A new micro:bit for the modern world

23rd November 2020

Adam Leach headshot

Adam Leach

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a coding geek. Learning to program on my Sinclair Spectrum was probably one of the most influential experiences of my early life, setting me on the path to a career in tech. I continue to love programming and have been trying my best to kindle similar enthusiasm in my two sons. The teenager no longer wants to learn things with Dad, but my youngest is keen – as are his friends. I run a coding club for a handful of them and this week I introduced them to the new, updated BBC micro:bit.

Originally launched in 2016, the micro:bit is a pocket-sized computer that 25 million children in over 60 countries have since learnt to code on, under the guidance of their teachers, code clubs and online resources, some of which Nominet produced. It has now, four years on, welcomed its first ever upgrade. From November, the new micro:bit will be available (at the same price point) with an added microphone and speaker, as well as enhanced processing power to make it both more capable and more appealing to kids – and adults!

Nominet has worked closely with the Micro:bit Foundation for the past four years and I’m fortunate enough to sit on their board, supporting their continuous efforts to engage young people with digital skills and coding. This new upgrade is an exciting milestone for various reasons but, most importantly, it will be completely compatible with the previous version so it can be used with all the existing teaching resources, such as the free online platform and micro:bit classroom which were launched in March and created with funding from Nominet. This ensures continuity for teachers and educators, while also providing access to some exciting new features that could attract some fresh faces to programming with the micro:bit.

The tech enthusiast in me loves the enhanced technical capabilities of the upgrade; this tiny computer can now support AI and machine learning-based applications, two key areas of technological innovation that are already being widely adopted across the workplace. At Nominet, as a registry safeguarding the namespace, we use both to help us identify malicious domains within the billions of DNS queries we receive each day. The use of AI and machine learning will only increase in the years to come so it’s hugely valuable to be providing young people with the opportunity to explore these innovations and to start to understand how they work.

Introducing a microphone and speakers to the micro:bit is pretty seismic too: this allows sound to become a component in the applications being created, such as creating a “wake word” for a virtual digital assistant. When my coding club and I were experimenting, the boys enjoyed getting the micro:bit to respond like R2D2 with its own set of chirps and beeps.

The micro:bit is a proven tool for engaging young people in computer science and it plays an important role as a counter-balance to all the ‘black-box’ gadgets that surround young people today. This is a way to move their minds out of their phone, tablet or games console, where they exist simply as consumers, and pulling back the curtain on the ‘trick’, teaching them how it’s done. It’s a way to empower this future generation to believe that they too can be creators of technology and not just consumers of it – and to feel the potential of what they might be able to achieve in their adult lives.

Personally, I’m sold, but I wanted to leave the final word, to my ten-year-old son. On seeing what the new micro:bit could do, his verdict was – with a massive smile on his face – “that’s so cool!”.

Find out where to get a new micro:bit on the Micro:bit Foundation website.

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