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 Elite 's David Braben hopes to teach kids how to program on a very cheap computer
Elite's David Braben hopes to teach kids how to program on a very cheap computer Exclusive
February 14, 2012 | By Mike Rose

The Raspberry Pi single-board computer is nearly here. Equipped with everything you need to build the next big video game, this $25/$35 development computer is due to be released before the end of the month.

The board, intended to run the Linux operating system and compatible with a variety of programming languages, will be shipped out to a number of UK schools, where students will be allowed to take them home and do with them what they will.

The hope is that putting this power in the hands of children will enable them to explore the world of computer development, and inspire a new generation of programmers.

Gamasutra sat down with industry veteran and Raspberry Pi trustee David Braben to discuss what he hopes for the future of the project, and how Computer Science education in the UK can be aided.

So the idea behind Raspberry Pi is that it's a charitable solution, and this cheap computer can be given to teachers and students and schools for teaching programming. Is it going to be freely available, so young people sat at home can use it?

David Braben: The idea is that, ultimately, anyone can buy one. My real ambition is that I want us to be able to give them away for free to every child in the country in one year group, and then keep doing it each year, so that gruadually everyone has one.

And that's really because there are a lot of problems at the moment... a PC is a very powerful device, but actually from a software point of view, it's not set up to program. You need to buy expensive compiler, you need to know what you're doing, you need to know how to set it up - and then it's still quite easy to mess up your PC.

The analogy I've used before is that you wouldn't do carpentry in your living room. You'd get sawdust everywhere, and you might damage the living room table! You really want a separate venue for it, and the beauty of Raspberry Pi is that, firstly, you can reboot it if something goes wrong, and it reboots quickly and to a known state. It's also pretty tough, so worse case, you've lost your 15 computer, but we're pretty sure it's so robust that you won't - it's got no state in it, so you can just eject the SD card and reformat it.

So it's designed to get people to experiment, and yet you've got internet access, web browsing, email, all the programming languages under the sun, and various other add-ons that you can get for it that easily attached to it, such as a 12 megapixel camera that will cost just a few dollars. There's a breakout board that you can just solder stuff to, so you can make lights flash, motors drive, that sort of stuff. I'd love to see this in the bowels of a little robot... that kind of thing is great, as it really engages people.

At the moment, people are very disengaged. ICT [information and communications technology education] in the UK, and I'm sure it's similar in other countries, really puts kids off. It's like teaching kids to read, but not to write. They're very good at using [Microsoft] Office products, which is basically what ICT is teaching, but that's dull. And actually, most of the kids know more about it than the teachers, and if you ask a kid straight after school "what is your most boring subject," almost always they say ICT. And that's unforgivable - it should be the most exciting subject in school that they're all looking forward to.

I didn't actually have any sort of computer science at school, but if you're going to teach computers, teach computer science, not ICT. Because that is additive to what the kids have already been learning - the ability to make something wacky, the ability to understand what's going on under the bonnet. I mean, most of them won't go on and use it professionally as their main job, but it would still be very useful to understand what you can do with things and to realize what's really good to play around with, and what's a waste of time.

If you look at how many games engage the players in a creative way - look at LittleBigPlanet, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Minecraft - there is quite a list, but it's not actually that long. But you look at the players who engage with those games... I mean, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 came out in 2004, and it hit the charts middle of last year, and it's still selling - we're still getting royalties for it seven years on. And that's because a community has built up around it. They upload stuff, and there's all this user-generated content - it's wonderful.

And that's really easy-learning stuff, same with [Halo: Reach's sandbox mode Forge World], LittleBigPlanet... but you can't go beyond that. There's then a big gulf, and then very techy tools like Arduino and Microsoft XNA that you really need to have some knowledge before you can engage them. There's nothing in between, and that's the gap I want Raspberry Pi to fill.

When you say you want to give them to whole years of students, what age are you talking about?

Around 11.

OK. Well, I did Computer Science at University, and I felt that, even though I was interested in it all, a lot of the time it felt like the courses I was doing were pushing me away from it, thanks to the generic examples and exercises we were set. Do you think Raspberry Pi could extend to the slightly older generation, or do you think there is at least a better way to teach Computer Science at any level?

Both. The Raspberry Pi Foundation isn't just about a physical device. We want to provide all sorts of materials online, and an online venue where people can exchange stuff freely. And I think that the real problem is that technology is seen in a very dim light at the moment. The words "geek" and "nerd" in particular, I find quite offensive. And they're used in a way for people to distance themselves from technology. There's sort of like a pride in not understanding technical things.

I would love to see that eroded. If we can show in mainstream media, television programs, things like that, how useful and interesting and easy-to-use computing devices are, like Raspberry Pi, people would start to engage in it.

The problem is that things are a bit arse-about-face at the moment. A PC is designed to be used, but it isn't designed to be used as a programming tool. It's designed to be used as a glorified typewriter, as a glorified internet portal. But security reasons have locked down a lot of the things that you really want from a programming point of view.

So that's really what Raspberry Pi is about. For example, it's about getting more girls interested in programming - I've given lectures where I've just seen a sea of male faces, and I'm looking to see if there's a girl in there. And often there'll be one up in the corner if you're lucky.

Going back to what you said about the kids knowing more about computers than the teachers, why do you think that still is? Because I mean, ICT lessons have been around for a while now, and you would have thought by now that schools would be hiring people with knowledge in the field!

Well firstly, I should quickly say that this isn't true of all ICT teachers. But one of the problems is that ICT has been deemed a subject that you don't need special skill in to teach. It's an easy subject to teach, so we have teachers who are trained in teaching French, teaching Geography, History, and then teaching ICT. Those people have probably been scheduled to teach ICT as well, because it fitted nicely in their timetable - and it may well be the first time they've taught it.

And the teachers then get into a frame of mind where they're afraid of it, because it's very easy to make the teacher look foolish by doing something on the computer that they can't stop. And so you get this vicious cycle, and I suspect that's part of it.

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sean lindskog
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Ron Dippold
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I haven't noticed that kids know more - they're fantastic consumers, and can whip around a phone or iPad like nobody's business, but have no idea how any of it works. That's a real shame, and hopefully this will help. I intend to get one when I can.

Jamie Mann
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Actuallly, I think that's the point David was trying to make.

The main problem is that children are being taught ICT from an "end-user" perspective - how to use Office software, how to use web-browsers, etc. They're not being taught what underlies these systems, nor are they being taught how to create their own.

And for the most part, technology is now so low-cost that most children are getting experience with the end-user functionality prior to the formal ICT lessons - netbooks, iOS devices, Android phones - even consoles such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 can offer a significant amount of what would once have been considered "computer" technology such as web-browsers, social tools and access to media.

Ali Afshari
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I've been interested in this for a while. My programming literacy is most likely matching Braben's target age group, so I hope they can ship to the US.

Lennard Feddersen
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The Raspberry PI is a sweet looking device that has definitely inspired tech-lust in this jaded old geezer.

But this initiative just looks like excitement for a device being cast onto a problem which may or may not exist. All the kids I know in my little blue collar town have access to computers. Javascript and HTML are nearly as easy to get started with as Applesoft was back when I got started. If we want them to become programmers then they don't need this geeky little device - no matter how cool it is - and a whole bunch of new keyboards and monitors and all the rest, they just need to either crack a book and get started (gasp) or, if we want to hand hold them, then drop some coin on some teachers to teach them HTML, javascript, PHP and mySql. They'll be employable within a few months as web developers and those that are inclined to carry on, will.

Jeremy Glazman
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It sounds like you may be missing the point re: experimenting with computers. It looks like the Pi is a platform for programming everything from graphics to networking to microcontrollers; I don't think your parents, let alone your local library, will appreciate the unstable software you'll be running, the associated downtime due to crashes, and the risk of bricking the entire machine. In fact (as mentioned in the article) security restrictions on public machines absolutely do not allow for any real programming environments.

Besides, I hope within the entire realm of computer science that kids don't get stuck with just HTML and Javascript...

Andrew Grapsas
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Wait... what problem does this solve? Expensive compilers? Huh? Messing up hardware through software? What? What is this even talking about?

Students already have access to computers, internet, etc. How about we increase the number of educators that are actually able to teach the required material and generate more engaging methods of providing knowledge. This is just a toy that will get thrown at more ill prepared, underpaid, under educated educators.

Johan Wendin
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The problem that it solves, is that kids these days are not allowed to tinker with the family computers (unless somehow they got their own computers etc which is most certainly NOT the case in most homes and especially not in developing countries). Nor are they allowed to tinker to its fullest extent with school computers - whereas with this one each student could have one of their own.

If you think you'll learn anything *real* (not just how to browse the internet) by having "access" to school computers on specific hours and access to the internet, you're sorely mistaken.

Andrew Grapsas
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Again, I have to reiterate: the problem isn't access. It's able educators.

Online materials will not compensate. Anyone with experience teaching (especially younger children or young adults) already knows this.

Dave Scheele
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Andrew, I think your statement overlooks the large number of self-taught individuals out there. I'm one of them .. I had zero input from educators (except for some moral support, granted) but was enabled to learn and grow into a game programmer because a company *gave me hardware* to work on. This was back in the early 80's, and it sounds like the RPi folks are trying to create a similar environment, where one can experiment freely and without crippling consequences. The best teachers in the world won't get parents to allow kids to write low-level code on the family PC and accidentally corrupt Windows beyond restoration.

Bravo to RPi, I say ... can't wait to see how it turns out.

Brian Buchner
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"it's not set up to program. You need to buy expensive compiler, you need to know what you're doing, you need to know how to set it up - and then it's still quite easy to mess up your PC."

No lol no. And Linux isn't easy to mess up? Just... wow! Where is he coming up with this crap?

"you've got internet access, web browsing, email" ... "as a glorified internet portal"


Jeremy Glazman
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What makes you think every 11 year old kid owns their own personal computer? And that the ones that do won't mind the risk of trashing their system that they use for regular use and schoolwork?

"So it's designed to get people to experiment, and yet you've got internet access, web browsing, email, all the programming languages under the sun"

I'm amazed that commenters on here don't see the awesome possibility of getting devices like this into the hands of every single child, regardless of their economic status.

Michael Joseph
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A "Jack PC" style case would be pretty neat.

And of course you can communicate with your raspberry wirelessly (or usb cable) with your Android phone.

Raymond Grier
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I like this idea. A lot of 11 year olds who wouldn't have known how easily they can do this stuff and learn about it will now be given everything they need at once. I think this will inspire a lot of 11 year olds to persue this that wouldn't have otherwise.