Empowering next gen digital innovators with micro:bits
Without the coders, engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators of tomorrow emerging from the classrooms—and soon—it will become increasingly difficult to advance society and tackle diverse global challenges. As things stand now, a global technology talent shortage threatens to stifle progress across all tech sectors.
- Read more: Educating the next generation of coders
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom in the classroom. There’s a long way to go, but industry leaders are working hard to close the digital skills gap.
Filling the gaps
In 2021 there were more than two million U.K. job vacancies in tech, more than any other labor area. Yet a large section of the British workforce is apparently nowhere near skilled enough to apply for many of these tech-based positions. According to FutureDotNow—a coalition of industry leaders focused on closing the digital skills gap for working age adults—some 11.8 million U.K. workers lack even basic digital skills.
In its 2022 Digital Strategy, the U.K. government asserted that while over 80 percent of all jobs advertised in the U.K. now require digital skills, employers say the lack of available talent is the biggest factor holding back growth. Estimates suggest the digital skills gap costs the U.K. economy as much as £63 billion ($79 billion) a year in potential GDP.
This gap not only plays an important role in the U.K.’s economic prospects but also in an individual’s life chances. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport report in 2019 found: “The move up the career ladder from low- to high-skill jobs comes with increased demand for specific digital skills. Acquiring specific digital skills makes career progression and a pay increase more likely.”
Responding to the challenge with micro:bits
In March 2015, in response to the significant skills shortage across the U.K. at the time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) launched Make It Digital, a nationwide initiative focused on creating the next generation of digital pioneers. One year later, the project spawned the delivery of one million Nordic-powered BBC micro:bits—tiny yet powerful programmable pocket computers—to Year 7 school students throughout the country’s schools. It was hoped the device could transform young people from passive consumers of technology into digital innovators via the power of ‘coding’.
Within six months the not-for-profit Micro:bit Educational Foundation was established to promote the micro:bit project internationally. To this day the foundation works in collaboration with educators to create curriculum materials, training and resources that empower a young person’s creativity and boost their opportunities in an equal and purposeful way.
The foundation has good reason to focus its efforts on overcoming inequality in education. Research indicates that factors such as socio-economic background can have a significant impact when it comes to children learning about coding. A 2022 report by Ofsted (the U.K. Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) revealed that state schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged pupils were less likely to offer a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in computer science.
The gap between genders is also pronounced. Analysis of examination data from 2021 shows there are disproportionately few girls in computer science, making up just 21 percent of entries at GCSE and 15 percent at the GCE (General Certificate of Education) Advanced (A)-Level (a U.K. subject-based qualification for students aged 16 and above). Last year, computing A-Level continued to have the highest gender gulf of entrants, while the U.K. tech industry comprises only 26 percent women.
Full STEAM ahead with micro:bits
Seven-and-a-half years on from the launch of the, adoption is tracking impressively. Over 7 million micro:bit units have been sold worldwide. The device continues to be actively embedded in children's learning at schools and other education systems. Around 39 million young people in over 60 countries—including Denmark, Finland, Uruguay, Singapore, Canada and Bangladesh—have so far used the micro:bit to get hands-on with computer science and technology, learning important digital skills in the process.
And STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] education programs are making a meaningful difference. In Bangladesh, for example, where less than half of the country’s 47 million children will attend school beyond the age of 15, the British Council has provided free workshops to increase public access to digital skills training and to teach children to create technology, not just consume it. The first phase of the program reached 2,000 young people in 12 districts.
Most participants (88 percent) were aged 12-16, with a fairly balanced gender split of 51.5 percent male and 48.5 percent female. The majority had never coded before, and 13 percent said the workshop was their first time using a computer. But 95 percent of participants said they would be interested in learning more coding in the future. And 70 percent more girls said they would choose computing as a subject at school after using the micro:bit.
Powering the micro:bit journey
Nordic Semiconductor has played a vital role from day one of the micro:bit journey. The company donated the first one million nRF51822 chips to kickstart the micro:bit, and later supported a smooth transition from the micro:bit V1 to the micro:bit V2 device integrating the Nordic nRF52833 SoC as its core processor. The nRF52820 has also since been added to the board as the micro:bit’s interface chip.
In addition to processing capabilities, the micro:bit’s Nordic-enabled wireless connectivity is used in two distinct ways. First, using the device firmware update (DFU) tools in the Nordic software development kit (SDK), the micro:bit has the capability to be updated from a phone or tablet over Bluetooth LE. This means schools or students without access to laptops can still easily use the micro:bit. And second, it provides a student-facing feature, which can be used with either a set of Bluetooth services or with the micro:bit radio feature.
The Micro:bit Educational Foundation: Shaping the future
The micro:bit’s achievements to this point are just the beginning. The Micro:bit Educational Foundation has now joined forces with BBC Education and Nominet (the U.K.’s official domain name registry) to launch “BBC micro:bit – the next gen”, a nationwide initiative to ready U.K. primary school children aged 8 to 11 for the digital world, once again empowering them with the skills to shape their future. The campaign will offer 30 micro:bit devices to every primary school in the country – a giveaway of almost 700,000 micro:bits.
Whether programming it for useful functions such as a sunlight sensor or a step counter, or using it for an exciting treasure hunt challenge, the Nordic nRF52833 SoC-powered micro:bit will continue to teach practical computer knowledge in an accessible and authentic way. As the micro:bit evolves, the foundation hopes the device will inspire all children to create their best digital future.