the students visually see how the code works’ Feelings towards the device: ‘preference vs android programming’
88% found computer coding easier than expected, 95% interested in learning to code after initially stating they weren’t interestedAimed at ‘tackling water irrigation, light monitoring for crops, and step-counting to measure physical activity’
Learn English through coding 82% of parents saw improvements in child’s speaking ability
India Timeless Lifeskills 100 workshops in 10 rural schools for grades 6-12 (reached 2k+)
Use of analogies i.e. ‘IF the teacher claps THEN you pull your ears; IF the teacher snaps her fingers THEN you scratch your head… this exercise got tons of laughter and nicely explained the If-Then-Else conditional statement’
20 micro:bits Students introduced to basic programming Radio feature introduced; collaboration transferring icons from one micro:bit to another classmate’s Python workshop - WiFi issues downloading the IDE Workshops ran for 3 hours each
Key takeaways from assessing the tutorials is that most workshops ran for 3 hours, and on average 20 children are taught in a workshop in developing regions.
Organisations used micro:bits in order to aid english language skills, such as in Spain and Mexico. Micro:bits proved non-difficult to use even for teachers who spoke little English, for example in rural China.
Great to see that it works without internet connection, post downloading the editor, as explored in the India case study.
The radio feature aids collaboration, a goal mentioned below, so this is something worth adopting to get the children to work together.
The analogy used in India for ‘IF Statements’ could be adopted to simplify coding as well.
Collaborative Learning: Students will be able to collaborate and communicate together in order to solve problem tasks presented.
Introduction into technology: Students will be able to understand the significance of technology.
Future: Students are able to understand that technological capabilities are limitless, regardless of current climate. Students should feel inspired by case studies of technology in post-conflict regions. Ideally incorporating some inspirational section?
Based on the testimonials and the kindly shared research published from Sentance’s team and the University of Gothenburg, specific risks can be drawn as previously outlined.
Mitigation or Preparation
This project would ultimately need approval by the embassy.
Contacted a friend volunteering in Eritrea for the last 6 months, who has put me in touch with the Ministry of Education. UPDATE: Approved devices.
May be difficult to bring over the micro:bits.
A letter to confirm the approval of devices is needed. UPDATE: Approved.
May slow down the process if students hold no basic english language skills.
As reported previously, the micro:bits have been used in Spain and Mexico to aid english language skills. Teachers in Eritrea will all speak English so can translate accordingly.