During our meeting this week, Bill showed me a new little piece of technology he has: a Raspberry Pi.
What is this credit-card sized gadget? Well, in a word, it’s a computer. The Raspberry Pi is a tiny PC, stripped down to the bare essentials. Its ports allow a user to connect it to a mouse, keyboard, and TV. Yes, the Raspberry Pi uses your television instead of a typical computer monitor. It can be used for basic file creation (like word-processing and making spreadsheets), to play simple games, to write programs, and even to play high-def video. The creators recommend Debian as the OS for the computer and support Python as an educational language, although neither the OS nor the programming languages are restricted in any way.
The best part? A fully-equipped Raspberry Pi computer (with 256Mb RAM, 2 USB ports and an Ethernet port) is selling across the world for only $35.
The goal of the Raspberry Pi project is a charitable one: “we’re trying to build the cheapest possible computer that provides a certain basic level of functionality.”
So what’s the next step? We need to try distributing these little guys to some of today’s young people, and see if they are inclined to use them to learn basic programming skills. The Raspberry Pi developers are working via open source communities to create some educational materials to distribute with the computers. Computing at School is writing a user guide and a programming manual. But mostly, the technology in new and there isn’t a precedent for its use in the classroom or in education.
Some thoughts and ideas I’m having about the Raspberry Pi in the last 24 hours are as follows:
(1) Often, beginning programming students are afraid to “break” a computer. I think students might find these gadgets less intimidating than they would programming the same concepts on a full Mac computer, for example. The risk factor seems lower, and might encourage exploration.
(2) What would I do with these computers if I had a set of 30 of them for the kids on the Rez? What sorts of lessons would I want them to do?
(3) How would the lessons change if I gave this to a class of undergraduate students? Would they still find the small computer interesting? Yes, I think they would. Maybe I should see how this product could fit into CSE 231 (programming 1 at MSU) curriculum and if students would actually use it. How would the learning process change? What sort of mental models would the students be entering into programming with on a Raspberry Pi, as opposed to a full-fledged laptop.
(4) Mostly, I think it is fascinating that we can strip down all of our computing needs to this tiny piece of hardware, yet still accomplish many of the necessary functionalities a more typical computer gives us. This fact alone could be a really useful one to convey to students. In this case, it is clear that there is no “man in the machine” and no real “magic” that is happening inside the box of a computer. It is strictly hardware to be used as a tool, manipulated by the student.