Researching Micro:Bit

calendar_today 3 April 2019

Micro:bit is an open source hardware system designed by the BBC.

Micro:bit device
Micro:bit device

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.

An online compilation has to be made to then use the editor offline. A student can edit the code using JavaScript for example or the Scratch blocks, which is a visual-friendly component.

Research

The Micro:bit Educational Program partners with academics and donates samples of the micro:bits to individuals or organisations across the globe.

King's College

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). 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.
  1. Imagination and creativity
  2. Learning and knowledge
  3. Programming and the relationship to physical computing
  4. Cross-curricular implications
  5. 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:

Stakeholders Description Example
Inspirer 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
Provider 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.
Consumer 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:
  1. Teaching unplugged
  2. Programming with the micro:bit
  3. 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
ActivityDescriptionScreenshot from report
AnimationStudents become familiar with the micro:bit by creating different led blocks.
Name BadgeScrolls name (Text string) on led display. 
Name Badge Send text strings via bluetooth (fosters collaboration)
Coin TossIntroduction 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’) 
DiceShake the device to receive a number
Rock, Paper, ScissorsRock paper scissors game - unsure if this is something the kids are familiar with? 
Step CounterBasic step counter. Can edit code to store steps on demand. 
Self composed melodyCan create your own sound through code.
Radio Messages (collaboration)Students can send each other text strings using the bluetooth feature. 

Autonomy

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

Diagram of the scope of autonomy


Diagram of the scope of autonomy by activity


The images above have been dissected into the following with examples which can be considered as progress points for different workshops.

Autonomy Model Example
Customisation Students program the string text ‘hello world’ and are encouraged to customise the text however they want.
Solution Procedure Teacher draws an animation and encourages students to program the micro:bit to show the animation.
Design Teacher does not know outcome of the final design.
Block Selection 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.
Assignment Teachers tell students to create whatever they want.

Pitfalls

A second report from Gothenburg examines the ‘considerations and technical pitfalls’ of computational thinking with micro:bit. Below, are the reported errors and how I will try prepare for them.

ErrorDescriptionRemedy
App-store passwordsStudents worked with iPads and therefore required passwords well in advance.Using Kano devices instead, which will be tested prior.
Internet connectionThe 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 bugsDifficult 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:

Case Studies

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.

Case Study Takeaways
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
10 students (aged 12-18) no prior programming experience
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’
South Africa
110 girls, 10 week courses
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’
Bangladesh
Aim for 175k children by 2020
96% interest in learning codeKano computers (asked for a donation)  Positioned in libraries
Use of Kano devices with micro:Bits.
UPDATE: Secured donation from Kano
Spain
1,800 young people
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’
India Talakondapally
100 students Years 10 and 11
No internet access Presentation: introduction to coding  Demonstrations and presentation = 3 hours
India, Kadapa
13 girls and 3 boys Years 10 and 11
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
Scotland
30 teachers
Teachers learning to use micro:bits to run coding clubs
India Saraswati
Seva Foundation
Micro:bit demonstrations within a technology roadshow
Mexico
15 high school students, 10 primary
12 week workshop on micro:bit Introduces by 5 characters (monsters) which helps the kids with problems Taught English Future plans to host a hackathon using micro:bit
Mexico
15 students
Learning objectives:What is micro:bit and what can they do with it Code editor instructions Anyone can code, at any time!Repeated to 14 other students
Serbia
10 micro:bits
Outcomes: display of LED hearts, Morse alphabet communication etcFuture project to create robots / use micro:bits in healthcare
Coding for Refugees
Greece
Partnership with British Council, Samsung and UNICEF Case study of Sarah who loved it
Australia
Rural rollout / STEM training
Teachers trained in Dubbo and Karabar Rollout to all NSW rural education schoolsSuccess of workshops but funding challenges - solved by team work
Lebanon
11 children
3 hour long code workshop Tested features: LED light, thermometer, accelerometer Children were satisfied and gave ideas of future application
Lebanon
12 children
Social survival association for women/children 3 hour long session All enjoyed
Croatia
30 children
Two interactive workshops Taught basics of programming All enjoyed
Sri Lanka
20 children
Future plans to run more workshops
Canada
30 students
Students enjoyed and also fostered social skillsClassroom setting
China Poor english language but still could use the micro:bit Rural China
Romania
10 classes of 10-12 students
Created images, songs and gamesAll enjoyed

Goals

  1. Collaborative Learning: Students will be able to collaborate and communicate together in order to solve problem tasks presented.
  2. Introduction into technology: Students will be able to understand the significance of technology.
  3. 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?

Risks

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.

RiskDescriptionMitigation or Preparation
Government acceptanceThis 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.
TechnologyMay be difficult to bring over the micro:bits.A letter to confirm the approval of devices is needed.
UPDATE: Approved.
Language barriersMay 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.