Hello Microbit

March 28, 2015 at 07:38 PM | categories: C, microbit, arduino, BBC R&D, blockly, work, BBC, C++, microcontrollers, python, full stack., full stack.D, webdevelopment, mbed, kidscoding | View Comments

So, a fluffy tech-lite blog on this. I've written a more comprehensive one, but I have to save that for another time. Anyway, I can't let this go without posting something on my personal blog. For me, I'll be relatively brief. (Much of this a copy and paste from the official BBC pages, the rest however is personal opinion etc)

Please note though, this is my personal blog. It doesn't represent BBC opinion or anyone else's opinion.

Just over 2 weeks ago, the BBC announced a small device currently nicknamed the BBC Micro Bit. At the launch event, they demonstrated a prototype device:

microbug launch tony hall microbug

The official description of it is this:

BBC launches flagship UK-wide initiative to inspire a new generation with digital technology

The Micro Bit

A major BBC project, developed in pioneering partnership with over 25
organisations, will give a personal coding device free to every child in year 7 across the country - 1 million devices in total.
Still in development and nicknamed the Micro Bit,* it aims to give children an exciting and engaging introduction to coding, help them realise their early potential and, ultimately, put a new generation back in control of technology. It will be distributed nationwide from autumn 2015.

... The Micro Bit will be a small, wearable device with an LED display that children can programme in a number of ways. It will be a standalone,
entry-level coding device that allows children to pick it up, plug it into a computer and start creating with it immediately.
the Micro Bit can even connect and communicate with these other devices, including Arduino, Galileo, Kano and Raspberry Pi, as well as other Micro Bits. This helps a child’s natural learning progression and gives them
even more ways of expressing their creativity.
Early feedback from teachers has shown that it encourages independent learning, gives pupils a strong sense of achievement, and can inspire those who are not usually interested in computers to be creative with it.

For me, the key points about the prototype:

  • Targetted at children, and their support networks (teachers, parents etc). This is reflected throughout the system. It doesn't underestimate them though. (I work with cubs and scouts in my spare time, and I know they're much willing to try than adults - which means they can often achive more IMO. Especially at scout age)
  • Small programmable fun device, instant feedback, with lots of expansion capability with a gentle gradual curve.
  • Web based interfaces for coding, as well as offline interfaces
  • Graphical, python or C++ code running on the device
  • Designed to work well with other things and hook into larger eco-systems where there's lots of users.

(That's all public information, but for me those are really the key points)

Aside from the obvious -- why did the announcement excite me? Simple: While it wasn't my vision - it was Howard Baker's and Jo Claessen's, I implemented that Microbit prototype and system from scratch. While an earlier iteration had been built and used at events, I was asked to build a prototype we could test in schools and to take to partners to take to scale. (I couldn't work from that earlier iteration, but rather worked from the source - Howard and Jo. It was a harder route, but rewarding)

For those who recognise a similarity between this and Dresscode which I blogged about last summer, the similarities you see are co-incidental. (I was clearly on the same wavelength :-) ) While Microbit was in a early stage pre-prototype phase there, I hadn't seen it.

My thinking behind Dresscode though, was part of the reason I jumped at the chance to help out. It also mean though that some aspects I had a head start on though, and in particular, the IOToy and Guild toolsets I developed previously as part of some IOT work in R&D came in handy in building the prototype.(That and the fact I've used the arduino toolset a fair amount before)

Anyway, as I say, while I can't say much about the project, but it was probably the most intense development project I've worked on. Designing & building the hardware from scratch, through to small scale production manufacture in 3 months, concurrent with building the entire software stack to go with it - compilation toolchains, UIs and so on, AND concurrent with that was the development of detailed documentation and specs for partners to build upon. Intense.

In the last month of core development I was joined by 2 colleagues in R&D (Matt Brooks and Paul Golds) who took my spike implementations of web subsystems and fleshed them out and made them work the way Howard and Jo wanted, and the prototype hardware sanity checked and tweaked slightly by Lawrence Archard. There was still a month of development after that, so it was probably the most intense 4 months of development I've ever done. Well worth it though.

(Regarding names, project names change a lot. While I was building our device in even that short 3 months, it got renamed several times, and since! Don't read too much into names :-) Also, while it does fit anywhere else, it was Fiona Iglesias who was the project manager at the time who asked me if I could do this, and showed a great leap of faith and trust when I said "yes" :-) Balancing the agile process I needed to use against the BBC being very process driven (by necessity) was a thankless task!

Finally some closing things. On the day of the launch I posted a couple of photos in my twitter feed, which I'll repeat here.

The first was my way of going "yay". Note the smiley bit :-)

The second related to an earlier iteration:

Anyway, exciting times.

What happens next? Dunno - I'm not one of the 25 partners :-)

The prototype is very careful about what technologies it uses under the hood, but then that's because I've got a long history of talking and writing about about why the BBC uses, improves and originates open source. I've not done so recently because I think that argument was won some time ago. The other reason is because actually leaving the door open to release as open source is part of my job spec.

What comes next depends on partners and BBC vagaries. Teach a child to code though, and they won't ever be constrained by a particular product's license, because they can build their own.

Anyway, the design does allow them to change the implementation to suit practicalities. I think Howard and Jo's vision however is in safe hands.

Once again, for anyone who missed it at the top though, this is a personal blog, from a personal viewpoint, and does not in anyway reflect BBC opinion (unless coincidentally :).

I just had to write something to go "Yay!" :-)

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Connected Studio - Coding For Teens, Building the Dresscode

July 23, 2014 at 03:13 AM | categories: wearables, arduino, programming, iot, BBC, kidscoding | View Comments

At a connected studio Build Studio last week, I along with 2 others in Team Dresscode prototyped tools for an proposition based around wearable tech. We worked through the issues of building a programmable garment, a programmable accessory, and a web app designed for teaching the basic of programming garments and accessories in a portable fashion.

We achieved most of what we set out to achieve, and the garment (as basic as it was) and accessory (again very basic) had a certain "I want one" effect of a number of people, with the web app lowering the barrier to producing behaviours. It was a very hectic couple of days, but as a result of the two days it's now MUCH clear as to how to make this attractive to real teenagers, rather than theoretical ones - which is a bonus.

Probably the most worthwhile thing I've done at work at the BBC in fact and definitely this year - beyond sending a recommendation to people in strategy last summer regarding coding.

The rest of this post covers the background, what we built, why we built it and an overview of how.

NOTE Just because I work in BBC R&D does NOT mean this idea is something the BBC will work on or take on. It does NOT mean that the BBC approves or disapproves of this idea. It just means that I work there, and this was an idea that's been pitched. Obviously I believe in the idea and would like it to go through, but I don't get to decide what I do at work, so we'll see what happens.

The only way I can guarantee it will go through is if I do it myself - so it's well worth noting that this work isn't endorsed by the BBC - I "just" work there

Connected What?

So, connected studio - what is that then?

Connected Studio is a new approach to delivering innovation across BBC Future Media. We're looking for digital agencies, technology start-ups and individual designers and developers (including BBC staff) who want to submit and develop ideas for innovative features and formats.

Note that this process is open to both BBC staff and external. It's a funded programme that seeks to find good ideas worth developing, and providing seed funding to test the ideas and potentially take forward to service. People can arrive in teams or form teams at the studio.

Connected Why?

And what was the focus for this connected studio?

  • Inspiring young people to realise their creative potential through technology
  • We want to inspire Britain's next generation of storytellers, problem solvers and entrepreneurs to get involved with technology and unlock the enormous creative potential it offers
  • The challenge in this brief is to create an appealing digital experience with a coding component for teenagers aged 13-16
  • Your challenge is to make sure we inspire not just teenagers in general, but teenage girls aged 13-16 in particular ** Ideally, we're looking for ideas that appeal to both boys and girls, however, we're particularly keen to see ideas that appeal to girls.

The early stages involve a idea development day - called a Creative Studio. At this stage people either arrive with a team and some ideas and work them up in more detail on the day, or arrive with an idea they have the core of and are looking for people to help them work up the idea, or people simply interested in finding an idea they think is worth working on.

That results in a number of pitches for potential services/events/etc the BBC could take forward. Out of these a number are taken forward to a Build Studio.

What happened on the way to the Build Studio?

So, that's the background. I signed up for the studio because I was interested in joining a team and interested in working with people outside our department - with a grounding either in BBC editorial and/or an external agency's viewpoint. I also had the core of an idea with me - which I'll explain first.

A meeting the previous week an attendee asked the question "If the stereotype of boys is that they're interested in sports, what's the stereotype for girls?". The answer raised by another person there was "fashion". Now, if you're a lady reading this who says "don't be so sexist, I'm not interested in fashion", please bear in mind I don't like sports - things like the commonwealth games, olympics, world cup, etc all leave me cold. Also please bear in mind the person asking the question was a lady herself, and the answer came from another lady at the meeting.

Anyway, true or false, that idea mulled with me over the weekend - with me wondering "what's the biggest possible draw I can think of regarding fashion?". Now the closest I get to fashion is watching Zoolander, so I'm hardly a world authority. Even I know about London Fashion week.

So, the idea I took with me to the creative studio was essentially wearable tech at london fashion week. I'd fleshed out the idea in my head more like this:

  • The BBC hosts an event at London Fashion week regarding wearable tech - with the theme of costumes for TV - which widens it beyond traditional fashion to props and so on. So you can have the light up suits and dresses but also props like wristbands, shoes, animatronic parrots, and so on. (Steampunk pirate?)

  • Anyone and everyone can attend, BUT the catch is they must have created a piece of wearable tech to take to the event - if they do however, they can take their friends with them, and one of them - either themselves or their friends can wear it down the catwalk.

To support this, you could have a handful of TV programmes and trails leading up to this, a web app for designing and simulating garments/etc of your choice, tutorials for how to build garments, and in particular allow transferable skills between the web app to creating programmable garments. So the TV drives you to the web, which drives you to building something, which drives you to an event, which drives you onto TV.

Now at the creative studio, there's essentially a "I've got this kind of idea" wall first thing in the morning - where if you've got an idea you can stand in front of those interested in joining a team and describe the idea- and then say what sort of skills/etc that you're after.

In my case I described the above idea, and said that I was primarily looking for people with an editorial or business oriented perspective. After all, while the above sounds good to me, I was never a teenage girl, and lets face it I was in the geeky non-cool demographic when I was a teenage boy :-) First person who joined me was Emily who has worked on various events at the BBC, primarily in non-techie areas including Radio 1's Big Weekend, Ben from a digital Agency and Tom from Nesta - a great mix of people. Thus formed Team Mix.

Team Mix's refined idea

We worked the idea through the day - with every element up for grabs and reshaping. The idea of being limited to London Fashion week was changed to be the wider set of possibilities - after all the BBC does lots of events from real physical ones like Radio 1 Big Weekend, through glastonbury, the proms, Bang goes the theory, through to event TV including things like The Voice.

After a session with a member of the target audience, we realised that while the idea was neat, for a teenager asking them to build something for a catwalk is actually asking an awful lot. Yes, while showing off, and finding your own identity is a big thing, not losing face, and not doing something to lower your status is a real risk. "I couldn't make that". As a result, we realised that this could be sidestepped by whatever the event was being changed to "this is a collection of your favourite stars wearing these programmable outfits and you get to decide what and how those clothes behave". However, on the upside this made the web element much clearer and better connected.

It left the accessories part slightly less connected, but still the obvious starting point for building wearable tech. This left the idea therefore as a 3 component piece:

  • Celebs with outfits that are programmable - a trend that seems to be happening anyway, and these would be worn at some interesting/cool event - to be decided in conjunction with a group running interesting/cool events :-)

  • A website for creating behvaiours via simple programming - allowing people to store and share their behaviours - the idea being that they control the outfits the celebs will wear.

  • Tutorials for building wearable tech accessories - which are designed to be programmed using the same behaviours as the celeb outfits - making the skills transferable.

So the idea was pitched at the creative studio - and ours got through to the Build Studio stage.

Taking wearable tech to the Build Studio

Out of the 20-30 ideas pitched, it was one of 9 to get through to the build studio. However, another team had ideas related primarily to Digital Wrist Bands, and our team - Team Mix - was asked to join with theirs - Team DWB - resulting the really non-sexy name Team Mix/DWB. That mean 8 teams at the studio. One of the teams didn't show, meaning 7 builds.

It transpired that out of the two teams, only myself and Emily could make it to the build studio - so we chatted to Ben and Tom about what they'd like to see achieved, and also to those on Team DWB. The core of their idea was complementary to our accessories idea so we decided to focus that part of our build on wristbands.

So, what was our ambition for the Build Studio? The ambition was pretty much to do a proof of concept across the board, and to describe the audience benefits in clearer, concrete terms. Again, there was the opportunity to bounce the ideas off a couple of teenagers.

We had help from the connected studio team in seeking assistance from other parts of FM, and after a call across all of BBC R&D, various groups in FM across the north and south we had a volunteer called Tom who was a work placement trainee.

I also ran our aspiration for the build studio via Paul Golds at work, and asked him if he wanted to be involved, and in particular what would be useful, and while he couldn't make it to the Build Studio, he did provide us we simple controllable web object.

What we built at the Build Studio

So the 3 of us set out to build the following over the 2 days of the build studio:

  • A wearable tech garment, which mirrors a web app, and in particular has a collection of programmable lights.

  • A web app for allowing a user to enter a simple program to control a representation of a web garment, with increasing levels of complexity. The app demonstrated implicit repetition, as well as sequence and selection.

  • A bracelet made of thermoplastic with programmable behaviours controlling lights on the device, perhaps incuding feedback/control using an LDR.

And that's precisely what we built.

The wearable garment was built as follows:

  • LEDs were sewn in strips - 8 at a time - onto felt. Conductive thread then looped through and tied on as positive and negative rails - like you would with a breadboard. Then attached underneath the garment so that the lights shone through.

  • The microcontroller for the garment was a Dagu Mini - which is a simple £10 device which is also REALLY simple to hook up to batteries and bluetooth. I've used this for building sumobots with/for cubs too. It's able to take a bit of bashing.

  • For each strip, the positive "rail" was connected to a different pin directly on the microcontroller - not necessarily the best solution, but works quite well for this controller.

  • Code for this was really simple/trivial - simple strobing of the strips. The real system would be more complex. In particular this is the sort of code in pastebin

    However, the "real" garment would use something like this iotoy library for control - to allow it to be controlled by bluetooth and also by an IOT stack.

The web app is a simple client side affair only, and uses a small simple DSL for specifying behaviours. This is then transformed into a JSON data structure for evaluation. This uses jquery, bootstrap, and Paul's awesome little web controllable light up dress. You can see this prototype on my website.

Again, bear in mind that this is a very simple thing, and the result of a 1 - 1.5 day hack by a work placement trainee - treat it nicely :-) The fact it generates a JSON data structure internally which could be uploaded/shared is as much the point as the fact it has 3 micro-tutorials around sequencing, control and selection.

The bracelet was created as follows:

  • Thermoplastic was used at the wristband body - about 5-10g. This is plastic that melts in hot water (above 60 degrees), and becomes very malleable.

  • A number of LEDs and and LDR

    • The LEDs connected to the 3 digital pins, A0 and A1, with A2 connected between an LDR and 10K resistor.
  • A DF Robot Beetle - which is a tiny (and cheap ~£4.50) Arduino Leonaro clone - though it's the size of a 10p piece, and only has (easy) access to 6 pins.

  • This was MUCH more fiddly than expected, and there's lots of ways of avoiding that issue. In the end the bracelet was electricly sound, though having access to a soldering iron (or rather a place where soldering could take place) would've been handy. We remarked several times that building the bracelet would've been easier at home multiple times - which I think is a positive statement really.

  • Again the cost part was very simple, and due to time constraints no behaviour of the LDR was implemented. On the upside, it does show how simple these things can be - http://pastebin.com/FzQqGSTv - again howvever, if the microcontroller was tweaked, you could use bluetooth and use something like the iotoy library above - allowing really rich interaction with other devices.

In fact we had a fair amount of this working before the meet the teenagers session. As a result we had concrete things to talk about with the teenagers, who warmed up when we point out the website and devices were the result of just a few hours work.

The feedback we had was really useful and great. This also meant that while physical and tech building continued on the second day, more time could be spent on the business case and audience benefit than might have otherwise - though never as much as you'd like.

Feedback we had was:

  • Make it chunky!
  • Can you make it velcro-able - so we can attach it to bags, clothing etc as well. ** It also made it more possible to add to things like belt buckles, jackets, hats etc.
  • Can you have these devices controllable / communicating?
  • Can you make the web app an Android/iOS app?
  • Can you add in more sensors?
  • Can it be repurposed?
  • Call the project DressCode - this is one of those things that is a moment of genius, and so obvious and so appropriate in hindsight.

This instantly solved a problem we had in terms of keeping wristband small and elegant - chunky makes everything alot simpler. Velcro was a good idea, but a but late in our build studio to start over. The idea of controlling and communicating is right up the angle we wanted to pursue (IOT type activities using the iotoy library) but didn't have time for in a 1 - 1.5 day hack.

The idea of having a downloadable app was one that we hadn't considered, but fits right in with the system - after all this would be able to directly interact with a bluetooth wristband, and the communications stack is already written. Having more sensors was obvious, and repurposing made sense if we switched to something using velcro.

It was a really useful session as you can imagine.

The Pitch :: Dress Code

So we carried though to the pitch - DressCode - Fashion of the Tech Generation. (After all, a generation now will be learning how to code behaviours of some kind - so this is a fun application of the skills they'll be learning)

We said in the creative pitch what we'd allow you to do, and said we were allowing you to do just that - as you can see from what our core aspects were vs our prototypes.

Some key aspects of making this work would be the development of kit forms for tech bands which could then be made and sold by 3rd parties and partner - assuming they meet a certain spec.

The ideas behind the pitch included self-expression - the ability to look like the group or different from the group - the ability to share behaviours, to be part of something larger for the coding to be a means of creating behaviours for something but also that it leads naturally into coding for other devices - such as indicator bands or gloves for cyclists, shoes for runners, bottom up fund raising as happens with loom bands, and as a starting project for learning about coding - with a strong/fun inspiration piece involving TV - from headlining glastonbury through to a light up suit for Lenny Henry for comic relief - where each red nose is a seperate pixel to be controlled.

We described the user journey from the TV to the webapp to the techband and back to events and the TV show.

Pitching doesn't come naturally to me - the more outgoing you are in such situations the more likely your idea gains currency with others. Emily led our pitch and I though did a sterling job.

Competition however was very fierce. If our idea doesn't go through, it won't be because it's a bad pitch or a bad idea, it'll just because a different pitch is thought to be stronger/more appropriate for various reasons.


Hindsight is great. It's the stuff you think of after the time you needed it. In particular, one thing we were ask to do - and I think we kinda addressed it - at the build studio was to deal with the link between the techbands and the online web app and TV show. The way we dealt with it there was to decide to make available the same DSL to both wristbands (or blinkenbands as I nicknamed the code) and garments. ie to allow the same behaviour online or on a garment to control a blinkenband and so on.

That's pretty good, but there was a better, simpler solution staring us in the face all along :

  • The felt strips we sewed LEDs onto then wired up with conductive thread, were pretty simple to make. Even sewing in the Beetle would've been pretty simple.

  • Putting velcro onto those would've been simple - meaning each piece of felt could be a blinkenband. Also each blinkenband could be attached inside a garment (as each strip was), allowing at once both more complex behaviours but also a much cleaer link between the wristbands and the garments.

  • Also, attaching bands inside a pre-existing garment also drastically reduced the risk element for teenagers in building a garment - if it didn't look good, you still had wristbands. If it DID work, you gain more kudos. Furthermore, if you did this there's an incentive to make more than one wristband with two side effects - firstly it encourages more experimentation and play - the best way to learn but also leads to people potentially selling them to each other, secondly it encourages people to make more than one - since once they've done one, if they do more they could make an outfit that's all their own.

  • Also, if you did this, you have an activity that while a little pricey (about £10 each all in) it IS the sort of activity a Guides group would do - especially at camp (assuming a pre-programmed microcontroller ) in part because it's a group that tend to do more crafts type activities and would actually find the light useful in this situation. While people have ... "isn't that rather 19th century" ... views of things like Guides/Scouts, they do both cover the target demographic, and out of the two, it seems more likely to get Guides happily making felt/fabric programmable blinkenbands than Scouts - based on who the two sets attract.

    For me, it's this final thought that made me think that this would definitely be a good starting point - since it seems a realistic way of connecting with the demographic. (Ironically - getting leaders on board in groups would perhaps be harder work!)

Closing thoughts

All in all, an interesting and useful couple of days, leaving me with some clear ideas of how to take things forward - with or without support from connected studio - which I think makes this a double win. Obviously getting 6-8 weeks to work on this for a pilot would be preferable to trying to cram it into my own time, but to me the Build Studio definitely proved the concept.

As mentioned an actual real world example of this would have to:

  • Identify a realistic event
  • Make the audience benefit clearer, figure out a marketing strategy
  • Build a better/more concrete garment - I started unpicking my jacket, but didn't have time to pixelise it...
  • Build a better web app - close the loop to controlling the garment, linking to users
  • A downloadable app - which links to the online account for spreading behaviours to a device.
  • Better tutorials, and kits for building tech bands.

All in all a great and productive couple of days.

Next up, building robots for the BBC academy to teach basics of coding to BBC Staff (though I suspect they'd like tech bands too :-), but that's another day.

Later edit

(27th August)

Well, this is a later edit, and a shame to mention this, but Dresscode did not make it through the Connected Studio to Pilot. That's the nature of competitive pitching though, which is both sad, and awesome because it means a better idea did go through.

Regarding Dresscode itself, the Connected Studio team also said the following:

With regards to continuing your work on this independently, the idea is your IP and as it did not get taken to pilot the BBC doesn't retain any IP on Dress Code. The only caveat is that the idea cannot be pitched at another Connected Studio event. However, the Connected Studio modus operandi does not replace BBC commissioning, so feel free to progress the idea this way. We must add that if choosing the BBC commissioning route, it's up to you to talk to your line manager about this before any steps are taken.

So while Dresscode as a Connected Studio thing is no more, it could be something I could do independently later. We'll see.

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Nesta Report - Legacy of the BBC Micro

May 23, 2012 at 11:21 PM | categories: BBC, programming, reports, nesta, kidscoding | View Comments

Earlier in the year we visited MOSI - which is (these days) a Manchester branch of the Science Museum. Anyhow, one of the long standing exhibits is of the Manchester Baby - or more specifically a restored version of the Baby which has been lovingly restored with many original parts. The Manchester Baby is significant because it was the worlds first stored program computer, and was switched on and ran it's first programs in June 1948.

The exhibition it was in was in a celebration of computing, including the BBC Micro. They had a survey, which would feed into a study on the legacy of the BBC Micro, you popped your answers in and they'd forward you the results if you were interested. I ticked the box, and duely today recieved the following email:

Thank you for responding to the BBC Micro survey that the Science Museum
conducted in March 2012. We received 372 responses which is amazing given
that the survey was only open for a couple of weeks. Many people left
detailed responses about their experiences of using computers in the
1980s and the influence it had on their subsequent careers paths.

As you took part in the survey I thought you might be interested to know that the Nesta report on the Legacy of the BBC Micro has been published today and is available to download here: www.nesta.org.uk/bbcmicro

It's an interesting report, and from what I've skim read it seems to be a good report. If I had to pick out one part, the final chapter - "A New Computer Literacy Project ? Lessons and Recommendations" in particular is something I think is very good food for thought, and motivational.

In particular it makes 7 recommendations which I'll aim to summarise:

1. A vision for computer literacy matters

The report singles out John Radcliffe as a single motivating force in the original Computer Literacy Project as being a key driver in the success in the past. it goes on to say:

    Today, there is no single vision holder creating the partnership between industry, education and the range of actors who want to change things. {...} personal leadership and vision, based on a level of knowledge and understanding of the industry that inspires respect, and backed up by significant skills in diplomacy, is vital at this point in time.

I'm not sure I agree on the point of regarding a lack of a vision, but possibly agree on their being no single vision.

2. We need a systemic approach to computer literacy and leadership.

The key points brought out here is that the reason why the CLP worked last time around was due to there being efforts at many levels - all the way from grass roots, all the way to high level government buy in, which included resources and that the key reason for success was the many micro-networks that existed, which were assisted in co-ordination (in part) by the BBC's Broadcasting Support Services. (which I don't think have a modern equivalent) Crucially though, individuals and local groups had to take ownership and did.

It makes two interesting points:

    A key part of this plan will be empowering local and regional bodies to take part and own this new movement for computer literacy. Organisations leading this effort need the commitment, the capability, the skills and the scale to deliver. At present there are many candidates, but no one organisation that meets all these criteria. Someone needs to step up to the plate.

In particular, it then does on to single out the BBC, but with some caveats:

    The BBC may be able to replicate their previous role, by providing supporting television and online programming, but to deliver at the scale of the original CLP would require not only significant buy-in at a senior level but significant institutional re-engineering and resources.

This final caveat of buy-in at a senior level, and buy in with resources is an important point. After all, it's one thing for someone to say "this is a good idea" and another for someone to say "yes, this matters, here's resources" - which may only be time and space.

3. Delivering change means reaching homes as well as schools.

While I really like the last part of this recommendation because it really says what should be done clearly and succinctly...

    We need a contemporary media campaign: television programmes that legitimise an interest in coding, co-ordinated with social media that can connect learners with opportunities and resources. This is a vital but supporting role, arguably still best played by the BBC.

... it gets there by making a point a point which I emphatically agree with - that the focus of this must reach out into the home, rather than just into schools. In particular it notes a point I've made repeatedly:

    Despite the BBC Micro now being considered ‘the schools machine’, the computer was actually more important in its impact of changing the culture of computing in the home, particularly through the legitimising effect of the television programmes.

The key point brought out is that it's this aspect - which boils down to engaging children in their time - that really matters.

4. There is a need to build networks with education.

Again, the executive summary is nicer/kinder than the final chapter, and in particular calls out a real issue from the BBC side of things:

    At the core of the original CLP were the BBC’s educational liaison officers {...} These two-way networks provided an invaluable way of both listening and delivering appropriate tools and training for adult, continuing and schools education. {...} These days, the BBC has neither the equivalent staff nor the resources to play such a role.

That's pretty harsh. However, it's interesting to note that there are some groups actively looking at improving this sort of thing. I think however there's a long way to go based on what I've seen. There's misunderstanding about how schools work, how academia works, how industry really builds good systems/works, how the BBC operates today, etc.

On a positive note, people are talking, listening and trying to figure out how to move forward - which IMO supports this recommendation.

5. There are lots of potential platforms for creative computing; they need to be open and interoperable.

This point really brings summarises the issue I've described before of "ask a hundred engineers what the BBC Micro of Today would be and you get a 100 different answers". Furthermore though it points out that the reason why the Micro worked was because it helped provide a clear common platform for talking about things.

Today the issue is that we have a collection of micro-development environments which aren't joined up, either in practical terms or conceptually, but if they were more joined up, even in just a conceptual framework for discussing things we could make progress. Without this, it makes the task of teaching this in schools hard, and even harder in the home for someone to say "where do I start?"

It's probably worth noting at this point that there is a project which may result in just such a common platform or framework. It's a project I've helped spec out, and Salford University are hiring someone to work on it. It's target is really to do with "the internet of things", but is spec'd out in terms of pluggable micro-development environments. It's my hope that this could help head towards a common platform spec. We'll see.

6. Kit, clubs and formal learning need to be augmented by support for individual learners; they may be the entrepreneurs of the future.

Again, this reiterates the need for support outside schools and notes that last time round the informal learning was more influential than formal. This relies belies something quite incredible - it succeeded primarily because people found it fun and had sufficient support.

Not only this it specifically points out that these things need to go beyond after-school clubs, and that whilst those are good, these run the risk of following a route of formal learning rather than the motivations that encourage longevity. The former could be said to be "I am doing this because I've been told I should", whereas the real motivator is "I am doing this because it's fun and I want to". I think this is one place where the executive summary is punchier than the main recommendations:

    There is a need for supporting resources that can develop learning about computers outside the classroom. These may be delivered through online services or social networks, but must bring learning resources and interaction, not just software and hardware, into the home.

7. We should actively aim to generate economic benefits.

This recommendation points out a handful of things:

  • The CLP built upon pre-existing skills in industry
  • That this stimulated a market - that boosted that industry
  • That that boost also then led to much larger take up that you'd expect otherwise
  • That this then drove the industry further down the line

It notes that whilst the third and fourth points may be the goal, that there's real benefits from the second point, and this time around any boost could from international opportunities as well as national and regional, and that including economic benefit is a good idea.

Personally I think that final point is more important than people realise. I still remember to this day hearing about a kid writing a game in his bedroom and getting paid £2000 for it. This was 1982/1983 or so, and that was an absolute fortune from my perspective, and the idea that you could get paid for creating something fun was an astounding thought. So you'd get something fun out of the process. You'd have fun making the thing. And you'd get paid for doing it. A bit like the idea you have tea testers excites people who like tea. You don't get interested in tea because you'll get paid for it, but it's an intriguing thought. Likewise, you don't write code because you'll get a fortune - you probably won't. What you might get to do though is something which is fun that you can live on, because it's outputs are useful to people. That's a pretty neat combination really.

Anyway, I hope the above points have whetted your appetite to read the whole thing - it's an interesting read. Go on. You know you want to.

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Open standards, Open Source, Open Data

October 06, 2011 at 02:31 PM | categories: BBC | View Comments

Whilst there's (an awful lof of) negative in today's announcements about changes at the BBC, there's some which are positive, if incremental, steps forward:

    We believe this strategy for online, archive and connected broadcasting will help us reinvent the BBC for the digital age, through: Richer content
    • Integrating our linear and non-linear services, ensuring the full range of BBC content is available whenever and wherever audiences want Presenting and linking the BBC’s content online in new ways to create outstanding social, personal and interactive experiences
    Greater choice
    • Allowing audiences to consume BBC services seamlessly across four screens: mobile, computer, tablet and connected television Making our content permanently available by putting the best of the BBC’s back-catalogue archive online
    Open for all
    • Providing audiences universal, unfettered and free access to the full range of our content on as many devices as possible Sharing our technical platforms, metadata and code with the industry to support a creative, digital UK.

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