The Raspberry Pi is here!
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the official website.
Still no clue? It’s a little computer (and I mean little — it’s about the size of a credit card) that costs approximately £16 and is capable of outputting 1080p video via HDMI. David “I Made Elite, No Not the Call of Duty thing” Braben was involved in its development and has been a vocal spokesperson in the run-up to its release, but the device itself is the brainchild of one Eben Upton, a former lecturer at Cambridge University.
You’re probably thinking that £16 is pretty cheap for a fully-functional computer, and that there must be some sort of catch. Well, it’s not a “catch” as such, but don’t expect to be playing The Old Republic on this little beast. Boasting 128MB or 256MB of RAM and a 700MHz ARM processor similar to that found in a low-end smartphone, it’s not going to set the world alight with its performance, but that really isn’t the point of it.
Instead, Upton, Braben and the other industry luminaries who have worked on the project are hoping that the device will inspire a quiet revolution in computer science teaching. Due to the system’s low cost, it will be a simple matter for schools to outfit themselves with a veritable arsenal of Raspberry Pis, allowing large numbers of kids the opportunity to get hands-on time with a real computer and learn some useful skills.
This is a hot-button issue in the UK at the moment, as the Livingstone-Hope Next Gen Skills report published last year found that computer science teaching in the UK was, to put it politely, somewhat lacking. The National Curriculum prescribes that children should be equipped with certain information and communication technology skills by the end of their school career, but the goals are distinctly unambitious and, more to the point, have not exactly moved with the times. There’s a strong focus on Microsoft Office and little else — no exploration of web design, website administration, database management, programming, and certainly very little in the way of creative design work such as Photoshop.
Part of this is a cost issue, of course — even at educational pricing, Photoshop is still pretty frickin’ expensive — but that doesn’t diminish the fact that kids aren’t leaving school with the computer skills that they’d need to find jobs in the tech industries. They’re maybe leaving with enough knowledge to allow them to fulfil a secretarial role, but that’s about it. They certainly wouldn’t be building a website, looking after a CRM or even inputting data into a CMS. Any knowledge of social networking and blogging is done on their own time — and all credit to the kids of today, they take to it like a duck to water.
What the Raspberry Pi team hopes to achieve with the little computer that could is to provide kids with a piece of kit that is built for tinkering with. Many pieces of consumer electronics in the home these days are locked down tightly to prevent modification and experimentation — in the case of games consoles, users are even punished for unauthorised system modifications in many cases. There’s also a high barrier for entry to development in many cases — expensive software packages, development kits, membership in “developer programmes” all build up costs to a level unfeasible for the hobbyist to contemplate, especially if they’re not sure whether or not they’ll be able to develop the skills necessary to enjoy success.
The Raspberry Pi, running on Fedora Linux and designed to be expandable with all manner of external hardware, is a low-cost step that will allow a much greater number of people access to some truly open hardware with which they can experiment, tinker and learn all manner of exciting things. And even if they find that their brain is completely incapable of wrapping itself around complex computer-related concepts, they’re only out of pocket by £16 when all’s said and done. (Plus the cost of monitor, keyboard and other bits and bobs, but that’s beside the point.)
Hopefully the Raspberry Pi will convince schools to throw out the abject tedium of the National Curriculum’s ICT programme and start exploring more relevant, exciting topics surrounding computing. It might also convince schools to hire ICT teachers who actually know something about computers, rather than treating it as a second-class subject to be handled by teachers of completely unrelated disciplines as a means of filling up some of their free periods. What a brave new world that would be.
Will it be a success? Impossible to say at this juncture, as the simple existence of the product doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be buy-in from the people who it is aimed at. But we’ll see.
To find out more, check out the official site. You’ll be able to order one for yourself at the end of this month, and educational packages including additional equipment, documentation and all manner of other goodies are on track for a September-ish release from the sounds of things.