Gareth Stockdale, CEO of the micro:bit Educational Foundation, tells Martin Cooper MBCS about the tiny computer’s origins, its ambitions and the DNA it shares with the famous Acorn BBC machines.

‘I remember that my friend up the road had a Commodore 64. I was always jealous, as they seemed to have better games. I had an Acorn Electron,’ says Gareth Stockdale, CEO of the micro:bit Educational Foundation. ‘My parents bought it because they deemed it more educational than the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore,’ he laughs.

For those who have never met the BBC micro:bit before, it’s a half credit card-sized micro-controller, designed to inspire kids into coding, making and hacking - hacking in the original ‘discover and learn’ sense of the word. In essence, it was created with one goal in mind: helping to solve the UK digital skills gap by broadening participation in digital creativity.

‘Our aim,’ Stockdale says simply, ‘is to inspire every child to create their best digital future.’

Small but with big ambitions

Despite measuring just five centimetres by four, the little machine packs a huge amount of technology: a 32bit ARM Cortex M0 CPU, an accelerometer, a thermometer, a compass, Bluetooth connectivity and a grid of 25 programmable LEDs. It also has edge connectors and rings for banana plugs. Stockdale says that the machine is designed to make controlling and interacting with the physical world as simple as possible.

‘There’s a low floor,’ Stockdale says. ‘We wanted people to pick up micro:bit, create some code and have it running on something physical within three minutes.’ Despite this, he says, the machine’s array of features means it can be used for very ambitious projects.

All roads lead to the BBC

The fact that Stockdale owned an Acorn machine in his childhood is fitting. His Acorn Electron was, of course, the BBC Micro’s baby sibling. Starting in the 80s these machines all formed a series of computers and peripherals that were designed and built by Acorn for the BBC Computer Literacy Project. Forward-wind twenty-odd years and, similarly, micro:bit began its life inside the national broadcaster, too.

‘I was the co-project lead within the BBC with Cerys Griffiths,’ Stockdale says, turning the clock to 2014. ‘I worked within BBC Learning, which is the education department... it is responsible for things like Bitesize and content for teachers. It is also involved in tackling big societal issues. That’s where the micro:bit came from; it was very much a reaction to the digital skills gap.

‘The whole reason it exists, is because we wanted to take the maker movement into the classroom,’ he explains. ‘We wanted to move kids away from screens and towards doing something in the real world. We felt that creating something that married the physical [world] and digital, would help to broaden participation [in technology]... it would allow children who weren’t too interested in tech to take those first steps. They can use micro:bit in science, art, in creating wearables, or for following a passion.’

More than just silicon

Beyond hardware, the micro:bit project also encompasses a collection of software editors and tools - all designed to make coding accessible. The main editor is MakeCode (formerly Microsoft PXT Editor). It’s made by Microsoft, a partner in the original project. It can be found by visiting makecode.microbit.org and lets you create code using on screen jigsaw-like elements for logic, loops, input, LED control, IO and radios.

For the more advanced, MakeCode can be switched into a JavaScript mode where you can either hand code, or see the JavaScript that’s been generated by interlinking the graphical objects. There’s also a Python editor - created in conjunction with the Python Software Foundation (another micro:bit partner). The tiny micro-controller also works with MIT’s Scratch 3.0. More adventurous coders are, of course, free to use lower level tools.

Life outside the BBC

‘In 2014, we took a prototype to a few BBC events, places like the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow,’ Stockdale says, recalling the project’s early days. ‘People were queuing round the block to get one, to play on it and to get involved. We thought: “ooh, we might have something here!” So, we put together a partnership with 29 partners - people like ARM, Samsung, Microsoft, Barclays... We developed the micro:bit, launched it in 2015, manufactured a million and gave them out to year seven kids across the UK in 2016.’

Given the desire for the project to continue outside of the BBC and to meet international demand, the decision was made to create the Micro:bit Education Foundation - a stand-alone, not-for-profit organisation that could focus purely on the machine’s founding principles and goals.

‘There are a number of founding partners - BBC, ARM, Nominet and the IET but also Microsoft, University of Lancaster and the British Council. We maintain the hardware and create lots of great resources,’ Stockdale explains. ‘We also donate micro:bits to projects around the world. We have, for example, given micro:bits to over a thousand libraries across the UK so you can borrow them. And we’re working with MIT to support a project with inner-city schools in Chicago: that’s the sort of thing we do.’

‘In all, over four million micro:bits have now been manufactured.’

All of this means the project is truly international. The device itself can be bought in over 60 countries and around 25 have largescale projects. These might involve national broadcasters or NGOs developing and deploying schemes in different geographic areas. The CanCode initiative in Canada funded Kids Code Jeunesse (a not-for-profit) to provide a programme that has rolled out 100,000 micro:bits across Canada, for example.

Friends and allies, not competitors

Despite its global success, micro:bit isn’t the only small scale and cheap computer aimed at inspiring the next generation. Rather, it shares the stage with some illustrious company: Raspberry Pi and Arduino are two names that spring quickly to mind. Stockdale doesn’t, however, see this as a problem and certainly doesn’t view these machines - and others of a similar stripe - as competition. That’s because, he says, they all talk to slightly different markets and audiences.

‘We designed the micro:bit as a gateway. If you imagine a pyramid with fully-fledged coders at the top, our aim was to broaden that pyramid’s base. We wanted to get people to take their first steps... we wanted to create something that complemented Pi.’

Indeed, Stockdale says, the Micro:bit Educational Foundation and the Raspberry Pi Foundation work together.

Summing up the micro:bit project, Stockdale says: ‘Our informal objective, when we started out, was that we’d have a tech CEO saying: “it was the micro:bit what done it! That’s what gave me my start. That’s what made me move forward.” That’s what made the 80s and 90s so empowering and creative; that’s why those machines are so important. There are so many people sitting in start-ups and in tech boardrooms that owe their start in tech to those devices.’

Image credit: Gareth Halfacree

Legacy of the micro computer revolution

Q. What was so special about the 80s and 90s?
‘It felt like we were able to shape the future using technology. Sometimes now, it feels like technology is shaping you. And again, micro:bit was planned to respond to that.

How do we empower children to have a healthier relationship with technology? How can we show that people can influence and control technology rather than the other way around?’

Q. Tell us about your recollections of those days and those machines
‘I started out with BBC Micro. Our teacher, in what must be year three in the [new academic year system], brought a new BBC Micro into the classroom. The first lesson was “hey, this is a computer. You can make it do stuff”. And we did the 10 Print “Hello”, 20 Goto 10. That was our first piece of coding.

But, these computers did nothing when you first turned them on. You had to do something to make things happen. And that something - when we were designing micro:bit - was an important factor. We felt the current generation... the most digitally literate generation ever... they’re miles away from where we were when we were growing up. Today, everything has a nice UX and it’s difficult to see what’s happening. So that’s why we saw micro:bit as a direct descendant of the BBC Micro. We want people to have to make it do stuff. We wanted it to be exposed so you can see what’s happening.

Looking back, my Acorn Electron also came with a very good manual with loads of examples of how to use BASIC and how to make it work. That was important. The process of typing those things in... of getting them wrong... of having to debug as you were going along... that was all really important.

When we got to computers having pre-loaded games, you lost the need to do those things.’