Is Pi the answer?

Am I the only one who doubts that the appearance of the Raspberry Pi will single handedly re-boot computing in our schools?

I have to say that when news of this device first started appearing my first reaction was “and…?”. Having seen the development to date I have to say that first reaction has not changed. I don’t doubt that the Pi will be able to do wonderful things. I might even buy one myself. But this is not to say that it will have the impact in education that some are predicting.

It is suggested that because the Pi is so cheap that any student who wants one will have one. Apart from not being sure why this means that they will all suddenly start programming, it is not true that it is just the Pi that will be required – it needs a Keyboard and a Display at minimum. I’m guessing that the SD card is extra too so as to keep the cost down. Also needs a HDMI and USB cable. Suddenly costs are going up. As are the management issues in schools. “So we’ll need a tray to keep each set in, and then we’ll need a trolley for the trays, and somewhere to keep the trolley, and a means of booking the trolley out to a teacher, and so on”.

It has also been suggested that the arrival of the Pi is akin to a new BBC Micro and will have a similar impact on the development of programmers in the UK.  I would caution against that thinking. In 1981 it was possible for many users to create something that looked at least as good as anything available commercially (from games thru to business software). That was part of the excitement and what kept young people (and teachers) at it. Now, given the sophistication of modern business software and games that is much more difficult and I am not sure that the Pi will address this issue in any better way than existing programming platforms. Maybe the idea that something so small can be made to do interesting things will drive students, but my thought is that Smartphones have made them more demanding than some anticipate.

Aside from this, whilst it is true there is still a digital/economic divide, the majority of children of school age do have access to a computer at home. If they wanted to learn to programme, then just open Notepad and start (or if you want something more sophisticated download Visual Studio Express). There is an argument that schools may not want students to have access to programming tools on machines they require for everyday use and so could not support this. I would argue that in these days of machine virtualisation this should not be an issue if there is a teacher in the school who really wants to help students learn to program.

In my view, students will only start programming at school in their droves when they are properly supported by teachers who can properly support them. I would far rather see CPD for teachers that enables them to support students to work with and exploit resources they already have (e.g. PCs, Smartphones, Browsers) than to have them get ready to support yet another device which will need endless additional add-ons to make it do really useful things.

I can see that the Pi will for some people ignite an interest in programming but I don’t think that it will be the panacea that some seem to think.  There are better, and in the long term, more cost effective and efficient ways to do this.

*Ducks head below parapet in anticipation*