Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Raspberry Pi in the Classroom

I posted this today on an ed tech listserv and figured it's worth getting out here, too.

The Raspberry Pi is ready for prime time in the sense that the one-per-order restriction has been lifted and you can now purchase as many as you want. I've been tinkering with one this summer and I keep coming back to the question of what will we do with them in our schools. I think it's an urgent question which I'll explain as I go (sorry for the tl;dr).
The Raspberry Pi is a $35 computer. $35! (The one with only 1 USB port and no Ethernet is $25!) It's the size of a bar of soap. It comes with no case (yet); you have to make one. No I/O devices, just a board and ports. That number still doesn't compute for me, but consider how many you could get for an iPad. But you might say well then you have to get a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, at least. Actually, all you really need are a power supply (mine runs on a Blackberry charger, even 4 AA batteries will work), an SD card (the only storage!), and a network connection-either Ethernet or several wireless adapters will work. Then what? It's Linux, so you can hook it up to a monitor and keyboard just to enable SSH and create a few accounts and tunnel in from any computer on your network. And besides, the educational value of an iPad lies in all the apps you have to purchase, not to mention the time and expense of setting up an infrastructure that makes collective use feasible.
But cost is somewhat beside the point. Well, though, certainly not for public schools or cash-strapped independent schools. The main point is that it is nothing like the experience of an iPad, in fact it's the antithesis, and a sorely needed one, which is really the point made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Where the iPad (sorry, I really mean all proprietary devices) should work out of the box, you must hack your world and the Raspi just to make it work (hmm, i have to buy a charger...do I have any 5v chargers around? How do I know if it's 5v? wait I don’t have enough USB ports for a mouse, keyboard, and wifi adapter…ok a non-powered USB hub won’t work but a powered one will, why is that? Oh, there’s some help here, http://elinux.org/RPi_VerifiedPeripherals#Working_USB_Hubs, …now, a monitor, what, no VGA? Wait, I can plug it right into my 64” TV?!? And it looks awesome! etc, etc). Where the iPad wants you to think you don’t need to know anything about computers to use it, the Raspi forces you to learn just to get it to do anything. I didn’t know anything about Linux before I got this and now Linux is blowing my mind. I’m realizing the power, control, and options you can have with a computer if it’s designed to let you have those. Combing Linux forums for basic information I’ve read so many answers to queries that start, “Well, here are 4 ways you could do that…”
So getting back to the question of what to do with this device I can see it doesn’t belong as a standard integrated device like the iPad is becoming or laptops have been. It’s all about getting back to the basics of computer science and even physical computing. It belongs as a standard device in these makerspaces we are talking about and developing. It can do anything you want it to, really (though running it as a media server at home was a bit more than it could handle with 256MB of memory on board). We need to be alongside interested students helping them think about what they want to do with it and then guiding them through the mind blowing experience of learning how to get Linux to do anything you want with the decades of crowdsourced information you can tap into out there. I can see coming up with some really creative applications and having people see it and say, “What, a computer can do that?!? Wait, that’s a computer?” It’s really akin to the Arduino, in fact people are figuring out how to get the two to work together (http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/1171). Interesting side note, this link is to a post about some resentment on the part of some in the Arduino community and makes the point that the two are fundamentally different and in fact can work well together, and I realized in looking at the accompanying photo that that difference is represented in a striking way by looking at the USB ports, where one uses the host type A port and the other the target type B.
Anyway if you’ve read all this thank you and I would love to hear your thoughts. 

1 comment :

Ysabel Bombardiere said...

Hi I love your post. I agree, there is something about having to look around and scavenger for parts than just open a box. I just went through this and it is empowering. I wonder if kids feel the same way.