Debate

For and against: Will the Raspberry Pi single board computer revolutionise the teaching of computer science?

For

The Raspberry Pi single‑board computer will revolutionise computer science teaching
Gareth Mitchell

Radio presenter and lecturer

Gareth Mitchell profile

Gareth Mitchell is the presenter of the science and technology radio programme ‘Click’ on BBC World Service. He is also a lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College, London. 

Against

The Raspberry Pi single‑board computer won’t revolutionise computer science teaching
Piers Bizony

Author, journalist and filmmaker

Piers Bizony Profile

Piers Bizony is an author, journalist and filmmaker specialising in aerospace and cosmology, and has been shortlisted for the Nasa/Eugene M Emme Award for Astronautical Writing. He is a strong believer in space exploration and has written several books on the subject.

debate pic

The Raspberry Pi’s inventors and manufacturers - or at least their PR people - seem to be claiming that this new single-board device will revolutionise the way pupils learn about computing, programming and technology at school. Their whole idea is this: these days consumer technology comes in neatly packaged so-called black boxes that we simply switch on and expect miraculously to work. The Raspberry Pi people worry that if technology is just something fashionable that kids can take out of a box and plug in, we won’t have a fundamental understanding of what’s going on under the bonnet. Further to this, if a whole generation of students has no idea of how things work, then we’re going to be in a very poor place when it comes to innovation.

Why not strip all this surface finish away and give young people a ‘naked computer’ so they can get access to the code, do cool things with it and reach an understanding of how computing and electronics work?

The crucial thing here is affordability. The Raspberry Pi comes in at $25, and so for the price of the shoelaces on a trendy pair of trainers you’ve got some technology that you can really see the guts of and make a start in learning about computers. That, to me, is the whole idea of the Raspberry Pi.

Critics are already saying that the concept is in some way identical to how we used to play with electronics kits when we were kids. They see this as a step backwards, and in a fundamental sense they are right. But unless we step backwards and work with this kind of technology, we are denying ourselves the potential to take great strides forward.

I went into an engineering degree and then became a technology journalist for the simple reason that I had access to basic electronic kits when I was young. My father bought me a lightbulb, a switch and a battery along with three pieces of wire so that I could make a circuit. And it blew me away - metaphorically, of course. But then I wanted to make more elaborate circuits and so I bought a second lightbulb and switch, which led to DIY electronics: building transistor radios and so on.

I went into adult life just ‘getting it’ and every time I think about the digital revolution I’m aware of what’s going on. All those little switches that make my smartphone work. And so I get intellectual satisfaction from appreciating our digital world. Hopefully, for a few of us, that will then lead to becoming a programmer or a chip designer, and participating in the next phase of electronic design. Fiddling around with a simple board with a chip sitting on it might seem like a trivial matter, but if that’s what it takes to fire up the next generation of programmers and innovators then I’m absolutely all for it.

I don’t see how the Raspberry Pi could be a bad thing, especially when it comes to emerging economies. They have a lot in common with our needs in the West: the need to innovate and to educate. And so for the developing world all these things add up; if you take Africa, which was once a whole continent on a dial-up modem, and which now has broadband, it becomes clear that connectivity is one part of the equation.

Another, which is what we’re talking about here, is putting hardware into the hands of bright young things in innovation centres such as the iHub in Nairobi. This is a digital space that’s being used to help create regional startups, to come up with ideas in a supportive collegiate environment. Whether those guys are going to get their hands on the Raspberry Pi and do amazing things with it, we’ll see.

Don’t forget that we’ve just seen development of the first tablet-style product - the Way C - homegrown in Africa; developed in the Republic of Congo for an African market. That really gives you a sense of where innovation in consumer electronics can go in Africa. And if the Raspberry Pi can play its own little part, surely that’s a good thing.

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The future of science teaching can’t come down to a consumer product that’s just a bunch of components. The real crisis in Britain isn’t software. It’s manufacturing. Everybody across government and the opposition recognises that young people have little concept of what goes in to making the toughened glass of their iPod screens, or making the polypropylene cases for their computers. There’s this frightening illusion that software is going to provide us with some kind of economy. But if you ask the Germans, they’ll tell you that you have to make physical things. And so this little toy - the Raspberry Pi - is a nice idea, but the only kids who will like it are those who are already interested in computers. Most kids will say: “That looks naff. That’s not cool. It’s got no casing and no fashion content. I’m just not interested.”

The Raspberry Pi will do well, but it’s not a magic solution. It’s the sort of thing we did when we were kids with our electronic kits. It’s a hobbyist’s device with an interesting concept that is very attractive to marketing people and the media. But it’s not going to transform people who aren’t interested in computers into people who are. And what’s more, from a basic design standpoint, I don’t think it’s going to satisfy the demand for raw power, storage and capability that young people expect.

Another characteristic that seems to have got the headline writers in a frenzy is that it’s a ‘low-cost’ computer, starting at $25. But that’s a bit disingenuous, because there are an awful lot of ancillary items you have to go and buy to make it work properly as a computer: storage devices, I/O devices and a screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it will be terrific fun seeing if I can make some sort of machine by linking all the junk at the bottom of my filing cabinet together via a Raspberry Pi. But, if I’d really wanted to do that, I would have done so by now. After all, so far as I can see, there are no radical components on that board which of course is one of the reasons why it can be brought to market at such a price. It really is like the old days when we used to get components from the Maplin catalogue and make our own amplifiers and synthesisers.

The other thing I find a bit distracting whenever a low-cost entry-level computer comes to market is that there’s always this great cry of commentators saying that this will solve Africa’s IT needs. Now, I’ve got to be careful to say that this isn’t a claim necessarily being made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. But these claims are always made on the manufacturer’s behalf by overzealous people who want that to be true. But, it is often the case that Africa is perfectly capable of sorting out its own IT problems. Just like the rest of the world, people in Africa use mobile phones to transact their business and to keep in touch. There isn’t the infrastructure of long-distance cabling, so mobile technology has completely transformed Africa’s ability in commerce, education and agriculture. This was a side-effect of the mobile revolution that Africa discovered with the aid of successful marketing. You have to remember that a mobile phone is typically cheaper than the cheapest laptop. So the Raspberry Pi will have little or no impact on computer science in the emerging economies, no matter how attractive it might be to say that personal computing is now within the financial reach of another billion or so people.

Any device is going to be of little interest to anyone not already interested. The problem, certainly in the UK, is the way in which computer science is taught in schools. It would be a shame if a product like this lets the government off the hook, because the real revolution has to come from within teaching and the curriculum. At the moment IT teaching is simply failing to engage children who are way ahead of the curve.

I’m pleased that the Raspberry Pi is popular and that people are buying it. I just doubt that it will effect our preparedness for the technological world.

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Will the Raspberry Pi single-board computer revolutionise computer science teaching?

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