Before you dismiss this as TL;DR – it’s a subject dear to my heart, and I believe that there’s some cool content as well as some storytelling – do give it a chance!
A sad state of affairs
I believe that we have lived through the best period to teach and learn about computers and technology, and that over the past few years we have been creating a void, a vacuum, in which progress may be diminished.
Google’s Eric Schmidt recently called out the British education system as holding back or dismissing our technology heritage. According to a ZDNet article on his speech in Edinburgh:
Schmidt said the UK’s approach to technology in education — not making IT compulsory as a subject at the GSCE-level and not providing enough support for science students at colleges — meant the country was “throwing away” its computing heritage.
See also the BBC and Guardian coverage of the story.
I can’t say I think he’s wrong, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyone who has heard me ranting about the state of things in a side conversation at any recent event in the past couple of years, will have heard me tell a similar story. When I was a lad – and I know that some of those who read this will be older, just let me reminisce without interrupting, OK? 🙂 – I grew up on an early Commodore PET with green screen, followed by BBC Micros, Acorn Electrons, etc. I’ve had a couple of occasions to look back on that era recently, with a visit to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, seeing the team from TNMoC visit the Brighton Mini Maker Faire, and through talking to folks at TransferSummit (of which more, in a moment). In my day, you plugged in the power, the machine made a satisfying BEEP! and you were presented with a black screen with the word BASIC and a > prompt. That’s just how things worked. To do anything else, you had to tell the computer to do it – and you learned a lot as you did so!
Without wanting to sound like some kind of old fogey – kids today never had it so good! They have grown up in an era where all they have ever known is a world where every computer is connected to the Internet, a giant brain which appears to be all-knowing (and I know that this is how a 3 or 4 year old thinks: my own younger family members have said “we’ll just look it up on the Internet, it knows everything”, without understanding that humans have known everything, and the computers just tell us what we’ve told them, at a basic level). They have fast, interactive machines which are dramatically more usable – and instead of bulky noisy systems which were just about user-serviceable, ideally when you had an antistatic wrist strap to hand… they have magic, thin, sheets of glass that can be controlled at the slightest touch.
That’s fantastic. It puts children today in a position where they can be more creative than ever before – I could barely edit low-quality digital scanned photos by the time I left school, let alone edit full HD video with a variety of awesome effects. So one thing we can teach them is how to use creative tools like… oh I don’t know… Office suites (capitalisation deliberate, sarcasm heavy).
The thing is – we don’t need to teach schoolchildren how to use a productivity tool like that. By the time they have sat watching us for 5 minutes aged 6, they intuitively “just get it”. Worse is the fact that we’ve nearly removed the ability to look under the covers at what makes the machines work – certainly in a hardware sense you’d need a very advanced knowledge of microelectronics to do anything with the innards of most smartphones, and software is often becoming more and more locked up to the whims of the hardware manufacturers (naming no Apples). Plus of course, everything is online. So what does this mean for the curiosity to take things apart either in hardware or software, see how they work, and build something new?
(the irony is not lost on me that as a History graduate, I’m an unusual spokesperson for this debate)
Makers and getting back to basics
One of the reasons I’m excited by the trend towards making things – what I’ll term the Maker movement, in a nod to the Brighton Mini Maker Faire and the magazine that has inspired the events – is that it reflects both our natural human curiosity and interest in building things, and making them work. I also think that is part of the reason behind our interest in prototypable electronics like Arduino – we have gone through a period of making things smaller, more compressed and proprietary, and the pendulum is swinging back towards open hardware, simple construction, and ease of learning. This is a huge, great and important step, in my opinion.
Enter – a Raspberry Pi
So how can we take advantage of that trend towards discovery and learning, and combine it with small cheap electronics, to really make a difference? Well, you may have heard of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – it has had a fair amount of coverage in the UK anyway, with the promise of a new low-cost computing platform which could theoretically replicate the success of the BBC-sponsored, Acorn-built, BBC Microcomputers from the 1980s (and backed by one of the most successful computer games authors of that era). Those BBC Micro systems were rolled out across schools all over the UK, and pretty much anyone in the 30-40 age bracket will have learned to write some kind of BBC BASIC or LOGO code at some point in their education, and have looked at fractals and played a variety of classic 8-bit games. My first home computer was an Acorn Electron, an affordable beige “keyboard box” that could be plugged straight into a home TV in 1984, with games and programs loaded off a (then) common cassette player.
The folks at Raspberry Pi believe that having a cheap computer which can be presented as an education device could be a success. At the TransferSummit last week, I met Eben and Liz Upton from the project, and had a chance to play with the system first hand. I also made a quick film of this amazing little computer playing full HD video – and the excitement is obvious in the fact that it has received nearly 50k hits on YouTube in just 4 days, probably helped by an appearance on the Raspberry Pi blog and also in a feature on Geek.com!
One of the things that Eben spoke about was the idea that it would almost be more interesting for these things to boot to a Python prompt instead of a full Linux desktop (which it is well-capable of doing), in order to ignite kids’ imaginations and force them into doing something more creative than simply doing what they would do with any other computer. I kinda like that suggestion!
Risks, and what else can we do?
I’m excited. As I said several times to Liz and others at the event this week – it’s a British organisation with vision, with an amazing idea, a product that works, and the desire to really reconnect children – particularly those in the developing world – with technology and how to drive it.
I can see a number of risks, but the last thing I want is to be a naysayer here – I really, really want these folks to succeed. However, just looking at the excitement amongst hobbyists like me, and reading some of the comments posted on my video already, I realise that there’s a danger that the supplies of these things will quickly be snapped up by those wanting to make funky small home systems for themselves, rather than the altruistic wanting to help youngsters to learn (heck, I want one! so I understand that!). Or, kids may see these as just another form-factor of computer of the kind they are used to, plug it in, go online, and do nothing different to what they are already capable of. Another issue is that a bare board (the initial version won’t have a box, although that would be easy enough to fab) and a lack of instructions or clear fixed “syllabus”, if you like, may discourage teachers now used to teaching desktop computing and productivity tools, from embracing the potential to help students to create. It’s also entirely possible that these things will simply be cloned elsewhere. For all of these reasons, I’m determined to do what I can to promote the Raspberry Pi concept as an educational tool, and to support the team behind it. It’s important. It deserves to be a massive success.
So, what else can we do?
One thing is to go and sign the brilliant Emma Mulqueeny (aka @hubmum)’s e-petition on the UK gov website. She’s campaigning for an earlier entry for programming into the classroom, at primary level, particularly to encourage more girls to take an interest in technology. I think this is a brilliant step. Nik Butler has posted about the importance of teaching this stuff, too, and I encourage you to read his post – I particularly support the way in which he refutes the list of reasons why this sort of teaching is allegedly a “bad” idea. He’s also talked about the Raspberry Pi on the Social Media White Noise podcast #70.
Another thing is to visit and support The National Museum of Computing, preferably with some kids you know – help them to see where we have come from and where we are going.
It’s obvious to me that we need to change the way we think about teaching IT, computing, and technology. Earlier teaching of programming is important. I also think that a basic understanding of how a computer system fits together would help, as well as a high-level understanding of the way in which the Internet works. Importantly though – and this rolls into a whole other passion of mine which I won’t rant about today – increasingly as we come together online, I think it is increasingly important to teach tolerance, understanding of other cultures, and good online community behaviour. How we collectively go about doing that, I’m not entirely sure – but it feels important.
Thanks for indulging me on this particularly long post – it really is a subject I care deeply about. And all that stuff about technology – from an historian and Arts student 😛