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Is the Raspberry Pi an innovation in computer training, or just another toy?

This week the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced that they had manufactured 1 million Raspberry Pi computers in the UK. In an age when the very thought of manufacturing anything outside of China would be…

Despite their educational appeal, the majority of Pis sold have been bought by middle-aged hobbyists. Yan Arief via Flickr

This week the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced that they had manufactured 1 million Raspberry Pi computers in the UK. In an age when the very thought of manufacturing anything outside of China would be considered foolhardy, the supply of these low cost computing devices from a factory in South Wales showed that it is still possible to manufacture technology in a developed western nation, albeit a fairly basic no-frills device.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation was established by a group of academics at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory who were concerned with the general decline in numbers of students applying to computer science. They felt that they could tackle this by providing a means for teachers at primary and secondary school to introduce programming and computing skills training. As such the Raspberry Pi was developed as a very cheap and expandable computing device that could plug into a TV.

The Raspberry Pi is runs a version of the Linux operating system which provides support for developer tools and other software. Children in particular were to interact with a development environment called Scratch which was designed by the MIT Media Lab as a creative environment that would allow children in particular to learn basic programming skills. In early 2013, Google got behind this idea and funded the supply of 15,000 Pis to schools in the UK.

Despite the educational ideal, the majority of the 1.75 million Pis sold have gone to middle-aged hobbyists who have put the devices to a plethora of uses. These range from media players to a re-enactment of Felix Baumgarten’s skydiving world record using a Raspberry Pi equiped teddy bear called Babbage who made a leap from 39,000 meters, transmitting data and video along the way.

Babbage makes a leap

This is not the first time someone has tried to create a low cost computer to try to improve computing literacy. In the early 1980’s the BBC teamed with the Acorn Computer company to create a personal computer called the BBC Micro. Although popular with schools in the UK (80% of schools owned one), they were still relatively expensive at the time and their integration into the curriculum was limited by cost and more importantly by lack of skills required to teach using them. Eventually the Acorn computers were eclipsed by PCs running Microsoft’s DOS and Windows but the development gave rise to the ARM processors that power most smartphones today.

Although on the surface, the encouragement of computer science skills in school children may be seen as a laudable goal, one would have to ask whether these efforts are likely to succeed. More importantly, is the declining number of students taking courses in computer science simply an indicator that subject’s time has passed?

This question has been the source of much debate in the IT industry, with people arguing that skills required for successful developers are not the highly technical and theoretical ones that come from a degree in computer science but those of problem solving, collaboration and communication.

Another problem with any sort of degree is that the technologies used by industry change so rapidly that anything taught at university has a very short shelf-life, making continuous self-training necessary in any case.

Others would argue that programming is a craft which requires little in the way of more formal training. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were both self-taught programmers who saw little value in completing their degrees.

In any event, it is unlikely that the Raspberry Pi will replace the home PC or tablets that are rapidly becoming their mobile replacement. The Pi will always struggle to match the simplicity and richness of a PC, iPad or Android tablet’s interface and access to millions of apps. Teachers are only now coming to grips with the ubiquity of laptops and tablets in the class and are unlikely to invest even more time on learning a new environment and technology.

While the manufacture of a million Raspberry Pis in the UK is an achievement worth marking, it is unlikely to make the Chinese technology manufacturers feel threatened in any way.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Con Zymaris

    Untethered Polymath

    David,

    while it's true that not all 12 year-olds would be interested in learning the deeper and more technical aspects of computing (call it computer science if you will), but many do. Our problem is that this is *not* what is taught in schools.

    What is taught is "how to make your own blog, how to add styles to Microsoft Word or paint moving stick pictures in Adobe Flash." This is not the kind of activity to excite or inspire the gifted and curious young.

    Even when programming is taught…

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  2. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Yes I do agree. The Raspberry Pi is a phenomenon.

    A lot of us older guys had very early training in electronics and were part of the excitement back then. It's soon forgotten that the silicon transistor wasted patented until 1967, when we had already left school and the world was agog at the possibilities.

    There wasn't only the BBC Micro, but Clive Sinclair's ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum. In Australia we had Owen Hill's Microbee; I built my first one from a kit, sold that and built a second, actually…

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      typo - was patented.

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  3. Sean Manning

    Physicist

    I introduced my 9 year old to Scratch and he absolutely loves it. It blows my mind when I come home from work and we start having an in depth conversation about how to program some particular behavior into the sprite for his latest game. He has even managed to convince one of his friends that it is cool and they share projects and techniques. He is particularly encouraged by the integrated social side of the Scratch interface. He loves getting likes and comments on his work. It is actually a really…

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Sean Manning

      On this bit, Sean, I find it difficult to imagine even remotely that everyone should specifically be a mathematician or programmer, at any age, only that in a Year 6-7 class there is a very great deal of interpersonal engagement.

      Not so far 'back then', but in the interim you might say, we were rounding up used PCs from skip bins and businesses, and rebuilding them to give away to kids. Like Open Source, they weren't free, like handing out lollies. Any kid who wanted one had to come in and help…

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  4. George Michaelson

    Person

    Even if it fails to achieve its primary goal, its been massively influential of change already. Its taken a community of software down a layer, in a way that Arduino didn't quite manage to do.

    I think a lot of complaint about these initiatives is a shadow of "they didn't ask me" thinking. I wasn't asked, but I applaud this stuff. I think the PI people have probably done as much for ICT education as the OLPC have in a different sphere: put an idea out there and let people roam around it.

    Some…

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  5. Donovan Baarda

    Software Engineer

    As someone working at a large successful IT company who has done nearly 200 interviews (all of the employees do interviewing at this company) trying to fill massive open headcount for 8 years, I can tell you that this subject’s time has NOT passed. I sometimes feel like we have sucked up everyone with technical skills on the planet, and I dread to think of the rest of the worlds IT development being done by the candidates we reject (because most of them are terrible). The demand for technical IT…

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  6. Tim Churches

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I think this article misses the point that the Raspberry Pi, and the Arduino, and similar low-cost computing devices, are not just about computer science education - they are also the development labs for the Internet of Things. It is now becoming clear that putting computing smarts and associated measurement instrumentation into and onto everything (and to some extent, everyone) and hooking it all up to the Internet is going to fundamentally change the way we live and work and do things over the next decade or two. Of course, the other requirement is an NBN or equivalent, in order to support the shift from people consuming digit content from relatively centralised sources to a world in which almost everything and everyone produces digital information on a continuous basis.

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Tim Churches

      Thanks, Tim, I agree wholeheartedly. I've been thinking about the options, with the Intel NUC well within reach though still more expensive.

      For me, the first thing is really to demystify this whole thing finally. There's nothing complicated about it; while it is indeed rocket science, it's really not rocket science.

      The sooner we get back on track after 20 years of gush bringing with it enormous and unwarranted expense the better off we will all be.

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