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Raspberry Pi - A new era in computer programming for school kids?

Raspberry Pi

It seams like everyone is trying to get hold of a Raspberry Pi, but what exactly is it and what is all the fuss about?

What is the Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is a small computer about the size of a credit card. The initial version is only available as a bare motherboard, but future versions will be available with a case.

The Raspberry Pi is similar in processor and memory to some smartphones and includes a HDMI (and analogue) TV output as well as USB connectors and on one version a Ethernet network connection.

It is powered using a mobile phone charger plug.

An important aspect of the device is that it is inexpensive. Starting at just $25 for the basic model making this affordable for schools and pupils alike.

The Raspberry Pi as an education tool

The aim behind the Raspberry Pi is to get school children excited about computers and to help create computer programmers for the future.

This is similar to what the BBC Micro and similar home computers did back in the 1980s. Back then computers were simpler and made it easy to tinker and learn how to program. There was no risk of breaking anything as if anything went wrong you just powered it off and started again.

These days computers are complex and expensive. Many computers also restrict what you can and can't do with them through closed source software and other technical restrictions (eg. games machines). Even if you could tinker with them then many parents would not like to risk their children damaging the home computer that the family has become so reliant.

By making the device so cheaply it means that pupils can have their own computer that they can tinker with and the worst that could happen is that they need to re flash the SD card back to it's original settings. As it can plug into a standard TV (in many children's bedrooms) there is no need to take turns in using the computer monitor or main computer.

Powered by Linux

The board is supplied without any operating system, but images of the open source Linux operating system are available. This has to be installed onto an SD card which is plugged into the slot on the board.

Linux is an ideal operating system for the Raspberry Pi as it is a freely available popular operating system. Crucially it is also open source, so rather than being restricted to creating programs on top of the operating system, more experienced programmers can get into the basics of the code that make it run and improve on the operating system.

Incredible demand

The initial launch is not for schools but for hobby enthusiasts. This will help to build a community of ideas and support which will hopefully help encourage and support the adoption within schools.

There has been a huge demand for the initial release of 10,000 boards. The Raspberry Pi was available to order from 6am on 29 February. The websites of both retailers that are selling the devices have struggled under the huge demand for these which far outstrips the initial batch from production.

New stock will be arriving in due course, but this is a frustrating wait for availability. Unfortunately there have been a lot of negative comments on Twitter etc. It's completely unfair to place criticism at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, whose website continued to work fine (in reduced launch day mode). Whilst the suppliers websites it is very hard to deal with the kind of demand that was thrown at them, although disappointingly the RS website only allowed for showing an interest rather than taking pre-orders.

It's obvious that this is in high demand and has all the potential to be a huge success.

What's next?

The real challenge going forward is getting the Government to listen and getting a good IT curriculum into schools that can turn this huge potential into a great learning tool. Teaching children that a computer doesn't have to run an expensive proprietary operating system, and that learning to write software can be fun.

Once I get hold of one I'll be posting a proper review and will be providing details of my own projects that I'm looking at running on the Raspberry Pi.

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