Even usually stoic techie types are excited this week by the launch of the Raspberry Pi. So excited, in fact that on Wednesday, launch day, 29 February the sales website crashed. A slightly smug apology was posted blaming 'a very high level of traffic'. This minor technological embarrassment is better than any PR the developers could have bought.
So what's all the fuss about? How can a small red box, thought up by scientists in Cambridge, inspire such a lot of interest?
The answer is simple - the Raspbery Pi is the anti-iPad. It's small, it's cheap, it's content free. It doesn't have a touch screen, it doesn't play videos and you can't do your shopping on it. It's a little red box of computing power that you plug into your existing screen, mouse and keyboard and only then can you begin to tell it how to work. No apps, no Siri 'tell me what you want to do' function, no frills. You have to use the open source software and programme it yourself. To understand why the future might be in a small red box, you need to understand how children learn to use technology.
Hand held, touch screen devices are ideal for children. Picking up something of interest and poking it with a small chubby finger is something that comes naturally to babies, and as babies become toddlers and toddlers go to nursery school, they develop the sophistication with which they do this. That is all they need to do to operate a touch screen device. Most preschool kids I know can draw a picture, take a photo, play music and make a phone call to grandma on their parents' iPhone, should the parent be careless enough leave it within reach. Given this, the iPad presents few challenges to kids today. They just play with it until it works, or it breaks, and good for them. Touch screen technology is easy, intuitive, natural.
The Raspberry Pi is different. It is designed to allow children to write their own code, build their own games, and add their own functions. This is an entirely different proposition and much more challenging and inspiring than operating a touch screen device. The computer will only do what they want it do only when can talk the right language, in the right way, in the right order. No pictures to help, no poking, no flashing 'press here' icons.
Since Seymour Papert wrote Mindstorms in 1980, there has been a drive for the teaching of computer programming in schools, both for its own sake and to teach children valuable skills about precision, logic, language and sheer darn persistence. Papert's seminal text is almost unique in that it is a book about computing that is 30 years old and is still highly relevant. This is because his call to put programming at the heart of the technology curriculum has never truly been answered.
As the debate about the future of computing in schools rages in the educational community, the Raspberry Pi is a welcome reminder of what drove most of my generation to the screen, the mouse and the afterschool geeks' paradise 'Computer Club' in the first place, namely the desire to programme a computer to make it do things.
It looks like the downing of the Raspberry Pi website shows that even for the iPad generation, out there, the kids still want to learn to code. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a ZX Spectrum in the loft somewhere, and I suddenly feel the need to find it.
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