The BBC micro:bit – inspiration for the next generation
Broadening participation in digital technology to bridge the skills gap
Pitch us on your solution
Computational thinking and coding have become critical components of every young person's education. Yet teachers often lack the resources and confidence to teach digital skills, preconceptions continue to deter students (particularly girls) from pursuing STEM subjects, and technical skills often remain the preserve of after-school clubs (where participants self-select and are typically from wealthier backgrounds).
The BBC micro:bit meets these challenges by:
- Giving teachers high-quality, easy-to-use resources to inspire their students
- Making digital technology exciting and relevant to people of all backgrounds and interests
- Placing the micro:bit in the classroom (not restricting opportunities to after-school enthusiasts)
The micro:bit opens young people’s eyes to digital creativity and provides them with critical life skills. In a survey, more than twice as many girls reported that they would be likely to study ICT after using a micro:bit and 90% of students said it had shown them that anyone can code.
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What is the problem you are solving?
The World Economic Forum reported that 65% of children entering primary schools in 2016 would work in jobs that did not exist at the time (Future of Jobs).
Yet teachers are often not equipped to keep pace with technological change – e.g. “The discipline is completely new to me. It’s like a linguist having to teach a different language but with no resources or preparation time.” Head of ICT, UK secondary school (Royal Society report, 2017)
According to Opportunity Nation, unemployment rates for young people in the US are double the national average, costing taxpayers $93 billion annually in lost revenues and increased social services. At the same time, employers are struggling to find the digital skills they require – and when they are available, there is a lack of diverse candidates.
These challenges are being felt globally, affecting billions of young people and employers. The situation will not change unless we update how young people are taught, equipping them with the skills and resourcefulness to be able to adapt to our digital present and future.
Our solution focuses on your first and third aim (increasing opportunity, especially for those traditionally left behind; and supporting underserved people).
Who are you serving?
Our immediate beneficiaries are teachers, who use the micro:bit to inspire their students (ultimate beneficiaries). Since our UK launch, we have sought user feedback to ensure we are meeting teachers’ needs and benefiting from their insights. This has continued globally – for example, through research projects on micro:bit usage in Colombia, Denmark, Uruguay and the Western Balkans, and through academic research (e.g. by Kings College London).
Teachers and students consistently share their excitement with us – for example:
“I really love the micro:bit […] While it was designed for children, it’s sophisticated enough to continue to be used as a tool as more advanced concepts are introduced through to senior secondary and beyond.” Keith Quille, computing lecturer at Technological University Dublin, who developed a coding programme for school students across Ireland and successfully championed micro:bit usage in the Irish curriculum.
“This is a completely new experience – it is the first time I’ve done programming. I had great fun! I really want to be a part of more workshops like this.” Sumaya, a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl
Our solution will meet teachers’ needs by providing high-quality, free educational resources so they can use a micro:bit to inspire the next generation.
What is your solution?
Our solution focuses on the BBC micro:bit, which is currently used in over 60 countries and benefiting around 20 million young people worldwide. Our aim is to reach 100 million by 2025.
The micro:bit is a pocket-sized computer that gives students limitless opportunities to learn and create by applying code and computational thinking. It is specifically designed to be “low floor, no ceiling”. Some of its key features include:
- Simple wireless communication and built-in sensors, making it instantly interactive
- Edge connector which enables a huge ecosystem of accessories and extensions
The micro:bit addresses the highlighted challenges as follows:
- It immerses students in digital creativity across a wide range of subjects before preconceptions take hold. Bringing together computational thinking and creativity, it provides the essential building blocks from which young people can gain vocational skills and enter employment. The micro:bit also promotes critical thinking and resourcefulness which will help students adapt to technological changes in the future.
- Research has underlined that physical computing supports learning by increasing motivation, encouraging collaboration and supporting creativity. This approach has also been shown to break down barriers for girls and underrepresented groups (e.g. Creating Cool Stuff, Sue Sentance, Kings College London, 2017). As a physical device, the micro:bit encourages young people from underrepresented backgrounds to get involved (e.g. girls, minority populations, those from a lower socio-economic status). This in turn increases their opportunities and supports much-needed diversity in tech.
Ultimately the micro:bit gives students the skills to fulfil their potential as employees or entrepreneurs of the future. To achieve this, we must also empower teachers (our immediate beneficiaries) to teach digital skills confidently. We therefore focus on making our free educational resources user-friendly and accessible for busy teachers, especially non-specialists.
There are three activity areas required to achieve our goal of reaching another 80 million students:
- By scaling our geographical presence through strategic partnerships with governments, companies and NGOs
- By continuing to build on and enhance our educational resources – such as our new free online micro:bit classroom tool. Micro:bit classroom supports teachers at all levels of experience, thereby appealing to beginners as well as experts. With additional funding, we will make these resources more accessible to teachers and students globally (for example by translating lesson activities in other languages).
- By continuing to iterate the micro:bit so that the device continues to provide up-to-date skills needed for our digital future.
Select only the most relevant.
Where our solution team is headquartered or located:London, UK
Our solution's stage of development:
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
The technology behind a micro:bit is not innovative in itself. The innovation comes from how it is applied to teach digital skills to young people.
While there are other digital devices for the hobbyist market, there is no other that offers such high-quality technology, supported by such a wide range of highly-tailored educational resources, specifically designed with teachers and students in mind.
There are four important factors:
- It’s designed for young people, so it opens their eyes to digital possibilities before their views become too fixed. This helps counter negative stereotypes which might otherwise deter their engagement.
- It’s a physical device which (as mentioned) encourages participation and breaks down barriers for underrepresented groups, especially girls.
- It’s designed for classroom teaching, so that all young people benefit – not just those enthused or wealthy enough to join an after-school club.
This is an important distinction. We believe that in today’s world, computer literacy is a foundational skill that should be included in every child’s education. An important focus is therefore on supporting educators to teach this relatively new subject effectively. We know many are non-specialists and lack the time to build their knowledge and confidence. We have therefore created a suite of user-friendly resources to help busy teachers deliver the quality education young people deserve.
- It’s been created by an impressive team of partners who have created a low-cost device made of high-quality components. It gives young people the flexibility to apply industry-standard technology to topics that matter to them.
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
The Micro:bit Educational Foundation exists to give all young people equal opportunities to learn from and have fun with tech. The device itself encourages innovation, creativity, collaboration and resilience. These are all core life skills that will support young people to live happy, productive lives.
What we do
- Provide a flexible device that supports young people’s digital learning
- Provide high-quality educational resources that teachers can quickly and easily implement with their students
- Create a community of like-minded people
- Young people are made aware of the creative opportunities presented by digital technology / barriers are broken down / young people report an increased interest in tech
- Teachers feel more supported and confident in teaching tech / teachers report an increase in student motivation
- Enthusiasts learn and share
- More young people (particularly those from underrepresented groups) pursue studies in tech-related subjects
- More young people are qualified to fulfil tech requirements when they enter the world of work
- Employers benefit from more diverse employees
- Enthusiasts contribute to best practice
Following the distribution of 1 million micro:bits to 11-year-old students across the UK, a survey found:
90% of school students said the micro:bit had helped show them that anyone can code.
87% of students said they found computing more interesting.
More than twice as many girls reported that they would be likely to study ICT / computer studies having been taught with the micro:bit.
Almost 70% of the least confident teachers reported that they felt more confident having used the micro:bit.
Select the key characteristics of the population your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
We estimate that micro:bits are currently being used by around 20 million young people worldwide. This is based on the fact that there are approximately 4 million micro:bits in the world and our research indicates that each device is used on average by five children.
Micro:bits are being used in more than 60 countries. This global reach has been achieved in less than four years (the Foundation was set up in September 2016).
In one year’s time, we aim to increase our reach to 26 million young people. This is based on continued growth delivered with our existing resources.
Within five years, we aim to reach 100 million young people. This will require significant scaling of our operations.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Next year we have three core focus areas to enable us to reach 26 million young people:
- Technical development: iterating the micro:bit, so young people benefit from the latest technology;
- Resource development: enhancing the online classroom tool to support teachers in using the micro:bit in class; making syntax-based programming more user-friendly for teachers and students, translating more of our education resources;
- Geographical expansion: increasing our global reach, with a particular focus on piloting micro:bit usage in sub-Saharan Africa
Looking to the next five years, we are ambitious about wanting as many people as possible to benefit from our resources. One goal will be to increase our global reach by expanding into new geographies. Another will be to explore the feasibility of broadening our impact by extending our resources to both older and younger students.
Research will be a key component of our future plans – both in terms of understanding the challenges (e.g. barriers to entry for girls and underrepresented groups) and micro:bit’s impact. The findings of this research, in turn, will enable us to undertake more advocacy, raising awareness of the issues and how micro:bit can be part of the solution to help more young people (and potentially other groups) take their first steps with tech.
As mentioned earlier, within five years we aim to reach a total of 100 million children.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
Financial: To date the majority of our income (75% on average) has come from royalties generated by micro:bit sales. Additional funds have been secured mostly through our existing partners because of a lack of fundraising capacity.
Operational: One of our greatest challenges to-date has been our capacity to respond to partnership requests from around the world. At times this has meant that we have not been able to progress activities in less proactive or more complex country contexts, where negotiations are more resource intensive.
Due to our resource limitations, we have not invested significantly in marketing our products and services. Yet demand outstrips our capacity to respond – begging the question of how much more could be achieved with more awareness and more resources.
Our aim is to deliver long-term systemic change to digital learning. However, a barrier to this is that decision-makers change and it can be difficult to secure long-term commitments, particularly from governments.
While we have significant evidence of short-term impact (e.g. through surveys, research projects and user feedback), we have not yet been operating long enough to systematically evidence our long-term impact – that of engaging more people from underrepresented groups in tech, through their studies and subsequent career choices. Such long-term impact is difficult to measure and, by its very nature, takes time and resources.
Also operationally there are practical considerations for how we can achieve optimal impact and efficiency with a globally distributed team, working across different time zones, contexts and cultures.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
Financial: As of December 2019, the Foundation appointed a Head of Fundraising, tasked with broadening and diversifying our income. This focus will give the organisation the financial security to be able to scale over the coming years. We will also seek more strategic partnerships, through which partners can contribute both financially and non-financially (e.g. donating expertise) to support the development of the micro:bit and its associated resources.
Operational: We will ensure that our core offer is globally transferable and broaden our delivery partnerships so that we can roll out micro:bit usage across more countries. We will continue to work with partners such as Microsoft and the British Council to gain access to key decision-makers and embed micro:bits in education systems globally.
To address more challenging contexts, we aim to create an implementation package, with guidance and best practice on how micro:bit roll-out can be contextualised to local needs. This will be based on our experience across 60+ countries, giving simple step-by-step advice on what we know works.
We will also translate more resources into other languages, making them more accessible to students – again, removing a potential barrier to adoption.
With regard to long-term impact, we would like to work with academics and experts to help us explore this important aspect of our work.
With additional funding and consolidated global partnerships, we will invest in marketing to create more awareness of the micro:bit.
We will use collaboration tools to bring team together to work more closely and efficiently.
If you selected “My solution is already being implemented in one or more of ServiceNow’s primary markets,” please provide an overview of your current activities in those markets.
UK – supporting teacher training and providing educational resources. Our outreach activities focus on donations to schools, the National Centre for Computing Education’s lending scheme, libraries and community groups. In 2019, we held micro:bit Live, a two-day festival of talks, workshops and discussion, near Manchester.
US –partnering with Code.org, CSforAll and the Computer Science Teachers Association to advocate for computer science education. Projects have taken place in Arkansas, Virginia and Texas.
Canada – partnering with Kids Code Jeunesse, Coquitlam SD43, Fair Chance Learning, Let’s Talk Science and Brilliant Labs to deliver in-service teacher training, classroom workshops and support for code clubs across Canada.
France – working with code clubs to provide student access to the micro:bit
Germany – micro:bits are incorporated into Microsoft’s Code Your Life programme which creates curricula support and training for teachers. Microsoft run workshops which include micro:bit activities throughout the year.
Netherlands – professional development for teachers with micro:bit hardware, accessories and in some cases, events, such as the STEAM Cup (national competition).
Australia – working with Code Club nationally. New South Wales is aiming to provide all rural schools with micro:bits for students in Year 7 and 8. We’re partnering with Monash University on a programme that encourages the next generation to be entrepreneurial.
Japan – Partnering with Microsoft & Lenovo on an initiative with the Ministry of Education to include laptops, wifi infrastructure, teacher training and support, including micro:bit hardware. The Ministry of Education have released a curriculum guide which references micro:bit.
If you selected “I am planning to expand my solution to one or more of ServiceNow’s primary markets,” please provide an overview of your expansion plans. What is the market opportunity for your business or product here?
We will continue to work with partners in-country to deliver teacher training, events and workshops where possible, thereby scaling our impact.
Select an option below:
If you selected Other for the organization question, please explain here.
How many people work on your solution team?
The Foundation currently has 26 people actively and regularly contributing to its mission – as follows:
- Staff: nine full time and one part time
- Secondees: four full time (from the BBC, Arm x 2 and Classroom)
- Contractors: four full time and five part time
- Volunteer: one full time
- Intern: one full time
In addition to this core team, the Foundation also works in partnership with others (e.g. Arm, Lancaster University) to deliver solutions in support of its mission. In total around 50 people may contribute in any given year.
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
The project was started by the BBC in 2014; the Foundation was established in September 2016 and has been responsible for scaling micro:bits globally.
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
The Foundation has a unique set of skills that marries education and tech. We have created a solution that has redefined the use of physical computing and now has a huge ecosystem with micro:bit at its heart.
The micro:bit was originally conceived as part of the BBC’s Make It Digital initiative, launched in 2014. 29 partners came on board, each contributing resources and expertise.
We are very fortunate to benefit from continued support (skills and resources) from world-leading experts, including Arm, BBC, Microsoft, University of Lancaster and the British Council. These partnerships strengthen our product offering and support our global growth.
This collaborative spirit is further reinforced by our active engagement with the open source community. We share our tech and resources openly, and in turn benefit from the insights and enthusiasm of others working in this space.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
The Foundation was set up by the following Founding Partners who continue to be involved:
- BBC – contribute expertise on developing learning materials; one staff member has been seconded as Chief Executive for the Foundation; a representative sits on the board
- Arm – two people have been seconded to the Foundation; a representative sits on the board; Arm employees collaborate on micro:bit hardware and software development; Arm has funded our do your :bit global challenge (competition)
- Nominet – funding to help us develop educational and other digital resources; a representative sits on the board
- Institution of Engineering and Technology - a representative sits on the board
- Microsoft – collaborates on hardware/software, as well as on regional and national projects
- Lancaster University – supports our software development
- British Council – helps with programme delivery across multiple countries
We also have many long-standing partnerships, which include:
- Code.org on curriculum alignment
- MIT Media Lab / Scratch Foundation on integrating micro:bit into the Scratch programming tool
- Facebook on a coding initiative in North America
- Plan Ceibal (NGO) implementing micro:bit across all public schools in Uruguay
In addition to the above we also work with hundreds of other partners globally, including governments, NGOs and businesses.
What is your business model?
The micro:bit has been developed for classroom use. It is therefore critical that it is affordable for schools’ limited budgets.
The Foundation does not sell micro:bits itself. The hardware is licensed to a manufacturer and distributor. A key part of this agreement is therefore that micro:bits must retail at an affordable price so they are accessible to as many people as possible (less than USD $15 in the US).
The Foundation receives a royalty from those sales, which covers our costs to maintain the tech solution, develop free resources and support the community. Any surplus funds are used to donate micro:bits to programmes that broaden participation in underrepresented groups.
We continue to develop our resources in a highly cost-effective way. This is, in part, achieved through partnering with leading organisations who support our mission. For example, collaboration supports how we develop our products and services (e.g. Arm’s technical expertise), how we reach key audiences (e.g. through the British Council’s networks) and how we demonstrate impact (e.g. drawing on Lancaster University’s research capabilities).
With additional funding, we would like to enhance our product offering and increase our capacity to share best practice and advocate for the importance of digital learning for young people.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
On average, around 75% of the Foundation’s annual income is generated through the licence fee. This income gives us sustainable funds to underpin the Foundation’s core work. As we scale our activities, the income generated from the licence will grow commensurately.
Additional funds to support further product development, scale our offer and to deliver specific projects are sought through donations and sponsorship (e.g. Arm sponsored our do your :bit challenge and helped promote it).
In order to meet our ambitious goal of reaching 100 million young people by 2025, we need to increase our fundraising activity and attract more strategic partners who can support such growth.
Why are you applying to the Digital Workforce Challenge?
The Challenge appeals to us because it is a combination of both funding (which would enable us to accelerate our scale-up) and collaboration (which can strengthen our operations) on a global scale. As mentioned earlier, we actively seek like-minded partners who can help us deliver our mission. Leading organisations like MIT and ServiceNow have highly relevant skills that can contribute to this goal.
With regard to ServiceNow, we believe the company’s expertise in streamlining work processes could be highly advantageous to our globally distributed team (a barrier highlighted earlier). This would also be very relevant to our work processes for the delivery of hardware and software. We are also keen to improve how we manage customer services, so that we understand the needs of our different audiences and can meet them more effectively in future, particularly as we scale.
The media support offered through this Challenge would be invaluable to our work. We currently only have very limited capacity for media relations, including social media. With additional support, we will be able to raise more awareness of our offering and enable more young people to benefit.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
High-level partnerships with the likes of UNESCO or the World Bank would open up a huge number of opportunities for us operationally. For example, we are aware that UNESCO has already undertaken research into the ethics of artificial intelligence in relation to gender, which would be highly relevant to our work. The World Bank’s focus on providing technical assistance and policy development within low- and middle-income countries aligns very well with our focus on building the capacity of the education systems in such countries.