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Looking back on the Make It Digital Tour

Abigail Appleton

Head of Commissioning, BBC Learning

One of the greatest pleasures of my role as Creative Director in BBC Learning has been seeing the way ideas change and grow, and how initial assumptions often need to be questioned. 

When I approached English Regions with a view to working together on a large-scale regional tour for the BBC Make it Digital campaign that would give adults and family audiences a chance to get hands on with different forms of coding and digital creativity, I did so with some sense of irony.   

Craig Henderson, Head of Programming for English Regions, and I worked together last year on the very successful WW1 At Home tour.  Reviewing that project I had laughingly said we must do it again but not, of course, around digital creativity – a tour of digital creativity didn’t at first seem to me as natural a fit as local history had been for WW1 at Home on Tour - but how wrong I proved to be.

In BBC Learning we began development for BBC Make it Digital concentrating on younger audiences, on bringing digital creativity to teenage audiences through the BBC Radio 1 Academy and developing a new collaboration with BBC 1Xtra which led to a recent three-day 1Xtra Academy in Bradford. We were also beginning to realise the huge potential of the BBC micro:bit to engage 11 and 12 year olds.

However, as the BBC Make It Digital campaign evolved it became increasingly clear that inspiring the next generation to get creative would only be possible if the BBC tried to engage all generations in the story of the UK’s extraordinary computing heritage and raised awareness of the importance to us all of a digitally skilled UK. So alongside the mass audience TV and radio commissions we conceived the Make It Digital tour, a tented village of hands-on activities, talks, performances and demonstrations.

Make it Digital Roadshow Plymouth

Over the summer and early autumn, from its launch in Plymouth to conclusion in Birmingham, it reached 134,000 people in 13 different locations across the UK. Working with some of the BBC’s biggest brands and a huge range of partners we saw people from all walks of life get involved: coding mini daleks around a maze, for example, or creating their own weather forecast and hearing from numerous expert and passionate speakers on the Tech Talk stage. Many of the BBC micro:bit partners including Barclays, Lancaster University, Microsoft and ScienceScope joined in to give audiences a flavour of creative ways to code and play with the BBC micro:bit, ahead of the BBC and partners giving one to every child in year 7 (or equivalent) early next year. A particular hit was a demonstration of how the BBC micro:bit might control a Monster truck. Code Club, FoxDog Studios, Freeformers and Raspberry Pi all helped people get hands on with digital creativity in different ways.

We wanted to make sure that we told UK’s digital story from both a national and local perspective. By collaborating with English Regions and with colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland we were able to create bespoke content for every location working with many universities and different companies, whilst the local broadcast presentation teams really helped the tour connect directly with local audiences.

Fewer people may attend one of BBC Learning’s public events than might watch a main channel TV programme but they offer audiences a very different experience: the chance to grow more confident by having a go, to engage in conversation, to see how something connects to your own life.

Sometimes the legacy of these events is life-changing. When the tour first set up adjacent to Lewisham Market in London there were some, let’s say sceptical, enquiries from our neighbours, more intent on buying or selling cheap veg than coding. But here as elsewhere we found that time and again someone would wonder in out of curiosity to look around and find themselves absorbed for hours. One little girl told a member of the team that she thought computer science was boring and just for her brother, but now she was inspired to become a coder of the future. I hope she does and I hope she remembers the day when the coding bug bit her out the back of Lewisham Market.

Abigail Appleton is Creative Director, BBC Learning

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