Raspberry Pi to kickstart computing in schools?

Pint size PC to re-introduce kids to coding?

The Raspberry Pi project will shortly be offering for sale the first 10,000 production models of a new type of PC, but what is it, how much will it cost, and why the heck are they making it in the first place?  Read on to find out more.

What is it?

In short, it’s an ultra-small, low powered PC.  Think of it as the insides of your smartphone, scooped out and then given connectors that allow you to connect it to your TV and keyboard.

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You can connect this funky little board to your TV via HDMI or composite connection, connect it to your home broadband connection, add an SD card for memory and connect up a keyboard or mouse to control it.

The board itself contains a 700MHz ARM processor, 128 or 256MB of RAM (dependent on the model) and a graphics chip capable of decoding HD video without any problems.

The board will be sold as a complete unit, though users will have to supply their own power supply (via micro-USB) and connecting leads, as well as their own SD card for storage, and some sort of box to put it in.

The Raspberry Pi will be compatible with Linux and RISC OS out of the box, but it’ll be up to the user to actually install or write any software for it.

How Much is it?

The Raspberry Pi board will come in two versions; the model A and the model B.

The model A will feature the 700MHz processor, 128MB or RAM, an SD card slot, video and sound ports, and a USB port.  It’ll be priced at $25.

The Model B will feature all of the above, but will include 256MB of RAM and will also have a network port which allows you to connect it to the Internet or a local network.  This version will be priced at $35.

Neither model is yet shipping, but the first release is expected to be sometime during February 2012.

Why does it exist?

This part of the story is more interesting…

I was lucky enough to be in secondary school during the mid to late 90′s, which meant that I was school-aged during the digital revolution that saw PC’s make the leap from offices to education and into the home.

When I started secondary school we had a handful of computers across the site, the fastest of which used an Intel 486 processor which ran at 50MHz.  That’s 0.05 GHz, or a tiny fraction of the speed that modern PC’s run at.  This machine sat in the school library and featured 4MB of RAM, a CD drive and even (wait for it) Speakers!!!!

Could I get near it?  I wish, the most PC action I could get was in the dusty old computer lab at lunchtime, a room filled with outdated machines which were even slower than the 486 that the school blew most of their budget on.  These machines didn’t even have hard disks; you booted off of a single 3.5″ floppy disk and then used a second disk to store all of your files.

The thing is, I probably learnt more from those old dusty wrecks than I would have from the (at the time) state of the art machine in the library.  Sure, I wouldn’t learn how to master Microsoft Word for several years, but I would get to learn to write my own basic programs that actually did things.

I remember at one point I even managed to write my own text based adventure game, which would accept commands like “walk”, “open” and “close” to…. well, all you could do was open the door and walk through it, but I was 11.

These days, it’s a different story, kids aren’t taught how to program in computer classes.  The most they can hope for is how to use Microsoft Office, some basic networking skills, and maybe some web development training.  But no real coding.

The problem is; who’s going to write our applications in the future if we don’t invest in programming now?  It’s no good having an army of people that can use Word if no one knows how to develop it so that it has new features and takes advantage of new technologies.

This is exactly what the Raspberry Pi project hopes to accomplish; to get kids interested in computer programming so that a new generation of coders can help develop faster, more efficient and better programs.

With a single $35 board, a child can learn to write their own programs to make the computer do productive things like playback video from the Internet or control access to the Internet for a group of computers.

The possibilities are pretty far reaching, and it’ll be up to the minds of children (and grown ups, like me) to work out what can be done with this board.

And if we have some fun and learn some things along the way, then so be it!

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