Helen Beetham, May 20th 2013
Note: this article is out-of-date in parts — a good recent summary of the UK situation is available here.
1. Computers in the World
The real world is saturated with computer code. It's in everything from fridges to singing birthday cards. Right now, you are standing in a place rich in geospatial data, where if you can get a mobile signal you can upload a photograph, tag it, and let your friends know what it feels like. Unless you cycle, or use a very old car, you'll be depending on computers to get to wherever you're going next.
But forget about the real world for a minute. Think about how much of your life goes on in virtual spaces. Shopping, booking appointments, catching up with friends, looking for the next thing to do — or the next person to do it with. Think about how many of the messages that shape your thinking arrive through digital media.
In a very real sense, the people who write our code, create our world. And the power of code is only going to get bigger. Shouldn't everyone have the chance to create their own world, and not simply wander through the creations of other people? Because that is really the choice — to program or be programmed.
2. Computers in Education
When the first computers started appearing in homes and schools, back in the late 1970s, that was what kids used them for — programming. OK the graphics were rubbish, and the language — BASIC — was far from elegant, but computing was creative, it was hands-on, it was even quite cool.
Today the UK Government believes in 'preparing children for the digital world', especially if the UK is to keep up with emerging economies where schools focus on computer skills from an early age. In fact, children already live in a digital world. They are quick to pick up and use whatever devices they have around them. Where schools come in is giving them a different way of thinking about computers. A way of creating and participating as well as consuming digital media. Of understanding how computers work, and how they shape our way of life.
A recent European survey of ICT in education found that teachers and students alike are keen to make more creative use of computers. But teachers often lack the specialist training they need, and there may not be enough computers to go round, or enough time in the curriculum to cover more than the basics.
3. Computers in the UK Curriculum
This is where the new UK ICT Curriculum for Schools comes in. Though the debate goes on, it seems certain this will include a much stronger element of computer science. That's understanding how computers work and making them do things, to you and me. It's writing your own apps and games, creating animations, or carrying out some of the projects you'll find on this site. That has to be good news for students with an interest in getting beyond word processing or spreadsheets and finding out How Stuff Works for a change.
But it might be good news for other subject areas too. Understanding how digital systems work means thinking logically, and often mathematically. Patterns in data can open our eyes to the world around us — to how birds flock, or populations grow, or economic crises play out. And whether we are writing elegant programs or building fabulous digital artefacts, using computers can develop our creativity, our concentration and our artistry.
Perhaps most importantly, the new curriculum asks schools to build 'a critical understanding of technology's impact on the individual and society'. How much easier that is if you have been behind the screen, and had a chance to experience hands-on how these amazing, world-creating tools work.
4. Why the Pi?
The Raspberry Pi is a computer that schools don't need to worry about kids breaking, or abusing, or using to endanger their safety — providing they are careful with the soldering iron. The Pi is designed to spend much of its life in pieces. It runs a free, open source operating system (Linux) and uses the cheapest components that are robust enough to do the job. But the Pi is mainly cheap because it isn't a finished, out-of-the-box product. It's a project — or rather, it's a series of projects. Getting it to do the many useful things it can do requires brainwork and some old-fashioned skills of the hand.
The Pi isn't just a programming device, though. The processor is powerful enough to support excellent multimedia, making it attractive to kids who are into design and animation as well. With a range of devices and add-ons, it can be many different things — a robot remote control, a parent alarm, a window on the internet. And the Pi can be used for home-school learning: light and robust enough to be carried in a school bag, cheap enough for kids to have one each. It also has its own community where anyone can share projects and swap ideas, so kids can see people doing what they are doing for schoolwork, for fun.
5. Getting Started With Raspberry Pi
By now you probably have your own ideas about how the Pi could be valuable in your school curriculum. But you know the technology by itself isn't going to going to provide a great learning experience. How do teachers get confident and skilful enough to make programming fun? Who can help them to see the opportunities across the curriculum, not just in ICT?
We'll return to this in later posts — watch this space!