Friday, June 21, 2019

making sense of the micro:bit

For me, the immediate attraction of the micro:bit was it’s low cost combined with it’s block coding and wicked on line simulator at

This has led to a personal learning curve about it’s capabilities and it’s connections.

By its capabilites I mean what this technology offers for educators and what it leaves out and so requires further, thoughtful expenditure.

By its connections I mean what forces are pushing and promoting the micro:bit (very relevant to its current and future success) and how does it integrate into the broader movement of what we tend to think of, either with one eyed hyped enthusiasm, “STEM conquers the world”, or ironically, “unstoppable technological progress”.

How and where does the micro:bit fit into the bewildering array of new technologies and companies ushered in by the maker movement? To list just some of the technologies: Makey Makey, Arduino, Little Bits, Ozobot, Micro:bit, Chibi Chip, Circuit Playground Express, Lilypad, Bee-Bot, Dash and Dot, Sphero, Edison, Drones – add or choose your favourite.

With such a wide choice what is needed is some meaningful evaluation. CSER Digital Technologies has made a beginning to this task, although more needs to be done.

I’ll adopt the Martinez / Stager overview that two out of three “game changers” are wrapped up in the micro:bit, namely coding and physical computing.

By physical computing I mean tangible devices which take computing beyond the confines of the screen.

With blocks, coding has become easier and accessible to the 99%. This began with Scratch and now everyone has jumped on board. Makecode has been developed by MicroSoft.

Arduino has been around for a while but a huge issue which always put me off was that it required coding in C. This presents a big barrier to inclusion for all.

Micro:bit coding with MakeCode is far simpler with blocks (and JavaScript and MicroPython are also available). The micro:bit is also a new species of microcontroller in that it has buttons, sensors and display built right into the board.

The micro:bit does require a bigger computer to code it. But once coded and untethered we step outside of the computer lab into the world of mobile and wearable computers.

By way of illustration, some of the interesting things you can do with the micro:bit include:
  • make a game of rock, paper, scissors and strap it to your wrist to play
  • use the on board accelerometer to make a simplified version of Pacman (Hero), the character moves by tilting the microbit
  • use the radio to send messages between microbits
Scratch3.0, which was released in January 2019, includes a microbit extension which enable two way interactivity between Scratch and the microbit. For examples, you can write code about whether students prefer cats and dogs by pressing the A or B button on the microbit. This can be adapted to voting on anything. Pass the laptop around the room and as the votes appear on the screen a cat or dog icon is stamped as well. This requires Scratch Link and bluetooth 4.

Initially, the microbit requires tethering through the USB cable, you write your Makecode, test it on the simulator, flash it over to the micro:bit and then untether, connect your battery and take it outside, if you want.

With the further development, however, of Microblocks, you can have live coding before the untethering. MicroBlocks runs right inside the microcontroller board so as you write your code you see the effects immediately on the microbit.

The microbit is inexpensive hardware so inevitably it does have some limitations. Since kids love sounds one important limitation is no onboard speaker. But it does have 25 edge connector pins and four ring connectors which enables speakers, motors, light and more sensors to be connected.

Of course, this leads to more expense and decisions have to be made about the best way to go. I bought both the Kitronik Inventor’s Kit and the Monk Makes Electronics Starter Kit for microbit. They were both good but I’d put in a special mention for the Monk Makes speaker.

For more ambitious projects with a STEAM philosophy (A for Art) Martinez and Stager recommend the Hummingbird Bit developed by Tom Lauwers of Birdbrain technologies. This is more expensive, especially with our current exchange rate, and I’ve yet to trial it fully but it’s looking good to me so far.

I think there has to be a pragmatic yet deep educational programme underwriting the technology. For me, this is provided by the Creative Computing Curriculum Guide developed by the Creative Computing Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

So rich has this new era become that it threatens us with metaphorical overload. The original metaphor from Seymour Papert was low floor, high ceiling (easy start, no limits). Then Mitch Resnik included wide walls (diversity in projects). Then with the remix features on the Scratch site, Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke added on open windows (for collaboration). Then with the micro:bit microcontroller we can move outside the house, wear it and play.


Creative Computing Curriculum Guide

CSER Digital Technologies Lending Library and Lesson Plans

Maloney, John. Microblocks:Live Programming For Microcontrollers

Martinez, Sylvia and Stager, Gary. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (2nd Edition, 2019)

Gary Stager's Cards for Scratch and the microbit

Hummingbird Bit

Kafai, Yasmin and Burke, Quinn. Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming (2016)

Kitronik Inventor's Kit for BBC micro:bit

Makecode micro:bit editor



Monk Makes Electronic Starter Kit for micro:bit


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