Friday, March 13, 2015

BBC’s Micro Bit: useful gadget or more school junk

When the Year of Code was launched I likened Coding to the new Latin. Originally led by the hapless Lottie Dexter (dumped after her car crash appearance on Newsnight), it has got a little more organised but ever more bizarre. We Brits love coming up with little bits of odd tech, something that looks as though it was designed by someone in a shed. Trouble is, they rarely get out of shed-land into commercial success. So it is with the very odd Micro Bit.
1. Gadgetry is not computing
Emma Mulqueeny’s infamous blog post "7 reasons why the Year of Code is just AMDram" echoed my own views at the time but this turns a reasonable attempt to change the computer studies curriculum into a gadget-led mess. The Year of Code launch was a disaster, a reductionist view of computing skills as ‘easy coding’ and this is just more junk thrown at what is a complex teaching and learning problem. In the end this is of limited value, a piece of use once, see that it's useless, throwaway object. What's more, it has already suffered from a shed-like approach to design, and have had to drop the battery slot. The idea was that all the 'cool' kids would slap a square circuit board (that can display letters and numbers - WOW) on their designer clothes, to impress their friends. I can see a lively lewd series of YouTube videos coming. Interesting that since the last press release, they've dropped all references to GTA - what were they thinking?
2. All supply, no demand
This is a typical - build and they will come strategy. Does anyone in the know anything about supply and demand in the BBC? Let's face it, IT is not the BBCs strong point. They burned £100 million on their last, massive, failed IT project and few around now remember that the BBC Micro failed in the market – I bought one, used one and was there. Remember BBC Jam - £75 million and not a second of content released? As usual, they failed due to a lack of business acumen. At least this time round they admit that it will fail commercially even before the launch – novel.
3. Yet more hardware?
Take a million devices, then launch them in late October on schools and teachers with inadequate preparation and training. Have we learnt nothing about launching gadgetry in education? How many reports do we need that stress teacher training, support and proper planning? What teachers don’t need, is yet another poorly planned, alien-looking gadget, parachuted into schools and classrooms, hard on the heels of the last one, the Raspberry Pi, with no real training. And by the way of 1 million of these is the answer, why didn’t the 3 million Raspberry Pis do the job? It's marketed as being 'complementary' to the Pi but that's a description of convenience.
4. Hokey ‘Micro Bit’ brand
To be clear, ‘Micro’ means small, and ‘Bit’ is a binary digit, a basic unit that can have one of two values. ‘Small bit’ doesn’t make any sense. A bit is a fixed unit of information, and small is what linguists call a ‘gradable antonym’, it scales. In short, it’s grammatically stupid, like saying ‘Small one or zero’. Maybe it refers to its tiny size. Who cares if it’s that size? As soon as you add the big bits to make the damn thing work, like a proper computer, you’ll find that it’s a bit of a big bugger. Of course, someone in some daft meeting of people with no real marketing expertise had in their mind echoes of the last bit of failed hardware the BBC produced – the BBC Micro. Why resurrect a failed brand? It’s all a ‘bit’ Reithian, old-fashioned and nostalgic.
5. Don’t Call Saul
Saul Klein, who the BBC reported as the mastermind behind the scheme, claimed on the BBC website, and I kid you not,  that “90% of the country didn't know how to code, 70% of adults didn't know that coding would be in the curriculum come September, and 100% of teenagers thought it would be vital for their future job prospects.” To be honest I’d be astounded if 10% could code, that would be 6.4 million – no way. The second (70%) stat simply suggests that the curriculum change is already in trouble and the last (100%) is not just a lie, it’s dumb. Let’s suppose that 100% of teenagers did believe this, and that I don’t believe (I’ve now asked a few), it would still be dumb. Knowing how to code is irrelevant to the vast majority of youngsters’ future job prospects. One last thing - if you want reliable stats - Don’t Call Saul.
Put aside the really awkward word ‘coding’ and you find an initiative largely led by people who don’t know what it really means. I’ve run IT companies with lots of ‘coders’ but they were part of a wider team. I also invest in tech companies and have seen the high quality of outsourced programming to India and other places, at a fraction of the cost. Sure we need new skills but seeing computing as just coding is a reductive solution. The real skills shortages in the UK are varied, good project management, good marketing and sales people and so on. Here’s a bet – I won’t hear of the ‘Year of Sales’ in my lifetime.


Hammy said...

Absolutely spot on here. A devastating critique.

Unknown said...

While I have always been a fan of adding technology to a classroom and I remain a fan of the Pi and iPad in an educational context, I see this move by the BBC as ....desperately silly.

Or perhaps worse. First million. Sure. What about next years coders? Or are we blowing the budget on one year? And sod the rest?

Who on earth advised them?

techacad said...

Ouch, a very scathing critique but spot on. I would love this to be a success but I can't see how it is going to work.

dkernohan said...

I'm as leery as you are about "learn to code" initiatives, but you undermine your argument a little here.

It's not going to be called the "MicroBit" - that's a working title as research at the level of reading The Register's coverage (or the BBC's own press kit) would tell you.

And - we get it - you don't like the BBC. Fair enough, some do, some don't. It has little bearing on the success or otherwise of this bit of PCB (& I would agree, the quality of the learning materials will be key - though the BBC does do good learning materials. Which is why publishers threatened legal action and BBC Jam was closed.

Your passage on GTA is fair comment (again) but has nothing to do with this device, which will not be able to run it. I don't like triple-A games either, but this doesn't mean all games are horrible.

There is an argument to be made against instrumentalist "learn to code" initiatives (& I'd love a "year of sales" - or indeed a "year of social responsibility" - too) but this, manifestly, is not it.

Donald Clark said...

It was clearly called the Micro Bit in the published 'BBC' article (bad reporting then) and if it's just a working title, let me reiterate my claim that not having a branded name at this stage is typical of the non-commercial nature of the project. Even as a working title, it's crap nostalgia.
I like the BBC - as a TV company. I just think that they're hopeless on educational content and hardware.
On BBC Jam, it's easy to blame external forces. I know a lot about that project, and people who worked on the project and reviewed all of the content. It was a disaster through awful management by the BBC. The cost overruns were astounding, the content over-engineered and poor.
Again don't put words in my mouth about triple A games. I've worked in the games industry and love Rockstar and GTA. I just think it has no role to play in a product for kids at this age. You undermine your argument by putting words in my mouth.

Donald Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I think it's utterly bizarre they think it's worthwhile investing OUR money in these devices and then EOLing them the same year!

Again, stick to what they know. Work with the Pi guys to create the web series that talks people through great projects with their Pi.

Looks like they just threw our money at the problem and refused to even consider helping to build up a community around this.

Donald Clark said...

That about sums it up. So it was with BBC Jam and a hundred other projects I've known from broadcasters over the last 30 plus years. I have a long list.

dkernohan said...

@Donald - thanks for your response. I re-iterated, the BBC press pack is clear that it is a "nickname".

And I'm still not sure what your comments about GTA have to do with the device.

Perhaps you could link to the article you are critiquing?

Donald Clark said...

This was the main story published by the BBC on their website...

"It will include a new drama based on Grand Theft Auto"

"It is hoped that the Micro Bit"

"One million Micro Bits"

See also
From BBC Micro to Micro Bit mini-computer

I'm not privvy to press packs - I'm a practitioner!

Sean said...

Interesting that you should invoke Clarkson when you are clearly channelling him.

You open with a non-sequitur rant about a the working name of a project(*really*?), followed by a red-herring about a tiny part of the whole project, followed by various straw men plus any other logical fallacies that you could jam into a page.

You talk a lot about education yet your attitude and comments make it pretty clear that you are not, and never have been, a teacher. Like Ken Robinson (who I reckon must be one of your superheroes), you haven't got a clue about education in the real world. Nice soundbites, shame about the evidence.

Shouty, lazy, ill-informed, out of touch and self-satisfied. Like I said: Clarkson.

Donald Clark said...
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Donald Clark said...

Obviously hit a raw nerve here! Involved in the project? And I love the stupidity of using a BBC character as an expression of disgust about my critique of the BBC. Your grasp of 'logic' is a bit thin old boy.
If you are a teacher, and I hope for the sake of the kids you're not, you seem to be incapabe of putting any sort of critical thought together. Covered the branding issue in the previous post. There was nothing on the BBC website that indicated it was a 'working title'. In any case, launching something like this, so late in the day for a September distribution in schools, without a brand, is just plain stupid. Branding is something I do know about - build and invest in businesses. My guess is this is all a bit foreign to you. You also don't see the irony of accusing me of delivering a rant, which is precisely what you did? Not sure that you really understand what a non sequitor is. Never mind, logic's a troublesome business.
I have taught; secondary school, adult and at University level. I'm also famously critical of Ken Robinson and have no time for his vague TED talks, a bit vacuous, like your post. As for the Clarkson bollocks - don't like him either. I don't even drive. Bye Sean.

Anonymous said...

Donald, I'm interested to see if after three years your opinions have changed any?

As an education specialist myself, and no stranger to coding right down to the ones and noughts level (which possibly explains my lack of hair now!) Im sat here with yet a Micro:bit (yes that makes no sense logically or gramatically) that still stubbornly ignores any attempts to flash it via bluetooth and I find myself wondering yet again why the beeb didn't take Ebens offer of the Raspberry Pi instead of trotting out this uninspiring little biscuit of disappointment and confusion.

Dont get me wrong, I love python, I love block based coding as a teaching tool... But I really struggle to enthuse anyone to use the microbit over either a raspberry pi - which lets face it actually does some cool stuff, or even the humble arduino which does a much better job of teaching basic uC coding and robotics... and actually answers its programming interface every time - even the cheap clones of knockoff ones made in a garage in lord knows where!

I know this will not be a popular resurrection of an old post for some, but my reason for revival is simple. Three years have passed. A lot has gone on, and still no one has addressed many of the most fundamental issues that exist with the device both from a teaching and from a hobbyist perspective.

In a couple of weeks I shall be called upon to pen a report into the state of play as far as the Microbit and education goes, and sadly I feel Im going to be quoting you Donald, because not enough has changed.

Donald Clark said...

If anything my views on this have deepened. It was doomed from the start - plagued with problems, poorly marketed and, as you say, up against better product with a proven track record and market presence. The BBC are neither a manufacturing outfit nor do they have any real expertise in education, especially computer science and coding. IT projects are famously shabolic in their own organisation. There was no demand for this device - so it failed. Bottom line is that there's too many dreamers at the BBC with no real skills in design manufacturing and marketing. They should not be in this business. I was right on BBC Jam - a £75 million disaster, and feel that I was right on this one as well. No dobt they'll be wasting money on some other daft scheme soon.