The Raspberry Pi: A project to shake up the stagnation of educational computing

As previous articles may have suggested, I’m a Linux aficionado, and have been for several years. I’ve been trying my hand at Linux systems for something like ten or eleven years, running through successive versions of SUSE Linux and openSUSE, later adopting Debian and Ubuntu on some of my other computers. Ultimately, my time with Linux has helped hone my computer skills, often requiring more of a technical mind when things go wrong than the equivalent Windows system, but feeling all the more satisfying when everything goes smoothly.

The readily-available command-line-based programming tools from the GNU Project have helped me learn more about the structure of the languages I’m learning than the graphical IDEs that I used on Windows. As Linux has evolved, the old methods of doing things often remain for a transitional period, allowing for a smooth transition as one sees fit without closing oneself off from newer applications. While it’s not yet a perfect alternative to Windows for the vast majority of users, Linux is often a better platform for learning how to use a computer technically than a comparable Windows or Mac OS X installation, for the freedom it allows, the easy extensibility and the ethos of the hobbyists it has grown up around.

For years, I have lamented the wilful ignorance that many people have towards computer technology when it isn’t handed to them with a flashy graphical user interface which aims towards the lowest common denominator. While I can understand that most users don’t want to be hacking C on a command line, and that there are places for people who do want to be doing this to learn, it is frustrating to see otherwise intelligent and capable people become brain-dead consumers as soon as they face a computer screen. I have no hesitation in asserting that most of their problems are a case of a total lack of interest rather than some inherent condition of computers to create fools out of intelligent people. Even in a world increasingly dominated by information technology, it seems to be fashionable to close one’s self off from computers as if they were some sort of magical artefact, and as if those that can use them well are practitioners of some sort of black art.

Educational systems at primary and secondary level have had trouble keeping up as well. Faced with a field of rapid evolution and even more rapid obsolescence, the education systems in the UK and Ireland, among others, have taken the same sort of “lowest common denominator” approach as many software providers. Education in computing most often takes the form of learning how to use office software, without any real provision for the teaching of programming techniques, nor of basic computer science techniques such as sorting, binary mathematics or such other useful principles. This isn’t just a theoretical matter either; many IT and other computing companies in the UK have reported a lack of educated staff in the fields of computer science, information technology and allied fields. Even Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has lamented the lack of computer science education among the youth of the United Kingdom, a field which the British helped define in the 1950s and 1960s.

I am clearly not the only person displeased at the state of computer education at primary and secondary level. During the 1980s, during the golden era of home computers, before the near-monopoly of the x86 architecture and of Microsoft operating systems, computers booted up into BASIC interpreters, which although not capable of very much, defined programming as an inherent and integrated part of the computing process. Harking back to these ideas, a group of interested parties has formed a registered charity in Britain known as the Raspberry Pi Foundation, aimed at developing and producing a low-cost, tightly-integrated computer (the eponymous Raspberry Pi) on a motherboard small enough to be carried around easily and replaced inexpensively. The leader of the Raspberry Pi project, Eben Upton, works with Broadcom, which use British-designed ARM processors in their embedded designs, while David Braben, co-developer of the seminal game, Elite, for the BBC Micro, is another member of the foundation.

Together, the group has designed a computer containing a 700MHz ARM11 processor with an integrated GPU and ports for HDMI, composite RCA video and a 3.5mm jack. Two models will be available: the Model A contains a single USB port and 128MB of RAM, while the Model B adds another USB port, an additional 128MB of RAM for a total of 256MB, as well as a 10/100Mb Ethernet port for internet connections. A series of GPIO, I2C and other connectors is available as a separate header for both models, while an SD card slot provides the storage capacity for the operating system. The total cost of the computer, which has entered production and will soon be available for shipping, is projected to be £18 ($25) for the Model A and £22 ($35) for the Model B.

The cost is one of the greatest draws of the Raspberry Pi project, low enough to be easily replaceable if the unit is damaged beyond repair or to be used in robotics, integrated computing and other hobbyist projects. For that price, you get a surprisingly proficient piece of hardware, capable of running the likes of Quake III at 1080p, and capable of being a useful media player as well as an educational platform for programming, content creation, et cetera. The ARM processor architecture just happens to be one of the best for teaching assembly language, a skill which has recently largely been restricted to computer science and engineering courses. The GPIO and other headers allow the Pi to be used for robotics and automation projects at low cost, while the provision of the composite RCA connection allows old televisions to be used as screens in the absence of a high-quality monitor.

Such a device therefore addresses several concerns at once, while not really compromising on anything which is important for an effective syllabus of computer education. The hardware will soon be available; with Michael Gove recently announcing the scrapping of the much-maligned ICT syllabus to be replaced with a course with a greater focus in computer science, it remains to be seen if there can be a shift in mindset about technology away from treating it as a black box, and more as a platform for creativity and development, but I remain cautiously hopeful.

The Raspberry Pi’s homepage is available at http://www.raspberrypi.org/. The first batch of Raspberry Pi units, all Model B units designed for hobbyists and software developers, should soon be available for purchase. I, for one, am wishing for success in this endeavour.

 

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