Bash Street bytes: Do UK schools really need the Raspberry Pi?
Does Britain really need to be a nation of coders?
Feature There’s been a right fracas in education this year, with the government proclaiming that ICT (Information and Communication Technology) teaching is dull and demotivating, and that kids need to be be taught more programming, and less use of applications.
Into the fray like a white knight comes the Raspberry Pi, a tool designed to put the joy of coding back into kids’ hearts. Its arrival has been followed by a multitude of articles in the mainstream press which have given it a massive thumbs-up as the great teaching aid that will save us all and give us an IT-savvy workforce for the 21st century.
Well, the broader buzz surrounding the Raspberry Pi has reached some kids at least. I teach ICT-based lessons in primary schools, and pupils have approached me with shouts of “I’m getting a Raspberry Pi for Christmas!” and “I’ve been making programs on my dad’s Raspberry Pi!”
That second quote speaks volumes: there’s a passionate gang of "geek dads"’ around, who are impressing the coding bug upon their offspring while they relive their ZX Spectrum youth.
Raspberry Pi: some pundits see the ultra-cheap computer as the saviour of UK IT
Dads like these – and, sorry, it does tend to be dads, not mums – are doing their best to get the Pi inside the school gates. Nick Corston, a parent from St Saviour’s C of E, Paddington, London, organised a Raspberry Pi taster session for the kids as part of a “creative thinking and doing” activities day. The school is now setting up an after-hours Code-Club as a way for those children who were inspired by the activity to take it further.
No doubt, coding clubs are a fantastic extra-curricular feature for schools, but what about utilising the Pi in lessons?
The draft proposal for the new ICT curriculum is laden with coding-oriented objectives. It suggests that all pupils should “understand the fundamental principles of computer science, including algorithms”, and should “have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs”.
The Raspberry Pi, you might think, should be the perfect tool for all this. But what do teachers actually think of the Pi? Does it lend itself to productive, worthwhile lessons - or will children be just as disenchanted using a Pi as they were being taught the "bad" old ICT exam specs?
Jenny Griffiths, the head of department at Richard Lander, a Specialist Technology College in Truro, Cornwall, expresses reserved enthusiasm for the RPi: “It could be the start of something really positive.” Currently, the college has 15 children taking the OCR GCSE in Computing a year earlier than kids normally take their GCSEs – they cherry-pick “gifted and talented” students, which seems like a sensible way to get the right children geared up and enthused about programming early on.
Jenny would love Raspberry Pi - an impressive British initiative, she thinks - to be a success. Yet the device is only used by Computing GCSE children occasionally, and it isn’t the essential item you might suppose.
She likes her Pi: Taygan Forth loves coding, though it’s “a bit annoying when you have to repeat your typing again and again.”
Source: Giles Hill
Adam Griffiths, Jenny’s husband and the College’s lead programming teacher, told me that he isn’t about to rush out and buy one for every child, even though he considered this approach at first. It isn’t hard to understand the problem, walking around Richard Lander’s impressively organised computer labs; these rooms have to cater for many different students and subjects, and the Raspberry Pi doesn’t fit well into that sort of environment.
“So we’re going to spend five to 10 minutes at the start of every lesson, and the same again at the end, fiddling around with unplugging and reconnecting the PCs already in the room?” he says. Sure, his GCSE Computing kids can handle it, but an average class of 30 13-year-olds? The chaos, time wasted – not to mention the inevitable breakages – just wouldn’t be worth it, even for a 26 quid computer.
Next page: Pi practicalities
We need them for democracy
Democracy requires every person to understand the world to some degree. Computers are an important part of our world. So people need to have at least a general idea about how they work. They need to know what they do where their inherent limitations are.
If you don't teach children how to program, they will grow up not understanding why "copy protection" cannot work, or why voting machines can never be used for democratic elections.
"Secondly, the "£25" computer is a myth. You have to buy cases, SD cards, highly-regulated power supplies, plus something for it to plug into (like a monitor for a start). PER DEVICE."
Wrong. Bar the SD card it's no "per device", it's per seat. The keyboard, monitor etc all probably exist right now and are ready to use. Heck, the RasPi can be per seat too, just have the kids carry their own SD card (may not make sense in all cases though).
The RasPi is far from perfect, but the idea is sound and it is better that spunking £500+ on locked-down shite that just spits out brainless button-pushers.
"you need to have the training and the support infrastructure there to handle things."
That exists. They're called "Computer Science Teachers". And then I remember that in England one is not required to have a degree in the subject one teaches.
It's not the coding or even the RasPi
It's the everything. It's removing the fear of tinerking, investigating and trying new things. It's encouraging thought, analysis, design, and engineering. This used to be the province of Meccano, Lego etc (both now dumbed down to hell).
To do this you don't actually need a RasPi, but you need something free, open and cheap enough that if you do happen to break it; it's not the end of the world. You simply cannot do that on a desktop PC with restricted boot and a restricted operating system.
All that does is produce push-button clones who thing "Google" is the Internet and that Excel is a good database.
Well, every post I've read from you over the past few months, related to the Raspi, has said pretty much the same thing - extreme negativity because of initial teething troubles. Now some points you make are still valid, but most are not. The latest boards have improved power handling, the latest kernel software (which I presume you haven't tried since you board is in the loft - I'd suggest selling it whilst there is still a backlog) is much improved and fixes the majority of USB issues. Supply issues are almost sorted - going from expected 30k sales per year to 1 million takes a bit of sorting out. It has been surprisingly popular...
As to the usefulness in school - I think the article was extremely good and shows up where it's useful and where it isn't. It's never claimed to be a panacea, but a catalyst to improve the teaching of computers - and it's certainly kicked something off!
No, no and thrice no!
We do not need them learning "web programming", we need them learning how the systems and languages that support the web and all the associated infrastructure. Teaching them web programming is no better than teaching them Excel; we need them to be able to write their own operating systems, write their own web-based languages, etc...
Plus financial success isn't the only reward for learning to do something; believe it or not, some people, even those who left school over a decade ago (or several decades ago), actually enjoy learning something new just to learn something new.