A $35 computer for education: But it’s never been about the hardware

March 6, 2012 at 8:24 am 10 comments

Thanks to everyone who has sent me links about the UK’s new Raspberry Pi computer, a roughly $35 computer designed to make computing economically accessible to children everywhere.  The reports that I keep reading about the excitement around it are astounding, e.g., one “Middle East” country plans to buy one for every schoolchild.  I’ve had at least one query asking me what resources I know of for teaching with the Raspberry Pi.

None at all that I’m aware of, and that leads to the point that’s concerning to me.  The problem of computing education has never been about the hardware.  Look at the XO laptop — whether one considers it an overall success or not, what success it has had is due in large part to its software and to the infrastructure behind it (e.g., the repair system).  I’ve seen lots of instances of hardware going to waste in schools because of a lack of software and of training for teachers in how to use the hardware.  Is it really a lack of hardware that prevents the UK schools from teaching more computer science?  I’ll bet that most UK schoolchildren already own cell phones that are more powerful than the Raspberry Pi.

I like the sentiment expressed below, about how important it is to get real computer science into the schools.  Agreed!  But I don’t think the answer is just a cheap computer.

Second, we need to persuade Michael Gove and his colleagues that the subject that should be taught to all children is not ICT but something called computer science. The idea that there’s a major body of knowledge in this field – complete with a stable and intellectually rigorous conceptual framework that is independent of today’s or yesterday’s gadgetry – is probably unfamiliar to residents of Whitehall, who think ICT is trivial because it’s always becoming obsolete.

Learning about computer science involves learning to program – to write computer code , because this is the means by which computational thinking is expressed. We wouldn’t dream of teaching pupils about German culture without expecting them to speak German. The same holds for computer science.

via The Raspberry Pi can help schools get with the program | Technology | The Observer.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Miss L. Bunce  |  March 6, 2012 at 8:57 am

    We have lots of PCs (and Macs) in school so no, lack of hardware isn’t the problem. However the network infrastructure in many schools is creaking badly and it’s this kind of hardware we need massive investment in. The creaking networks clearly don’t stop us teaching CS but they do cause problems.

    I have heard of some schools where technicians cannot install relatively simple coding environments such as Python on the network. No idea why. Applications such as Greenfoot, Scratch, Kodu etc. are well designed to be easy installs – but (as an example) Kodu installs with no problems on Windows 7 but needs extra installs for XP. It also needs enhanced graphics drivers. All of these are easy to install on your own PC at home but on 60 or 70 networked PCs of varying ages and sizes in disparate rooms and buildings by overworked technicians (if you’re lucky enough to have technicians) on a creaky and outdated network is a challenge. It’s all possible of course but it takes much more time to do.

    Where I think something like Raspberry Pi will work in school, based on the price and size, is that we could in theory have a box of them for every class. You walk into your History lesson and pick up your History exercise book. You walk into your CS lesson and pick up your Raspberry Pi from the box, plug in the existing power, inputs and outputs and away you go. It takes us away from the reliance on networks and back to coding. (Backing up work in this context is more problematic but it’s something we can work on).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 7, 2012 at 8:11 am

      How will the teacher (or whoever else is administering the Pi’s) update software or distribute activities, without a network? By loading an SD card for each student in the class?

  • 3. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  March 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    People are looking for a silver bullet – something they can drop into a school and magic happens. In the case of computers they will point to someone who got a computer and learned a lot on their own and say “see anyone can do it.” It’s a theory. But we don’t point to all the US presidents who had little to no formal education and say “see all they need is access to books like Abe Lincoln” and close all the schools. For most things we realize that there are outliers but for computer science people believe in magic.
    Inexpensive hardware is nice but not by itself the answer. As you point out so well there is a lot more involved. In education the software (by which I mean curriculum as well as what makes the hardware go) is the key piece. The hardware is just a tool to run the software.

  • 4. copiancestral  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:18 am

    While I may agree with you to a great extent, I think you underestimate the hardware. Just a couple of weeks ago you were complaining about how restricted was the student access to PCs in high schools in your state (internet access, no usb, no CDs, etc). So I think we could agree that this is not exactly the best way to motivate kids into programming or encouraging creativity at any level. In the same line of thought you compare the Raspberry Pi to smart phones owned by kids. Yes they may be more powerful, but were they conceived to by “played with”. The answer is no. The recent overwhelming revolution of tablets, smartphones, ultrabooks, etc. is not really intended to make people computationally literate, it just wants to make you a end user that consumes media, ebooks, mp3s, video games, etc.

    Finally, you cannot ignore the price tag. There’s a solid reason for the reduced price. Most children are terrified to use the family computer (or tablets, smartphones,…) for anything other than its pre-ordained function as a costly consumer device. They cost to much to be “played with”. Check this article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-17192823 . Where they discuss this in greater length. So I truly think that a product conceived like the RaspPi could have a notable (not incredible) effect on introducing children into computer science and overcoming many children’s conundrum “Dad can I open/reprogram/play with your iPad/smartphone/expensive ultrabook?” That is, if the manufacturer will (definitely not) encourage this.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  March 7, 2012 at 8:19 am

      Let’s contrast the Raspberry Pi to the Open U’s Sense board. At $80, it’s more than twice the price, but you get a board made for tinkering, with Scratch already running on it and terrific curricular support, and includes network connections plus the Scratch primitives to play with the network. Why is there so much excitement over the Raspberry Pi, but I didn’t learn about the Sense board until SIGCSE last week?

      Do we have any evidence that “most children are terrified to use the family computer”? In my experience, most children have no idea how much any of these devices cost. They play with them to the extent that they’ve been given access. Good software can provide access and the opportunity to “play.” Removing the network and a drive, requiring everything to be on an SD card, and without supporting software and materials doesn’t necessarily lead to a device that children want to play with.

      • 6. LJRL  |  March 7, 2012 at 9:15 am

        “In my experience, most children have no idea how much any of these devices cost.”

        Children from privileged households don’t know how much anything costs. Children who come from less privileged households often know how much everything costs.

        I am actually really excited for Raspberry Pi. There are definitely networking, file management, and acceptable usage issues to be resolved. But the fact remains that these systems cost less than half of the price of most textbooks. As a secondary teacher, (if the networking issues could be resolved) I love the idea of each of my students being assigned a Raspberry Pi at the beginning of the year for use in class. The students who wish to do so could buy instead of rent. The programming environment could be pre-installed or installed in class. Students could take home the machine to use at home.

        Is it a silver bullet? No way. Could it be a way of narrowing the opportunity gap for less privileged students? Yes.

  • 7. Steve Freeman  |  March 7, 2012 at 4:48 am

    I think the point of the Pi is not that it’s cheap hardware (which it is), but that it’s open to tinkering.

    As others have said, UK school ICT has been a disaster for a decade, largely concerned with MS Office and locked-down out-of-date PCs. Many kids have far better gaming machines at home than their school computers, actually many have better phones than their school computers. What they lack is a rough-edged device with an open design that they can play with.

    And the point about the low price is that the kids (and adults) can afford to experiment without having to make a big budget case.

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  March 7, 2012 at 8:13 am

      Steve, I agree about a value on CS over ICT. We discussed this point in my research group yesterday. I was the only computer scientist in the group who had ever tinkered with hardware. I’ll bet that most computer scientists in the world today have never tinkered with hardware. Having a tinker-able computer is definitely a good thing, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing.

      • 9. Steve Freeman  |  March 7, 2012 at 10:54 am

        I’m sure it’s not the most important thing. What I do think is important is making a reasonable platform widely available at low cost. We may not know what to do with it, but the kids will find something.

        I think what a lot of non-UK people are missing is our history of the BBC micro, which opened up computing to a generation of bedroom teenagers. Eben Upton ‘s original motivation was noticing a drop in the quality of student candidates. The Pi has a direct line of inheritance to the BBC.

  • 10. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  March 7, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    There has been a low-cost widely adopted hobbyist computer platform: the Arduino. The Raspberry Pi is interesting because it is a similar price point, but about 50x the speed and 8000x the memory. This makes having the overhead of an operating system and Python interpreter feasible, and allows modern high-level structures (like a LAMP stack) feasible.

    On the other hand, you trade off the built-in PWM, servo control, and easy interrupt handling of the Arduino. It looks like they are addressing different parts of the educational spectrum, with Raspberry Pi going for CS (with a tiny veneer of computer engineering) while the Arduino went for computer engineering and electrical engineering. I suspect that we’ll start seeing projects in which a Raspberry Pi does the overall control, persistent memory, and compute-intensive tasks, while an Arduino does the low-level motor and servo control and other real-time stuff that needs low latency but not much computing. Of course, a dedicated multi-channel motor controller with a processor on board for talking to the Raspberry Pi might eliminate the need for the Arduino in many applications.


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