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Programmable PC tool from the UK gaining popularity in Asian schools

A tiny device for classroom computers is expanding from its homeland the United Kingdom into parts of Asia where schools see it as a way to teach programming at an early age.

The Micro:bit, a codeable pocket tool that's two inches long (5 cm) by one inch wide, works with PCs through USB or Bluetooth connections.

Students, often as part of formal classes, can program the tool to work math equations, print documents or communicate with a smartphone.

British Broadcasting Corp. invented the BBC Micro as a keyboard-equipped computer in 1980 as part of its educational mission. In 2015 the product morphed into the Micro:bit with help from ARM, Microsoft and Samsung.

Because of its popularity in the U.K., where about 1 million devices have shipped, BBC spun off the Micro:bit Educational Foundation on Oct. 19 to handle related business.

"It was so successful that everyone else in the world wanted to do it to so we spun of this project into a foundation," foundation CEO Zach Shelby told Business Next in a Skype interview.

Micro:bit's spread into new countries relies mainly on schools initiating "pilot projects" for students, he said.

Chinese educators are now starting some of projects, putting the US$15 device in the hands of thousands of people in China so far, Shelby said. Those projects are targeting secondary Chinese cities and rural areas that traditionally lack access to technology in schools.

The editor's website also supports the Chinese language. Use of the website for programming support is free.

In Singapore, the government asked Micro:bit to acquire the devices for school teachers.

"We want to enable young people to become inventors," the CEO said. "They'll probably do a better job than we will and come up with different solutions."

The tool designed for people ages 5 to 19 has also swept into second grade classrooms throughout Iceland. Students in Norway and the Netherlands are placing orders, as well, Shelby said.

No one in Taiwan has contacted Micro:bit for a pilot project and someone on the ground must make the first move before the devices can begin shipping there, he said.

Taiwanese students could use the tools to augment their high-tech infrastructure and "good" schools, the CEO suggested.

The devices sell in British webstores but not in Asian outlets.

The foundation has set a goal of 100 million devices in use, Shelby said.