Raspberry Pi bids for success with classroom coders
A test version of the Raspberry Pi computer has attracted bids of more than £3,000 in a fund-raising auction on eBay. With the machine about to start its first major production run, could it be the right tool to revitalise computer science in schools?
"Consider our gast well and truly flabbered," blogged Liz Upton of the Raspberry Pi team in response to news that an auction of 10 trial versions of the computers had attracted offers worth thousands of pounds.
The highest bid for one of the beta versions is over £3,000, more than a hundred times the planned asking price for the most expensive model of £22.
The uncased, credit-card sized, 700MHz machines are an unlikely gadget must-have.
But with a mailing list of more than 50,000 members, Raspberry Pi have found that plenty of people think they're a good thing.
The Pi's creators hope the bare-bones computers will play an important part in encouraging children to code.
The beta machines on auction were produced as a test ahead of a longer production run; proceeds will support the project.
"We found one small error which we've manually fixed," Eben Upton, founder and trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation told the BBC.
Fixing these early boards involved adding a blob of solder "using a microscope and a scalpel", he said.
"Unforgeable proof that this really is a limited edition."
The first tranche of machines is expected to begin production this month.
Mr Upton was not able to give exact numbers but said it would likely be in "the low thousands".
The Pi's backers have drawn inspiration from the BBC Micro.
Produced in the 1980s by Acorn computers for the BBC Computer Literacy Project, they were widely adopted in British Schools.
BBC Basic, the programming language which ran on the machines, provided a gentle introduction to the challenges of coding.
Many in the UK IT industry trace their interest in computing back to such early coding experiences.
"If you think back to the 1980s the BBC Micro was the cornerstone of computing in schools," Ian Livingstone, life president of games company Eidos, told the BBC.
Mr Livingstone co-authored, with Alex Hope, of visual effects company Double Negative, theNext Gen report- an examination of how IT education in UK schools could better meet the needs of the games and visual effects industries.
He's critical of the way IT is currently taught in UK schools. In his view it is often: "Nothing more than office and secretarial skills: learning Word and PowerPoint and Excel."
The Next Gen report's recommendations set out a number of changes, including making computer science an essential discipline in the national curriculum.
Inits response to the report, released late last year, the UK government mentioned Raspberry Pi.
"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," it stated.
Mr Livingstone believes there is an appetite for change.
"I've met with special advisers at No 10," he said.
"We've had some pretty significant discussions quite recently.
"I'm very hopeful, but there's a long way between a nodding head and changing the curriculum."
However, Mr Livingstone may not have to wait long to find out the government's plans; further announcements on the teaching of IT in schools are expected in the next couple of days.
Back to the future
The Raspberry Pi may hope to repeat the success of the BBC Micro, but a Marty McFly style leap back in time to the computer rooms of the 1980s will not meet the IT needs of modern schools.
"Those days are gone," said Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation, an educational charity helping schools provide learning technologies.
While she's supportive of the Raspberry Pi, she argues that unlike the early 1980s the principal use of computers is not to teach pupils about computing.
In her view, students will need access to a "portfolio of products" which could include devices like the Pi but will also require others designed primarily to help with school work in other subjects.
And it's not just a question of technology. The Next Gen report highlighted a general need for more teachers qualified in computer science.
It said: "Of the 28,767 teachers who were awarded Qualified Teacher Status... in 2010, only three qualified in computing or computing science as their primary qualification (compared with 750 in ICT)."
Like the BBC Micro, the Raspberry Pi will be simple enough for non-specialists to use, but to get the most out of it many teachers will need help.
"It is not 'Will teachers accept it?'," says Prof Diana Laurillard, chair of learning with digital technologies at the Institute of Education.
"It is: 'Will they be given the professional development opportunity they need to make use of it?'
"It is a question of growing that kind of expertise, it's not half an afternoon's workshop."
It is, of course, possible to learn to programme on machines of the sort already used in schools, but Raspberry Pi Foundation trustee Robert Mullins of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University thinks the Pi will draw students into learning to code.
"We obviously hope that Raspberry Pi will help attract more people in to having a go," he wrote in an email to the BBC.
"The Raspberry Pi is small, credit-card sized, low-cost, low-power and is relatively easy to interface to other devices.
"This will enable it to be used to create powerful robots and mobile gadgets."
Mr Mullins believes that the online community developing around the Raspberry Pi will be important, and that is only possible because of the shared experience of owning one of the devices.
"We will create our own 'app store' type website so people can exchange programs," he wrote.
The Raspberry Pi team will be turning to early adopters of the machines to help develop software and online resources according to another trustee, David Braben.
The co-author, in the 1980s, of the influential space trading game Elite thinks it's important to give pupils access to an inexpensive dedicated device.
He said that rather than worry about pupils damaging computers it was better to give them a machine where "breaking" the device is part of the learning experience.
"Desktop computers have now got so complicated they're actually quite hard to programme," he said.
"What I hope we can do is foster the level of familiarity and understanding that computers in the 1980s did."
The high prices earned at auction show that there are plenty of people who feel passionately about the Raspberry Pi. The success of the project will depend upon sustaining that enthusiasm.
"Big curriculum change is hard," says Mr Upton.
"In the first instance we're going to be fenced in to quite a geeky corner of the world.
"We are going to require teachers who have, off their own back, developed quite sophisticated computer skills - but obviously that's not the long-term goal," he said.
Mr Upton anticipates after-school clubs will be in the vanguard of the Pi's integration into the the classroom.
Next Gen co-author Mr Livingstone believes that, as in the 1980s, the BBC could have a role in building grass-roots support for the device.
"The BBC should possibly brand this as the BBC Nano, and like they did in the 1980s provide TV programmes that help the teachers and help the students," he said.
But for the Raspberry Pi team success does not necessarily require change on the scale of the home computing revolution.
Eben Upton's concerns about the skill levels of university applicants entering computing provided the inspiration for the project. He thinks even a modest change in the numbers of young people choosing computer science-related careers would justify their work.
"I think 1,000 kids a year would make an enormous difference," he said.