Raspberry Pi computer: Can it get kids into code?

I cannot see the Raspberry Pi achieving what Eben Upton (one of the founders of the Raspberry PI project) thinks, although I hope it will.

I have been teaching programming to students in Year 8 for the past three years. Our choice of Exam course allows students to get a GCSE equivalent in programming computer games.  We do this using the Scratch program that Ebon demonstrated on the Pi in the video above.

Sinclair Spectrum

I think that Ebon and his team are seeing the 80′s computer world through rose tinted Speckie-tles. I grew up in the same era of computing and learnt the basics of programming on my Oric 1 at home and BBC Model B at school. Lots of my friends had home computers too, but their understanding of BASIC didn’t get much further than LOAD as they pressed play on their cassette player to load Manic Miner.

The PI I believe will have a similar effect in that only those who are already inquisitive in that direction will be interested in exploring the more techie side of the Pi, while most kids who get one will just use it as a cheap computer with less power then their smart phone.

We were compelled to learn a little programming because that is how you had to interact with your computer in the 80s.  Putting Linux and a graphical user interface on the Pi will mean that users won’t even see the command line unless they are interested enough to tinker – so you will only be stimulating those who are already inquisitive, rather than sparking an interest in those who have never thought about that side of computing before.

Demonstrating Scratch as the programming environment on the Pi is an interesting choice. All the students we teach programming to at my school have installed Scratch (a free download form MIT) onto their computers at home. It has no potential to damage the home computer so students don’t have the fear that Emily Fulcher has in the BBC’s report of it’s launch. The only advantage it has is that Emily wouldn’t have to wrestle the laptop off her Mum, although taking over the family TV in today’s 24 hour multichannel, satellite, DVD, console environment might be a bigger issue than it was for us back in the 80s.

I have registered my interest and hope to get a Raspberry Pi, and I will certainly explore it’s potential. The problem for me in my school is that I don’t have any TV/monitors to plug the things into as we have all in one computers (iMacs), so I would have to purchase a load of screens, and find a room to put them in. In our current austere times I cannot see that happening.

Our next step at school is to encourage students to bring in mobile devices and use those in the classroom. They have the advantage over the Pi as they carry a screen around with them. They can be used in more that just the ICT Lab so can have a greater impact across the curriculum. You can even buy apps that allow students to program (like Codea for the iPad). The disadvantage of course is the price!

I do hope the Raspberry Pi proves a fruitful enterprise, and I will do my part to help, but I think in the end it will not encourage more programmers, just provide a cheaper tool for those that already do.