BBC is giving away 1 million mini computers so kids can learn to code: Prediction — little impact on broadening participation

April 17, 2015 at 8:32 am 16 comments

I agree that these boards are cool, but I’m a geeky white guy.  I predict that they’ll have little impact in increasing access to computing education or in diversifying computing. Bare board computers are not more attractive to teachers, so we don’t get more teachers going into CS. They’re not more attractive than existing computers to women who aren’t already interested in computing. Why are people so excited about handing out bare board computers to grade school children?  Is this just white males emphasizing the attributes that attract them?  Judith Bishop of MSR (whose TouchDevelop will work on these new computers) says that she’s seen girls get engaged by these new computers, but nobody has done any research to see if that’s more than the 20% of females who get interested in computing now, or if that happens outside of the pilot classrooms.

Currently in development, the Micro Bit is a small piece of programmable, wearable hardware that helps kids learn basic coding and programming. It could act as a springboard for more advanced coding on products, such as the single-board computer Raspberry Pi, according to the BBC.

Children will be able to plug the device into a computer, and start creating with it immediately.

“BBC Make it Digital could help digital creativity become as familiar and fundamental as writing, and I’m truly excited by what Britain, and future great Britons, can achieve,” BBC director general Tony Hall said in a statement Thursday.

via BBC is giving away 1 million mini computers so kids can learn to code.

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  April 17, 2015 at 10:17 am

    But they are doing something and making a big splash and perhaps that is all they are interested in doing. So many of these efforts are based on good intentions and a hope that “here a miracle occurs.” They also want to bring attention to themselves and a problem. Probably in that order too! How will they judge success? I suspect that you and I would judge the success of the effort differently from the BBC.

  • 2. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  April 17, 2015 at 11:28 am

    “Is this just white males emphasizing the attributes that attract them?” Consciously, no. Unconsciously, yes. This is the danger of technical people–many who have no respect for social science or psychology–doing outreach. They get the message that we need to do outreach and bring computing to kids, so they come up with cool ideas that they think would appeal to “kids.” And by “kids,” I mean their idealized miniature versions of their adult selves.

  • 3. joshg  |  April 17, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    My favorite part:

    “Children will be able to plug the device into a computer, and start creating with it immediately.”

    Assuming they have access to a compatible computer. Which they could also have been programming on.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  April 17, 2015 at 5:35 pm

      Deepak Kumar’s wonderful tweet:

      • 5. chaikens  |  April 28, 2015 at 9:49 am

        Popular computers and computing appliances, despite their attractive and wonderful capabilities, hide their inner nature. The advantage of exposing kids to bare bones computers and their programming is that the kids get a start at an accurate understanding of how these miraculous things work, with electric signals and code that controls them. They learn that they themselves can design and observe their own creations in this context.

        • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  April 28, 2015 at 10:57 am

          I have several questions about the claims in your response.

          • “Exposing” someone to something doesn’t lead to learning. Learning occurs from engagement. Will students engage with barebones computers if what they’re interested in is popular computers and computing appliances?
          • Does working with a bareboard computer lead to an accurate understanding of how they work? The empirical results on Maker spaces suggest that building circuits does not lead to a better understanding of electricity and circuits. So there’s voltage on that visible lead. You can’t see the voltage. Use a voltmeter — now you know that it’s “5.” What does “5” mean?

            The evidence is that the relationship is more the other way around. If you learn about circuits, you can be more successful making things in Maker spaces. But if you don’t learn about circuits, you’re going to have lots of headaches with short circuits when you try to make, say, e-textiles. Learning how electricity works is hard for kids (see Slotta & Chi, 2006). A bareboard computer doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

          • If a kid sees a bareboard computer, does she say, “Oh, I can make one of those!”? Any more than seeing a cellphone suggests to a kid, “Oh, I can make one of those!”? The bare chips and circuit leads don’t lend themselves to being student-manufacturable any more than the plastic cases of computing appliances.
  • 7. lizaloop  |  April 17, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    Whoever is doing the publicity on this seems to be terminology challenged. Didn’t the ‘mini computer’ go the way of DEC and Data General?

    I don’t see the problem as appealing only to white male nerds. There are self-motivated learners of every skin color and socio-economic group. They are, however, scarce in every group. We learned in the ’70s that providing hardware alone does not popularize computing. We also need software, role models, teachers (who may actually be the kids’ contemporaries) and goals or targets for those who can’t generate their own.

    We need to think deeply about why we want coding know-how to be widespread. Future employment is not the only benefit, especially since very few of us are likely to achieve professional level coding skill. IMHO, understanding the GIGO principle, being inoculated against tyranny by those who control society’s computer infrastructure and being sufficiently informed to vote responsibly on policy issues are the desired outcomes of a minimal education in programming. Giving away boat-loads of programmable widgets isn’t going to hit this mark.

    • 8. James K.  |  April 21, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      I agree that much more is needed than using microcontrollers or single board computers to promote computer science, and some of those other factors could be addressed before spending money on something like this.

      However, I think there is value in demonstrating other contexts that computing plays a role in to attract a diverse audience. The above comments about the redundant nature of using a computer attached to a computer to teach programming are not recognizing the difference to a student in creating a program that uses input/output associated with personal computers (keyboards/monitors), and those with embedded or physical computing, with a wide range of sensors and actuators that can be used for different types of problems but still rely on computing.

      I am one of those who does outreach with a background in computer science and education. I am white, middle aged, and am interested in Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and the like, so I’m checking all the boxes. Maybe I am projecting my interests onto students, but I would not want to work with teachers that were dispassionate about what they teach.

      Anecdotally, we recently reached 4000 middle school students with a program on how to use the Arduino to create interactive art. I wish I could bottle up the moment when they first have an LED to light up by programming the board to do so. My take was that this was a more powerful experience than having a sprite appear on a screen due to the physicality of it.

      Now we need evidence to support or refute the use of embedded devices, which I hope to work on. Any of the research on robotics, e-textiles, etc. going back to Papert and Lego/LOGO provide a foundation. We interact with computing in so many other ways than sitting in front of a computer or staring at a cell phone. I hope we can demonstrate this richness to students.

      • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2015 at 10:33 am

        James and Liza, I see the value of bareboard computers for attracting students and for creating passion in teachers. I’m focused on different problems, and bareboard computers don’t help with those.

        The two biggest problems in computing education today are:

        (1) Attracting diverse students into computer science. We have LOTS of CS students now. CS is the largest major at Stanford. GT has tripled its CS undergraduate enrollment in the last five years. But (as Barbara pointed out), they are mostly white and Asian males. The rising tide is not lifting all boats.

        (2) Attracting more teachers into computer science. It’s a related problem to the first point. Kids who go into CS undergrad often get access to CS before undergrad. There are very few CS teachers, and those that exist, mostly teach in rich, majority-white schools and districts.

        We do know ways of fixing both of these problems. Harvey Mudd has done a lot to increase their percentage of women, and those techniques are being adopted elsewhere. Georgia has increased the number of high school CS teachers in the state. There are tested and successful solutions to these problems. Bareboard computers aren’t part of any of those solutions.

        BBC is a media company, right? I’d far prefer them spending the money that they’re spending on these computers on television and radio shows that seek to change attitudes about computing, to tell stories about computing that engage students and teachers, and to offer shows that teach CS teachers how to be better teachers, especially with respect to attracting more diverse students. This isn’t rocket science. Why not have BBC do what they’re best at, what we most need — rather than spend lots of money on computers that are unlikely to change the status quo?

        • 10. lizaloop  |  April 22, 2015 at 12:48 pm

          I understand your point of view, Mark, and I think you are right about BBC’s use of their money. Your crusade is important, as is mine for computer literacy among non-cs students. We both need to keep moving forward to sustain a world with both well-educated technical contributors and savvy citizens.

        • 11. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 22, 2015 at 2:40 pm

          I agree with you about what BBC should be doing. I’m not sure I agree that the Harvey Mudd model is universally applicable—most public colleges can’t have enormously different acceptance rates for male and female applicants in CS and other mathematical fields, in order to achieve gender balance. Harvey Mudd does do a better job of retaining female students in CS, but the differential acceptance rate is key to getting there, and those of us in public schools can’t legally do that.

          • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  April 24, 2015 at 10:56 pm

            From Christine Alvarado’s analyses of the factors influencing women going into CS at Harvey Mudd, a differential acceptance rate wasn’t a significant factor: Since students aren’t accepted into CS at Harvey Mudd, I don’t see how they could have increased their percentage of women in CS through acceptance rates. What leads you to think that the acceptance rates were significant?

            You might be right, but there are some other universities (including public) that are going to try to replicate Harvey Mudd’s process:

            Ms. Klawe, 63, is not content with gains at her own institution, however. Late last year, she announced a program, financed by companies including Google and Facebook, to export and adapt the changes made at Harvey Mudd to 15 other universities. Many of them, such as Arizona State University and the University of Maryland at College Park, are public and much bigger than her science-focused college of 800 students.

            • 13. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 25, 2015 at 1:45 am

              What makes me think acceptance rates were significant is that Harvey Mudd has equal numbers of male and female admittees into their engineering programs, despite approx 5:1 differences in the number of applicants.

  • 14. lizaloop  |  April 22, 2015 at 3:08 am

    Don’t get me wrong. I think any access to computing is worth providing. I worry that Arduinos are a little harder to use than Lego/LOGO but I haven’t tried them so perhaps my worry is unfounded.

    And if a million micorcontrollers only succeed in turning on a thousand kids, well, that’s still progress.

    The backlash to be feared is the possibility that some influential educators or politicians may conclude that the campaign didn’t work or wasn’t cost effective if only 5% or 10% of the kids get engaged instead of 50% or more. To get high levels of participation a lot more than ‘gizmos’ will have to be provided. As I said before, we’ll need “software, role models, teachers (who may actually be the kids’ contemporaries) and goals or targets for those who can’t generate their own.”

  • […] 50 organizaciones, como Microsoft, Samsung, Google y Code Club entre otros. El propósito de la BBC es incluir para que todos los niños británicos tengan acceso a su notebook. En este sentido, se funda en un plan de la década de los 80 denominado BBC Micro, que supuso en […]

  • […] 50 organizaciones, como Microsoft, Samsung, Google y Code Club entre otros. El propósito de la BBC es incluir para que todos los niños británicos tengan acceso a su notebook. En este sentido, se funda en un plan de la década de los 80 denominado BBC Micro, que supuso en […]


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