Getting the Netherlands’ next generation of problem solvers ready for a digital world
How IT Randsteden used the BBC micro:bit from Farnell to integrate technology into education and challenge young people to improve their world
Formed in Amersfoort, Holland in 2011, IT Randsteden originally specialised only in training businesses and organisations how to use Microsoft Office. However, knowledge of a new coding device and an interest in improving IT learning in schools were to change the course of the business and have a significant impact on education in Holland.
From one school to many
In 2016, IT Randsteden co-founder Richard Meijer identified that teachers at his daughter’s school lacked confidence in many kinds of digital-based technology, including computers, and decided to use his experience to improve the situation. Richard was familiar with the recently launched BBC micro:bit coding device and made a presentation to teachers at the school to illustrate how easily pupils as young as eight years old could get involved in physical computing. Richard showed just how easy it was to introduce children to digital technology using use the micro:bit, Minecraft, and other software enabling them to make a digital newspaper, produce videos and more.
Richard says: “The main attraction of the micro:bit is its ease of use and its robustness. A person who doesn’t know how to code can learn to do so in just two minutes, which is not possible with alternatives on the market. The micro:bit can be used by pupils from eight to 18 with no limit to what they can achieve. It’s ideal for people who are not technically minded, with entry-level novices able to create a program and develop a solution within very short timescales. This holds their interest and makes them realise that they too can acquire the kind of skills that are essential in the modern world.”
The teachers were excited and interested in the new technology. However, they remained uncertain as to whether they could practically integrate it into the curriculum or what the benefits would be.
Richard ran a trial with the school and after just one day’s training with the micro:bit, using Microsoft’s MakeCode code editor, teachers who previously had zero knowledge of coding and programming were able to work with the technology confidently in the classroom. Richard used this experience to convince other primary and secondary schools to fund teacher training programmes and IT Randsteden began working with Farnell, the sole manufacturer and distributor of the micro:bit, to deliver the equipment and provide support to schools across Holland.
A half-day training course was developed consisting of 10 tailor-made sessions. As part of the paid course, teachers also received a ‘Club’ pack of 10 micro:bits and NeoPixels to bring colour to lessons. Teachers engaged with the technology and reported back on how they had used their learning and the equipment to make a difference in the classroom.
The programme was so successful that the original plan to train 100 teachers grew in just two years into a training programme encompassing more than 2,000 teachers.
Broadening reach through libraries
But this was just the beginning. Many children in the Netherlands, particularly if Dutch is not their first language, have low levels of IT literacy so IT Randsteden worked with local authorities and libraries in various villages to fund the gift of a micro:bit on a child’s 10th birthday. Children were also offered lessons and workshops that encouraged them, and their families, to return to the library regularly.
Around 1,200 children currently benefit from this programme. The micro:bit boosts their confidence and introduces them to the concept of computational thinking. Meijer says: “In digital literacy, they are all equal.”
Opening opportunities up to all through the STEAM Cup
Having made a real impact on the teaching and learning of coding and computation skills in the Netherlands, IT Randsteden sought to broaden awareness of the micro:bit and technology still further through the introduction of the STEAM Cup, a competition in which students aged 13+ were able to showcase the skills they’d learnt through using the micro:bit.
STEAM is a learning system that uses science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics to develop critical thinking in students. The aim was to move the micro:bit beyond its traditional place in IT lessons and into the wider world of learning, allowing students to apply their learning with the micro:bit to broader real-word challenges. IT Randsteden’s approach enabled students to develop solutions for the competition based on a theme – the first one being sustainability. Students were tasked with identifying a problem and creating a prototype solution using the micro:bit. One participant from Bertrand Russell College said: “We had real meetings in which programmers, prototype builders and presenters were keeping each other up to date.”
Teams presented their problem-solving abilities through detailed research, reports, photos and videos to a panel of judges and an audience of 250 people at Amsterdam’s National Science Museum. This competition took coding into the real world and rather than being judged on just their coding and programming skills, entrants were rewarded for ‘out of the box’ thinking, their ability to solve genuine problems and their presentation skills.
Notable at the STEAM Cup, says Richard Meijer, was the proportion of girls involved, with just as many girls as boys participating in the teams, and the opportunity for those previously labelled ‘nerds’ to become the heroes of the class. A participant from Montessori College commented: “I am a nerd but I see it as something positive. Nerds want to learn, are focused on innovation and come up with cool solutions – just look at Bill Gates!”
A major part of ensuring this journey continues will be persuading the national government in the Netherlands to put coding on the curriculum. Growing numbers of authorities are waking up to the changing skill demands that today’s children will have to respond to when they leave school, as well as the role that the micro:bit can play in this area. Learning coding and using the micro:bit in lessons is not about teaching computing for the sake of it. Coding is a way for young people to develop computational thinking skills. Participating in physical computing with the micro:bit is about developing the ability to come up with viable solutions to real-world problems and something for all to be part of.
IT Randsteden has now become one of the largest resellers of the micro:bit in the Netherlands, with more than 20,000 micro:bits in use through their programmes and training. Educating the educators has been key to success to date and the company is planning to expand its teacher training programme considerably to encourage a much broader take-up of the micro:bit, especially in primary schools.