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Is the BBC living up to its Reithian ideals with the launch of the Micro:bit?

"We all know there's a critical and growing digital skills gap in this country and that's why it's so important that we come together and do something about it."

The BBC's Director General, Tony Hall, used those words as he announced the launch of the Micro:bit computer last week. Part of the corporation's Make It Digital Initiative, the new computer – 1million of which will be distributed free to 11 and 12 years old across the UK in October – is intended to change the way in which children think about software and hardware.

Hall talked of the Micro:bit living up to the corporation's Reithian mission to 'inform, educate and entertain' and he described it as an 'echo' of the successful BBC Micro launched in the 1980s.

You would think the BBC would be applauded for making this device available to children. Think again, support for its announcement was less than unanimous.

From comments on Microsoft's involvement – 'linking education to proprietary software is bad' – to 'why should these kids get to keep these computers' to the obvious 'why is the BBC spending my license fee on this, isn't it the role of the Department of Education?'.

Critics also pounced on the decision not to release exact figures on the cost of the project for commercial reasons.

Much of this criticism is ill-informed. Its many partners covered the majority of the project's cost. ARM, for example, has done much of the work on the design of the device, while Microsoft has developed the software.

The aim of getting young people interested in code is a good thing and the Micro:bit is intended to act as a springboard for them to start learning about computers and how they work.

What this mustn't be though is a one off. Beyond 2015, nothing has been formally decided – although discussions are ongoing. We have to hope that funding is available, whether that is from the not-for-profit organisation the BBC talked about setting up, directly from the government, or from industry. Wasn't the BBC Micro launched with government subsidies?

Whatever the decision, the BBC should be applauded for making this device available; perhaps in future, we'll see an interview with the next Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak, who will be able to say they were inspired by the Micro:bit.

Neil Tyler

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