Comment A Sony-owned factory in South Wales has now punched out more than a million Raspberry Pi board computers. This is laudable, but it shouldn’t be taken as a sign that Britain is going to ride to economic recovery on the back of a new generation of young programmers.
The Raspberry Pi is a fortysomething’s wet dream of early 1980s home computer technology made real. Eben Upton, who developed the small computers, devised the Pi as a modern take on the low-cost machines on which he says he cut his own coding teeth.
So did many others, though only a very small percentage of them then went on to prosperous careers as games programmers or to careers in computing. The few who did are the inspiration for the likes of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who appears to have decided it’s more important to teach little'uns how to program than to use the technology they will sit in front of when eventually they enter the workplace.
Upton grew up with a BBC Micro, a home computer famed for its powerful specification and high retail price. Most of Upton’s contemporaries, this reporter included, couldn’t afford one and had parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t cough up £400 for a computer, either.
We all made do with lesser machines, among them Sinclair’s genuinely low-cost ZX81, which is perhaps a more appropriate role-model for the Pi: cheap enough for a “what the heck, why not” purchase that might not get used after all.
While some of us used our BBC Micros to code, we all played games, and that is really what the vast majority of those computers were bought for.
So the notion that the early 1980s gave an entire generation of youngsters a yearning to write software is a myth. No, it made an entire generation of youngsters want to play Jet Set Willy. Nowadays, thanks to phones, tablets and games consoles, it’s even easier to play games than it was back then.
Old fart's plaything or educational masterstroke?
Enough of those early home computer users did tinker with Basic and machine code programming to now look back 30 years on with a nostalgic tear in their eye and immediately order a Raspberry Pi and attempt to relive those days. Quite a few go on to use it as the basis for some interesting projects, but it largely remains a hobby product.
There's nothing wrong with that. I have one myself and I have it for much the same reasons. Modern computer operating systems insulate the user from the hardware as much as they can. The Pi, however, makes a virtue of providing access to low-level functionality, allowing users to get down and dirty with the IO without having to worry about USB and Bluetooth protocols. It’s the ideal basis for personal electronics and computing projects.
That the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been able to shift well in excess of a million of its machines – don’t forget it was shipping Pis from China for months before the Sony factory came on stream – is a testament to the demand there is for this kind of tinkering toy. The Foundation says the Sony plant is currently churning out Pis at the rate of 40,000 a week.
But how many have those have gone into schools?
We know at least 15,000 have, thanks to Google, and a fair few teachers have bought Pis off their own bat to complement their teaching. But how many of these Pis are doing productive work getting kids into coding?
That’s a question of concern to the Foundation, which was established to promote the use of the Raspberry Pi as an educational tool. A more important question is, should young children be taught coding at all?
Teaching tools and the lessons of history
Programming requires an ability to think logically. That can be taught, but the pleasure programming makes some us feel can’t be. It’s inherent. You have it or you don’t. It can be encouraged to flourish, but it can’t be induced.
There are some very good existing and emerging tools to held kids develop logical thinking - MIT’s Scratch, for one; Sonic Pi, a programming-through-music application developed by Cambridge University’s Dr Sam Aaron, for another.
The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones recently filmed a class full of Year Six nippers getting a real buzz out of Sonic Pi. But few, if any, will take the next step and start writing code or experimenting with electronics themselves.
According to Wikipedia, Upton was born in 1978, so was aged just three when the BBC Micro was launched toward the end of 1981. He probably didn’t get to play with one until he was a few years older. But to be a home Micro user at age five, six or seven was rare back then. Me and my computing contemporaries were all adolescents.
As teenagers we were (just) old enough to have begun to appreciate the joys of intellectual pursuits, and to have started thinking about careers. Had we been ten- to eleven-year-olds, the equivalent of today’s Year Six kids, we’d have all been keener on football, bikes or Star Wars than computers, even if they’d been readily available.
That’s the lesson the Raspberry Pi Foundation – not to mention the Department for Education, its Secretary of State and its advisors – need to learn from the 1980s home computer boom if the Raspberry Pi itself is to be anything more than a fortysomething’s plaything. Don't put the Pi into the hands of today's Year Six pupils: use it to stir the emerging creativity in today’s secondary school kids, the group who are beginning to develop the imagination to see where the skills they learn could take them.
And those same secondary school kids might well help Sony’s South Wales factory on to making many more millions of machines. ®