Thursday, March 08, 2012

Raspberry Pi - Further comment

I wrote about the launch of the Raspberry Pi in Rasberry Pi Is Launched and enjoyed following some of the comment posted by others. I particularly liked an article, The Raspberry Pi can help schools get with the program, which I was directed to by The UK ICT Education Daily.

Raspberry Pi pre-release board by jared_smith
Raspberry Pi pre-release board,
a photo by jared_smith on Flickr.
The article is good. First, it explains that the 10,000 units were sold out within minutes of the site opening for sale. Now, compared to the number of units a company like Apple ships, that may be small potatoes but the Raspberry Pi is a very niche product. Ten thousand units sold out in minutes, and goodness knows how many more ordered by people who were late to the party - I think that's stunning.

The article is also interesting because it talks about a distinction that needs to be drawn between ICT and Computing. This is something that I have banged on about many times before but I was especially struck by this sentence:
We've taken a technology that can provide "power steering for the mind" (as a noted metaphor puts it) and turned it into lesson for driving Microsoft Word.
This may not be an entirely fair characterisation of current courses but the phrase "power steering for the mind" is a powerful image.

The article also talks about Computing Science and asserts that:
...there's a major body of knowledge in this field – complete with a stable and intellectually rigorous conceptual framework that is independent of today's or yesterday's gadgetry...
It is good to see people talking about the science of computing, something that I think we need to communicate much more clearly. Perhaps there is then an inference that programming equals computing science which is too simplistic but at least gives a starting point that may help non-computing people see that there is more to the subject than ICT.

There are a couple of aspects though that I would want to challenge, or at least discuss further. First, there is a hint of the "Computing is the new Latin" argument in the article. It is not stated explicitly but it is suggested we are not teaching children to program because we want them to learn programming; no, we want them to learn citizenship and democracy, or logical thinking, or... But I want them to learn programming because I think it is good to be able to program! The fact that most pupils will not go on to be professional programmers is neither here nor there - there's loads of stuff that I learned at school that is apparently of no practical use to me in the job I do now - but I still believe it was worth learning and worth doing in the first place. Education and knowledge have a value beyond the utilitarian.

My other concern is the article talks about ICT education in "this country" in a way that seems to assume there is a common curriculum in "British secondary schools". Despite having Computing courses (and programming) in Scottish schools for around 30 years, we are still facing almost the same problems as the ones the experienced in England. We are finding numbers taking Computing at school are in decline and there is a drop in numbers for Computing courses at university too. We also see the same confusion between ICT and Computing muddying the water for pupils, school management, politicians and employers alike. My concern is that teaching programming in schools may be a necessary or even a desirable first step but on its own, it is not sufficient to bring about the changes the more enthusiastic supports of the Raspberry Pi hope to see.

The comments generated by the article are interesting too. Take time to read it and let me know what you think.

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