With sales in excess of one million in its first year, the Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes its low-cost computer will enthuse a new generation of coders.
It's a standard household scene. A 16-year-old computer whizz (that is, when it comes to playing games) communicating and doing eight things at once on the machine, hits a brick wall when the computer starts to go wrong. Mum finds nothing on the Internet but jargon. Dad, a former teacher, has no idea what to do. Time to call in 'the geek'.
Everyone knows one. In his teens, he (they're usually blokes) spent hours taking computers apart and reprogramming them. Now he's an IT guru. The rest of us did ICT at school; some of us are good at typing.
Things are changing. This year, education secretary Michael Gove plans to introduce a new IT curriculum that focuses more on computer science and less on secretarial skills. The British education system is notoriously slow to embrace change, though. Whether it's today's children who will benefit or the children of future generations remains to be seen.
Something that may speed things up, though, is the new computer that looks like the sort of thing the geek might keep in his den, but sounds like something served up in the school canteen. The Raspberry Pi is an uncased, credit-card sized computer that can run off the mains or from a portable battery. Developer the Raspberry Pi Foundation says that it is individual children, not their schools, who will be given the computers. At schools, or at home, the kids will be able to use the Raspberry Pi like a desktop PC for gaming, spreadsheets, word-processing and to play videos. Also like a desktop, their new machine will connect to TVs, games consoles and keyboards.
Most of all, the Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes that these computers will encourage their young owners to program. "We wanted a computer that people can do things with, not another one on which they just consume content," says Foundation trustee Robert Mullins.
Mullins, from Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory, and five other Cambridge-based scientists, set up the Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2009 to promote computer science in schools. He explains that today's desktop computers and laptops make programming difficult. "Computers are delivered with a closed platform so it's difficult to do anything with them except consume," he says.
Another Raspberry Pi Trustee, Eben Upton, used to be in charge of Cambridge University's undergraduate computer-science admissions. In the early to mid 2000s, he noticed that fewer A level students were applying. There were fewer quality applicants, too.
Upton explains that, in the 1990s, experienced hobbyist programmers applied for computer science degrees at Cambridge. By the 2000s he was finding that a typical applicant might only have done a bit of Web design. "The students hadn't used programmable hardware and just couldn't programme," he says. He explains that earlier generations had been brought up on Amigas, BBC Micros, ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s, low-powered computers with a fraction of the built-in entertainment that today's machines offer. To get the most out of these machines users had to get under the bonnet.
Today, tinkering with a computer is like taking the TV apart. There's a major crisis if anything goes wrong: lost files, emails and photographs; important communications with friends, family and work colleagues, gone; a £500 bill if you can't get it working again. "If you're going to take a computer apart, you need something cheap," Mullins adds. "Something you can programme and just leave as part of your project."
The Raspberry Pi costs £26. If you break or lose it, you can just get another. It's only £20 for the newer Model A, which has slightly less RAM and only one USB port. There's no operating system on the computer, either; it's stored on an SD card. "If there's a glitch in the operating system you just rewrite the card or get another," Rob Mullins adds.
The first batch of 10,000 Raspberry Pis sold out, online, almost immediately. The prototype attracted eBay bids of more than £3,000. Since the launch last February, geeks and tinkermen all over the world have gobbled up over a million Pis for their DIY computer projects. But despite their product's commercial potential, the Foundation is determined not to lose sight of its educational vision.
In February 2011, Ian Livingstone, author of the government commissioned Next Gen Report into the skills needed to transform the UK video games and visual effects industry, started criticising "boring ICT lessons that gave children no insight into how technology is actually created".
Livingstone, Games Workshop founder and Edios President, explained that with British manufacturing in decline and financial services in disarray, if the economy was to succeed, someone needed to empower creative people with the skills necessary to serve digital content to global audiences. "Code is absolutely essential to that," Livingstone says. "It's at the heart of everything we do in the digital world. It's not just about video games and visual effects, it's also about designing the next jet propulsion engine, or fighting cybercrime, or running financial services."
Google's Eric Schmidt, speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, gave the opinion that by teaching children how to use software rather than create it, schools were throwing away Britain's great computing heritage. Since then, industry leaders, educationalists and finally government figures came out in favour of curriculum change. In its response to the Next Gen report, the government said something about Raspberry Pi, too.
"Much as the BBC Micro inspired a generation of computer programmers in the early 1980s, the Raspberry Pi could provide the platform for teachers and pupils to gain hands-on programming experience."
Face the Pi
A Raspberry Pi computer looks like a PC motherboard and uses the sort of microchips usually found in mobile phones. It uses Broadcom SoC; a 700MHz ARM11 processor handles basic computations – inputs, outputs and calculations; and there's also a Videocore 4 graphics processing unit. These processors combine processing and multimedia capability into a small shell. They don't use too much power too quickly and keep the computer relatively cool.
The original model has 512MB RAM, 2 USB ports and an Ethernet port. The cheaper model A has 256MB RAM, one USB port and no Ethernet connection. Operating systems are mainly Linux distributions, although there are other non-Linux operating systems, for instance RiscOS. Linux has low memory overheads, so it's possible to run a fully functional operating system on a simple device with no permanent storage. Linux often comes with programming languages already installed. Scratch and Python work on the Raspberry Pi.
It comes, like many of the earliest home computers, without peripherals. Analogue TVs and other similar output devices connect through an RCA jack. With the Raspberry Pi's HDMI connector users can hook up a high-definition television or other compatible device using an HDMI cable. Exposed, general-purpose input/output connection points give hobbyists their chance to tinker. Attachable USB hubs expand the number of available ports, allowing users to connect additional mice, keyboards, network adapters and external storage. There is no internal storage space.
With attachable interface boards users can do even more with their computer. One such creation is the Pi-face. Designed by Manchester University scientists, it's the same size as the Raspberry Pi itself and clips on top of the computer. Using Pi-face, the computer can read switches attached to it. Users input the code and the Raspberry Pi drives the outputs, powering motors and robots, triggering cameras or using sensor networks – and indeed anything else the fiendishly clever, geekish mind can think of.
"You can plug in and control robots, scalextric cars or train sets," says Manchester University's Dr David Rydenheard, and those are just the obvious uses. His Manchester University colleague, Dr Andrew Robinson, who designed the gadget, has thought about an automated insulin monitor that dials 999, and something similar that reorders food when the cupboard is bare. "One youngster even suggested making a device that politely reminds you to put the toilet seat down after using it," Robinson says.
Children at Our Lady's High School in Preston use Raspberry Pis too. A group of 12-year-olds wanted to monitor squirrel activity in the school grounds, but didn't want to leave their iPhones in the playground. Instead they hid a Raspberry Pi in a tree overnight, and programmed it to take a photo every time something moved nearby. "Three triple A batteries gave the computer enough power to run for eight hours," says ICT teacher Alan O'Donohoe. "The group collected working data to a memory card. It was just like using a digital camera."
O'Donohoe has seen students turn a model barking dog from a charity shop into a vacuum cleaner and reprogram a 1970s remote control plastic truck to carry out more complex instructions than its makers ever intended.
"The toy no longer does do what its makers wanted it to do," O'Donohoe says, "it does what we tell it." O'Donohoe doesn't have a class set of Raspberry Pis yet, but he's determined to get one.
Some 15,000 Raspberry Pis will find their way to youngsters around the country over the next year. Educational organisations CoderDojo, Code Club, Computing at Schools, Generating Genius, Teach First and OCR are currently deciding how best to distribute them. "We want the computers in the hands of those children who will really benefit from owning one," Rob Mullins says. Mullins envisages that for the new owners, using their Raspberry Pi will be like learning a musical instrument, "You're tutored at school and then practise at home," he adds.
Music lessons have specialist teachers to teach them, though. Next Gen found that only one new teacher qualified with computer science as a main specialism, in 2010. A January 2012 Royal Society report said that only 35 per cent of all ICT teachers were subject specialists. This January, the Association for Information Technology in Initial Teacher Training recorded a 41 per cent drop in computer science applicants. Universities blame confusion over courses changing from ICT to computer science and a reduction in allocated places, for the shortfall.
Things are starting to move on this. BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, has 50 bursaries of £20,000 available for high-flying IT graduates who want to train as teachers. The government has asked IBM, Facebook and Microsoft to help design the training. The Network Computer Science Teaching Excellence Scheme will train 500 current IT teachers over the next year. BCS hopes that half of those trained will subsequently run their own professional development courses for other teachers. There are some computer science specialists, like Alan O'Donohoe, in schools. Computing at Schools have 1,000 of them on their books, according to Ian Livingstone. In England, however, there are 4.1 million children in 16,971 state primary schools and three million in 3,127 secondaries.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, it took a national strategy with targets, and around £150m a year for the best part of ten years, to get schools doing the sort of PE and sport that the government wanted. And that was with paid organisers in every school and thousands of specialist coaches to deliver activity. It still took years to get sport off the ground. And even then, some schools didn't really do much. Computer science has no such funding or infrastructure behind it.
The current government prefers initiative to come from those on the ground. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has already started training teachers and children to use its computers. User manuals, online tutorials and classroom resources are imminent, and networks of interested geeks are already spreading the word. Rob Mullins sees after-school programming clubs as a way of kick-starting the computer science revolution. "Kids will find out that computing doesn't have to be about sitting on your own, communicating remotely," he says, "get together with like-minded people and learn from each other."
Visit the IET's Raspberry Pi Community page at http://bit.ly/eandt-pi-community