Educational and learning kits based around Raspberry Pi computers could help schools ensure that England's new computing curriculum captures the imaginations of young technologists.
The autumn 2014 term will see a reboot in the way the teaching of computing skills is approached in English schools. The National Curriculum 'computing programmes of study' replaces the old ICT curriculum with something that emphasises understanding basic principles of computer science – analysing and solving problems by applying computational techniques, program writing and so on.
The guiding idea is that instead of pupils merely being consumers of software, the curriculum can deliver practical examples of computer science right from Key Stage 1 through the school journey.
The reasoning is that today's world demands that computational skills such as programming should form part and parcel of every pupil's core skillset. The fact of the matter is that as things stand, the UK's future workforce is simply not as clued-up as it should be, and things have to change.
Computing traverses the curriculum. It has deep links with mathematics, science and design and technology, and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems. The core of computing, however, is computer science: the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work, and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. Digital literacy is also key; it allows expression via information and communications tech.
"There are very good reasons for kids to understand computer science and not just be ICT consumers," says Paddy Fawcett, director at retailer Little Pi Shop. "Computer science is being able to understand programming and the science behind it – computational thinking and how you can make x and y happen via a computer, and determine when that happens according to the 'rules' that you set."
Computer science in school
All pupils who study the new computing curriculum will have to understand the fundamental principles of computer science, analyse and solve problems by applying computational techniques, write a program for these problems, apply technology including new or unfamiliar technology to analytically solve problems, and be competent users of information and communication technology. The curriculum will be delivered across all Key Stages.
The Raspberry Pi computer is being positioned to be at the heart of these new initiatives, and indeed the latest model of the Pi – the B+ – can power more peripherals without the need for a dedicated power source, and has more connectors to help link it to other devices.
Indeed despite its success – a million units were sold within the first year of its availability – the Pi has effectively roughly the same power as an Apple iPhone, and is relatively inexpensive. Users can run apps on it, but the beauty is that it can be connected to other things via a series of GPIO (general purpose input and output) pins.
It can also be used right down at command level, making it ideal for both younger users to see how a computer can make something move and work, and older pupils to learn to program at command level.
Furthermore, because of its affordability, it lowers any barriers to adoption based on individual affluence: even a relatively inexpensive £200 computing device can prove a pricey purchase for many youngsters. If a Raspberry Pi gets lost or broken, the impact is nothing like the same as an equivalent loss hitting a laptop or tablet PC device.
To meet the demands of, and expectations set by, the new curriculum several suppliers now offer educational or teaching kits designed to help teachers to deliver the new curriculum. These vary in composition and content, but are designed to provide a focus for project-led approaches to Raspberry Pi-based work. "We looked at the specifications of the curriculum and identified what we saw as the problems," says Timothy Jones, marketing manager at retailer Wishtrac, which offers the Raspberry Pi Complete Curriculum Kit. This product-set claims to contain everything, except a monitor, that classes need to get started with the Pi and complete six units of work.
"We wanted the coding, Scratch, to be easily useable and for pupils to be able to easily identify how to use the kits and what the variables are that affect how the commands work. For example with a simple alarm the variable is to set it to be on or off and the output is the signal to the buzzer to tell it to go on or off."
Making this straightforward to actually use will be a key. For example, the use of Scratch coding (Scratch is a multimedia authoring tool) at primary level is meant to ensure that younger pupils can drag-and-drop commands, and so can still understand that their programming and commands (the dragging-and-dropping) has had an impact on something else.
"Scratch doesn't use syntax and so the series of commands it offers can be used with click and drag," says Little Pi Shop's Fawcett, "for instance, 'hello', 'wait one second', and so on. It is a nice one as younger children quickly get to grips with and it can immediately see the impact of their programming. It is the whole concept of being able to make something happen."
It is not just the physical equipment that is important. One of the key inhibitors of the new curriculum is that many teachers might have limited experience when it comes to computational skills.
The challenge is therefore to provide relevant training, workshops, lesson plans and other ideas as to how to deliver the curriculum. Some sites also have forums to discuss ideas and issues with both experts and other users. "We think that up to 90 per cent of teachers have little or no skillset when it comes to programming and computer science, so to bridge that gap we have free workshops, which we are trying to get CPD accredited," Fawcett explains. "The workshops also give us feedback on how to make our kits more user-friendly – something we consider to be important since we are right at the start of this process."
Jones concurs: "At the teaching end we want the teachers to be able to jump straight into this and have tried to make it user-friendly for them as well as the children. Lots of teachers are finding that having a code club at school is a good approach as it allows for small incremental steps for both teachers and pupils and lets them ease into the new curriculum."
For kit suppliers it makes sense commercially to make life as easy as possible for teachers, and the desire must surely be to become the provider of choice – for teachers, head teachers, and local authorities alike. Jones adds: "One of the biggest problems with the new curriculum is that it is as much about making it simple for teachers as for the pupils. This is new for many teachers, so they need some help on how to do this and how to deliver an engaging lesson plan."
Accordingly offering not just free initial workshops but ongoing support and reference material, online as well as in a physical learning environment, is key and should serve to add value for the providers that are enabling teachers to 'can and do' and that have an open ethos of learning for all and sharing knowledge and experience.
Little Pi, for example, has a Moodle which offers online, open-source support. It is divided into jump-right-in starter questions, as well as project-specific help and general forums to suit beginners right through to advanced users. There are also key-stage specific sections that show what the incoming curriculum demands, and suggest ways of fulfilling those requirements.
Jones thinks that the differentiation is around the key stage as well as the training and support, but it could make sense to assume that primary teachers, being generalists, are going to need less support than subject-specific teachers further up the school system.