A Slice of Raspberry Pi, Anyone?

Mon, 5 Mar 2012

A new computer system has come out: the Raspberry Pi. It's a computer on a single circuit board. An all-in-one processor, graphics card and memory cache slapped on a board with a few I/O ports and a memory card slot. It won't win any design awards; but then, it's not intended to.

Pi is, of course, a transcendental number. As every schoolkid knows, Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter and has an infinitely non-recurring decimal part. In other words, a very special, unique and remarkable number. Which is, coincidentally, exactly what the makers of the new Raspberry Pi computer want us to think of their device. Is it really?

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is hoping to re-introduce a passion for programming amongst geeks. It's certainly true that many schools do base much of their teaching on the use of proprietary software, with little or no reference to how they work. Even if the school did decide to teach that, they often continue to use proprietary software in those classes. It seems strange to me that schools teach people programming using proprietary software. Schools should use and teach free software exclusively. Some do. I wish they all did. Being proprietary, you're not allowed to study the system that's an implementation of what it is that you're learning. It seems that you're not really learning much of anything, except maybe how to be dependent on proprietary software.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes to redress this by introducing a very cheap motherboard without peripherals into schools. Basically a single-chip processor with onboard graphics and 256MB of RAM, soldered onto a circuit board with USB, Ethernet and video outputs, the Pi seells for $35 and is intended to become the future of IT teaching in schools.

Will it work? The biggest problem I see is that the Raspberry Pi itself requires proprietary software so it's not really different from any of the other devices that were used previously. Sure students will be able to learn to write programs in Python, BBC Basic and Perl but then again they were already able to do that before the Raspberry Pi. The students that will be the most curious about computers and programming and how they work deep down and who would therefore benefit the most from having a 100% free software stack all the way down are the ones that will be directly prohibited from fully studying everything about the Raspberry Pi. They won't have access to the source code for everything. If they ask their professor about how that part of the Raspberry Pi works they'll be told it's a secret.

Whether the Raspberry Pi Foundation will succeed in their lofty education aims remains to be seen but if they're serious about their goal they'll quickly move to address this problem of proprietary software and have a device where students can really and truly learn.