Raspberry Pi – The BBC B for a new generation?
Raspberry Pi is a project to spark exploration, innovation and to create a new generation of programmers by putting a computer into the hands of every British child. That was the passionate vision presented by David Braben of Frontier Development at Develop in a talked labelled “Giving something back”. There are some interesting parallels with the vision One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) had. The radical difference is that with the effects of Moores Law since the OLPC project the Raspberry Pi vision is for a device that costs 15 GBP – that makes it realistic to put one into the hands of every child in the UK!
They showed an alpha last year which got lots of attention – watch it and then we’ll continue:
The starting point for this endeavour is that children aren’t excited by Computer Science in the UK any more and that this has meant a radical drop in the number of University applications. There’s a shortage of precise figures, said David, but it could be as much as a 51% drop since the mid-90’s. He cites a lot of reasons for this, from changes in life-style, curriculum and the mass-media. His conclusion is that a key shortage is a computing environment for kids that encourages programming – a BBC B for a newer generation. The team aims to create a small (phone sized) computer, powered by an ARM chip, which you can plug a TV/keyboard into and a software load with educational software on it. The long-term mission being to provide these free to groups of children with appropriate content, along with management capabilities for teachers.
The bottom line for me is that encouraging experimentation, exploration and creation is a good thing in and of itself. If you want to create programmers they have to start along the journey of realising that you can create as well as consume in the digital world. When I was in school computers were all the rage from an educational perspective and certainly while we mostly played games we also created small programs. Like many others I spent long hours typing out program listings that came in magazines, and learnt rudimentary concepts in BASIC. While I personally took an indirect path into computers I do think these experiences were formative in accepting what was possible and sparking an inherent interest.
Creating a complete computing environment for children and teachers is a hugely ambitious goal. You have to solve hardware, software, content and distribution problems along the way. At the moment the Raspberry Pi team is focusing on the hardware, with an initial developer version due this year. I see the software stack as being a critical portion – you’ll be glad to know that Ubuntu is the OS! It has to be said that although I got into computing with BASIC and a manual I don’t think that’s going to cut it for kids these days: it certainly wouldn’t have cut it for me if there’d been anything like the Net! Moreover, I think we have to accept that the Web is the platform and that the elements of sharing, socialising and interacting are all part of what makes up computing now. So any software stack has to look forward and encompass new elements even when trying to be simple. That said I think the software and languages we have today are a lot stronger and more compelling: whether that’s languages like Python or some of the OLPC environment! Of course, it’s easy for a technical audience to focus on the technology stack but this changes all the time, what’s more important is the content and education contacts.
Clearly, the content will need to address childrens needs at different ages, and working with the education sector so that it fits their needs and understanding is going to be very important. David noted that managing groups of machines was a key need for educators who aren’t technicians. I was struck by the passion and willingness to get involved throughout the room – if that passion can be harnessed it will hold the project in good stead. I’ve love to see Raspberry Pi develop into a full charity with funding from the industry and efforts to work with the education sector.
If you’re like to find out more about Raspberry Pi, and perhaps sign-up for one of their dev boards, then see their site. What do you think about this initiative and on a more general level how can we help get kids involved in experimenting with technology?