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Raspberry Pi for Schools – The Free Software Column with Richard Hillesley

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As everybody knows by now, the raspberry pi is the perfect geek toy, a credit-card-sized computer that costs very little and comes with its own operating system, raspbian, which is an optimised reworking of Debian Gnu/linux.

The Raspberry Pi can be plugged into a TV and a keyboard, and will do most of the useful things a PC can do. An SD card is used for booting and storage of data. Raspbian defaults to an LXDE desktop, and comes with development tools and most of the basic applications and utilities for working and playing on a computer. The Raspberry Pi is also shockingly cheap – $35.

But the interesting part of the Raspberry Pi is the ambition of its caretakers that it should become an ultra-low-cost tool for introducing schoolchildren to the lost idea that computer programming can be fun, as it was for the kids who grew up with the Sinclair QL, ZX Spectrum or BBC Micro three of four decades ago. The early home computers were cheap and cheerful, but you could get inside and look at the source, take them apart and learn.

Some of the kids who grew up with BBC Basic, Dungeons & Dragons and Pac-Man became the first generation of developers to work on Linux and other free software. Jeremy Allison, for instance, had a Sinclair QL, which was a 32-bit machine, even though it had an 8-bit bus. The source code of the operating system, QDOS, was included, perfectly legally.

“The assembler source, the commented source, you could buy and look at, and take apart and understand,” says Allison. “It was burnt into ROM, but you could modify it – there was a company that had disassembled it for me, legally – and then along came the IBM PC and Microsoft and crushed all the creativity out of it, just ground over it with a tank tread.

“So the kids growing up these days don’t know any of that stuff. They don’t know the basics of how the thing works. They’ve got black boxes that rattle because they’re broken, and they can’t look inside. You can’t learn from that.”

“I want anyone in the world to have the same opportunities that I had when I was growing up”, adds Allison. “The early Eighties was a period of intense creativity in the computer industry in Britain.”

But ICT in schools went backwards in the UK and has been locked in to a costly Microsoft- only world, where children have been educated as users rather than doers. Lock-in and the upgrade cycle have resulted in the same escalating costs that have afflicted other sectors of the IT industry, forcing increased expenditure for smaller and smaller returns.

For most children, ICT in schools has been little more than a training programme for using Windows and Microsoft Office – useful for secretaries and filing clerks, but not helpful for getting to know how the technology works. A common complaint has been that “no ICT course has a programming or a systems module, instead students are taught to be mere consumers of technology, and operators of applications.”

Programming can be fun, and the principles are easy to learn. The Raspberry Pi can be the affordable route to learning this lesson.

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