Why we need to blow a Raspberry at big tech… | John Naughton | Education
I’m writing this on my nice new Raspberry Pi. If you’re not a geek, this may suggest a columnist who has lost what remains of his marbles. But rest assured: I am not joking. The Pi is a fully functioning credit-card sized computer running a modern version of the Linux operating system. I bought it as a Christmas treat – and also as a project. The total cost – for the latest version, with 4GB of ram – was £114. For this, I got the highest-spec version of the motherboard, a keyboard and mouse, a micro-to-standard HDMI cable, a power supply, a case for the device, the official Beginner’s Guide and a micro SD card with the operating system on it. All I needed was a TV or a monitor with an HDMI input (which I guess most households now possess).
I bought my Pi from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge. Across the street (and one floor below) is the Apple store where I had earlier gone to buy a new keyboard for one of my Macs. The cost: £99. So for £15 more, I had a desktop computer perfectly adequate for most of the things I need to do for my work.
The Pi is one of the (few) great British technology success stories of the last decade: sales recently passed the 30m mark. But if you got your news from mainstream media you’d never know. It was conceived in Cambridge as a philanthropic effort to create the contemporary equivalent of the BBC Micro of yesteryear. The first part of the project was to convert a daring idea – a functional, usable computer the size of a credit card – into a real product. This was accomplished in the spring of 2012, and the day it was announced the Raspberry Pi website wilted under the sudden demand.
Part of the drive behind its creation was the perception that ICT had become a toxic brand in British secondary schools. However well-intentioned the thinking behind the ICT component of the national curriculum, it had become discredited and obsolete. I remember one of my kids coming back from school one day muttering, disgustedly: “Dad, you’d never guess what we had to do today – learn to use Microsoft Word!” This from a kid who had been using Word since he learned to write.
As a result, educational thinking about the importance of information technology in this country had been stunted for well over a decade. We took a technology that can provide “power steering for the mind” (as a famous metaphor put it) and turned it into lessons for driving Microsoft Word. Accordingly, some distinguished computer scientists embarked on a campaign to persuade Michael Gove, then education secretary, to replace the ICT curriculum with a course that would give schoolchildren an understanding of how computers and software worked. The underlying concern was that we were giving kids ICT training rather than an understanding of the technology that would shape their adult lives. And much as I dislike giving any credit to Gove, in this case he listened to the argument and Britain now has an intelligent computing curriculum.
During that campaign I gave occasional public talks – to school governors, PTAs and related groups. A frequent objection to my spiel went like this: “Hang on: you’re saying we’re just giving kids computer training when they need education. But when they leave school, they’ll be using Microsoft software so doesn’t it make sense that they are trained to use it?” I made little headway until one evening I proposed a thought experiment. Try replacing “ICT” with “sex”, I suggested: would you like your children to have sex training, or sex education? End of objections.
The Raspberry Pi has played two important roles role in enabling the enlightened switch from ICT training to computer education. First, the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation based on the project – which is supported by the Cambridge Computer Laboratory and Broadcom, the manufacturer of a key chip on the Pi board – has been funding the study of basic computer science in schools. This is vital because the new curriculum stretches the skill sets of many non-techie teachers. Second, by designing, manufacturing and supporting an exceedingly inexpensive device that children can learn to program, the Pi project makes it easier to ensure that as many kids as need a device can have one. (The cheapest version costs £5.)
The most important things children can learn from exposure to the Pi are that computers need not be incomprehensible black boxes, with “no user-serviceable parts”, and that software is not immutable hieroglyphics carved in stone by culturally impoverished elites in California or Shenzhen, but malleable stuff that can be tweaked to meet your needs rather than (as now happens) theirs. For kids whose choices will increasingly be limited to “program or be programmed” (as Douglas Rushkoff puts it), this is about as important an educational idea as one can imagine. And it’s just one of many reasons for celebrating the realisation of such an inspiring British vision: a computer the size of a credit card.
What I’m reading
Aye to AI
“On the measure of intelligence” is a profound (long) article on arXiv.org by François Chollet, a prominent machine-learning expert, on future models of artificial intelligence, how we would define it, and what we might do next.