Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/11/27/feature_raspberry_pi_in_schools/

Bash Street bytes: Do UK schools really need the Raspberry Pi?

Does Britain really need to be a nation of coders?

By Giles Hill

Posted in Hardware, 27th November 2012 11:49 GMT

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 UK

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

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.

Pi practicalities

Mr Griffiths is keen to stress that for those who want to devise portable, electronic engineering devices, the Pi is a great product. Ditto when it’s used as an affordable, programmable computer for cash-strapped individuals. But in a school-lab set up with computers already, “it’s not going to give me anything I can’t get on the PCs already here”.

Similarly, Dave Eustice, head of IT at Raynes Park High, South-West London will be getting just five Pis “so that children can have some exposure to them. We’ll have a carousel of activities, and one of them will be using the Raspberry Pis”. It’s an approach being applied by other schools in the borough, he says. The Pis complement the curriculum, but to use them as replacements for main workstations in a school environment is unrealistic.

He likes Scratch

“You can have someone at your control.” Alex Blunt enjoys the measured creativity that Scratch brings.
Source: Giles Hill

Mr Griffiths explains that one of his Year Ten students beat him in the rush to buy a Raspberry Pi. The lad is the type of student he wishes he had more of, with “a very natural coding talent”. That said, this student managed to break his first Raspberry Pi, through everyday handling and use, and by the time his second order turned up, “he’d lost interest [in it] and moved on to other things”.

The “other things” Griffiths mentions include the Greenfoot Java online learning system, and programs like AppInventor from MIT. Griffiths explains that with this freebie, students can create “Android-based apps that they can immediately run on their mobile phones or tablets”, gadgets kids these days are intimately familiar with and excited by.

This is crucial. “The teaching of programming needs to be done with an eye to how students will engage with it,” adds Jenny Griffiths.

It’s not hard to appreciate that creating, modifying and then sharing apps - getting other people to use them, in other words - is likely to capture and sustain the interest of children studying Computing. But surely if we want to get away from the stereotype of programmers as socially inept males, and encourage more girls to get involved, plugging into the technology that children most engage with will get a more them to participate?

Up to Scratch?

Plenty of recent media coverage has partnered Scratch with the Raspberry Pi as if MIT’s kid-centric coding system was invented for the Pi. It wasn't.

Scratch is a wonderful learning tool. Tasks can be easily differentiated: that is, different objectives, within a common theme, can be assigned to different-ability children, within the same lesson. For teachers like me, another of its joys is that it will run on most of the half-baked, crusty old PCs still found in Britain’s schools. It’s also free and comes with some decent teaching resources.

Some say using Scratch isn’t real programming, but the advantage of being able to drag and drop code components – for kids to have visual feedback throughout a task, without getting hung up on syntax – is what makes it a brilliant first step into programming for all children, not just the code-minded.

I’d argue that Scratch is a far more fundamentally useful teaching tool, disguised right there as part of the Raspberry Pi package. Like many parents and teachers who have seen kids get creative with Scratch, I’ve been impressed by watching children as young as seven experimenting with making sprites move in different ways, working out collision detection and creating game mechanics.

MIT's Scratch programming learning tool

MIT's Scratch: drag'n'drop programming to teach logical thinking if not coding too

All primary age children love Scratch. It very easily engages with them at their level, whether they can type and read, or not. Programming in a Python window will never fulfill that requirement. When the new framework for ICT gets primary school teachers in a panic with its algorithm objectives, it’s the easily understood, no tech problems, integrated environment of Scratch that they’ll be downloading.

If there’s an aspect of the Raspberry Pi that really shouldn’t be ignored by schools, it’s the mass of hobbyist mobile inventions that seem to be springing up. Those Raspberry Pi balloons going up into the stratosphere with cameras? Amazing. The bird-box that sends a tweet (ha, ha) when a bird enters? Incredible. And competitions like Manchester University’s The Great Raspberry Pi Bake Off are great for the country’s young Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, in and out of school.

Not a total raspberry

Such inventions are fantastic classroom talking points for kids, and really get them thinking about how technology works. Even if they don’t leave the lesson knowing a programming language any better than they did before, they’ve still encountered and used logical thinking processes. This kind of kit is also a great way to inspire children with a coding inclination to get tinkering.

Richard Lander’s head of ICT, Jenny Griffiths, says there’s a “real place for programming boards”, but she also knows that, realistically, the number of students who have a sustainable interest in a subject like programming is “capped at around 20 per cent of children”. And that’s probably being generous.

The launch of the Raspberry Pi payload

Pi in the Sky: the board is great for science projects not just coding lessons

Bryan Pearce, deputy head of Swallow Hill Community College, Leeds, agrees. The Pi, he says, will not turn Britain into a nation of programmers. “For some children it really pushes a switch, for others it leaves them cold. It’s not for everyone.”

So when Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and a senior UK games publisher figure, suggests that Raspberry Pis should be given to “every child in the country”, he ought to think carefully about the vastly varied demographic he’s referring to. Most RPis would end up gathering dust in drawers or sold on eBay, and even worse: it could confirm to some kids that coding really is a foreign and difficult world that they will never want, or be able to, understand.

10 This is boring
20 Let’s go play football / smoke fags
30 Go to “The Park”

It doesn’t mean some Raspberry Pis shouldn’t be distributed for free. Indeed, code-minded children will come up with some amazing work. How’s this for a better distribution model? Run a lunchtime club to show off the Raspberry Pi, its capabilities and potential. If children show up and give it a go for two or three sessions, then give those kids a Raspberry Pi – heck, give them two.

Free Pi

Some exposure to programming boards – and, importantly, the logical thought involved in make use of such technology – can benefit many children, even at a young age, and will inspire some to get involved further. The Pi is a great device for granting the next-generation of hobbyist programmers and electrical engineers early access to the coding world – but in schools it works best in particular circumstances only.

Pi irate

So the HDMI lead you brought in is a slightly different spec and won’t work with our monitors? Um, see you next week.
Source: Giles Hill

It can be useful in the context of Computing at GCSE and above. It may also work with small groups of children who are interested in coding and have the inquisitive perseverance that the Raspberry Pi requires – extra-curricular coding clubs are a fantastic idea. Furthermore, there’s no reason why small, higher-ability groups of children (of any age) with a flair for coding can’t be challenged with Pi projects by teachers in mainstream lessons.

The Raspberry Pi is a tool for investigation, a toybox for those kids who’ve just begun their obsession with computers. And while that makes it a wonderful learning device for some, by the same token it also makes it unsuitable for teaching ‘average Joe and Josephine’.

If schools attempt to teach coding to every child using Raspberry Pis alone, there are going to be some awfully frustrated teachers out there, trapped in a haze of code, USB leads and broken HDMI connectors, and some ridiculously bored children as well. That would be a real shame for everyone. ®