Is the $25 Raspberry Pi – a basic computer on a single printed circuit board - capable of transforming the sorry state of IT education in our schools?
Produced in Cambridge, the explicit aim of the Raspberry Pi is to re-popularise programming in the UK in the way that the Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro did in the 1980s. The initial production run of 10,000 units sold out in minutes as early adopters fought to get themselves a piece of the Pi. Such was the demand that the Raspberry's website crashed as the Pi proved momentarily more popular than Lady Gaga.
Geek demand is clearly extremely high, but are mainstream schools really equipped to make effective use of this opportunity? Is the arrival of a box of printed circuit boards really going to make a difference?
Lessons from the dawn of time
Launched to coincide with the Department of Industry's "Year of Computing" the BBC Micro computer found its way onto desks in 75% of UK schools in the 1980s. The BBC Micro is still remembered fondly by many silver-haired geeks, now in their fifties, as having sparked their computing careers. The computer's launch was part of the BBC's "Computer Literacy Project"' and was accompanied by an educational TV series imaginatively called, “The Computer Programme”. The first 10-episode series was broadcast terrestrially in 1982 and was reproduced in various formats and names until 1987.
This sustained promotion of computer education produced a generation of coders that, among other things, built the world's most successful computer games industry here in the UK. Over the last decade Britain's has fallen to sixth place in that particular league table and universities report a continuing decline in the skill levels of UK applicants to computer science degrees. Teaching of IT in our schools is now woefully inadequate according to the Royal Society.
Lack of digital vision
The current school IT curriculum aims no higher than producing drones proficient in using Microsoft Office. However there are an increasing number of exciting not-for-profit initiatives underway that aim much higher. Apps for Good and the <GoTo> Foundation are great examples of initiatives that enable young people to build mobile phone apps to solve problems they see in the community and actively shape the digital world they live in. The Raspberry Pi and Arduino projects use open software and open hardware as platforms to enable learners to be producers of new information and communication products and services, future digital entrepreneurs and employers.
Initiatives such as these provide a real opportunity to reorientate computer education to empower learners to go beyond being passive consumers of shrink-wrapped products and become active producers of new information and communications technologies. But this possibility is jeopardised by the absence of any integrated or coherent programme of support. Without this, determining who gets to benefit from these new initiatives will be, at best a postcode lottery, and at worst end up merely affording new privileges to the already advantaged. So far the majority of school orders for the Raspberry Pi have come from the UK's most privileged schools.
It is very early days, but so far these initiatives have been geek-led and geek-fed. The kind of national programme of educational support that was the backbone of the BBC Micro success is conspicuous by its absence. Coordination with government and the teaching profession is needed.
A printed circuit board is not enough
It is entirely possible that, with the right support and imaginative teaching, use of the Raspberry Pi could inspire a new generation of coders and software engineers. However, providing a printed circuit board is not enough. To make optimum use of this technology it will be necessary to train teachers, modify the curriculum, fund the essential peripheral equipment not included in the advertised price, and generate the necessary will among politicians and the teaching profession to invest in a sustained programme of learning support to nurture the creativity, digital literacy and technology entrepreneurship that school learners need, and society lacks.
Fertile soil for Raspberrys
One place that is already fertile soil for Rasperrys is in the growing number of hackerspaces that are springing up around the country.
Hackerspaces are places where technology enthusiasts gather to hack, mash-up and collaborate on their latest technology projects. It is where geeks go to share their experience and expertise and to incubate innovative new projects and start-up initiatives. Here skills and experience are shared among a community of people who enjoy nothing more than hacking hardware and software to innovate exciting new products and services.
As well as providing fertile ground for Raspberrys, hackerspaces are proof there is a real thirst for technical knowledge and opportunity to experiment that is not being met in the formal education system. By studying how people self-organise in hackerspace to learn new skills and collaborate on projects we might even be able to steal a few ideas about how to reinvigorate classroom learning.
Tony Roberts (pictured) is the founder and former CEO of UK international development charity Computer Aid International. He is an expert on the use of technology to support international development programmes and healthcare and education in developing countries.