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?
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.