CEO Eben Upton on the story behind the tiny computer and how it can make an impact on education
The tiny credit-card sized Raspberry Pi computer was launched two years ago in February 2012 to immediate success.
Designed to encourage children and the wider public to get into programming at an accessible price, the Pi immediately sold 100,000 units on its first day. The figure beat the non-profit foundation’s wildest dreams.
It had hoped at best to reach 10,000 sales. In fact, the organisation’s realistic target had been to sell 1,000.
And now, the tiny computer has been voted by industry professionals as the top tech in games in the Develop 100 Tech List, and has sold more than three million units, surpassing popular programmable computers of old such as the BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC.
Indeed, it was those classic machines from the 80s, and the lack of successors to those systems in the late 90s and 00s, that inspired its creation, says Raspberry Pi CEO Eben Upton. That and the subsequent lack of coding talent following the death of these machines.
RISE OF PI
“I was involved in interviewing people to come and study at Cambridge from 2004 to 2007,” says Upton.
“And the really shocking thing was the number of people applying to study computer science at Cambridge was much lower than it had been a decade before.”
When Upton himself attended Cambridge University, the course had been tough to get on to, such was the high demand. The class, he says, was full of people who had got to grips with coding from an early age thanks to systems like the BBC Micro, with Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans also studying there.
“There was a real sense by ten years after that, by the time I was interviewing people, that the home computing culture had gone away and, as a result of the disappearance of that, we were getting fewer people coming in to university,” states Upton.
“The people coming in were still very bright, but they hadn’t had that level of practical experience. And that then limited what they could do when they went on to graduate.
“A number of people at Cambridge had this realisation – and the Raspberry Pi was just our attempt to reboot that computer that goes in your bedroom.”
EDUCATING THE NEXT GENERATION
One of the key ideas behind the Raspberry Pi, as well as creating something programmable that helps people learn to code, was to ensure it was available at an accessible price.
The new Raspberry Pi B+, which includes new features to the hardware such as four USB 2.0 ports, better audio and low power consumption, still costs around £25.
Upton insists though many assume most people in the country already have computers, that is not the case, and he believes the Pi is a viable and crucial alternative for those without the funds for a beefier PC.
“A lot of people still come up to us and say, ‘why are you doing this? Everybody’s got a computer. Why don’t you just write a software platform that runs on the computers everyone has?’ And it’s just not true,” he says. “There are people that just don’t have computers.”
The Pi could help solve this issue though, and with three million already sold, it’s well on its way to playing a role in teaching crucial computing skills to children, ready for a new age reliant on technology.
But it’s not just the Pi, the UK is gearing up for the introduction of a rigorous new computer science curriculum to help bring the UK back to the forefront of the computing industry, and plug the digital skills gap as noted in the Livingstone-Hope report after years of neglect and teaching children to work with software, rather than create it.
“It’s incredibly important [to have computer science on the curriculum],” says Upton.
“When we first started doing this we felt like a voice in the wilderness. We were the only people talking about this. And that was around 2006.
“The wonderful thing over the last few years is that there’s even been this massive upsurge in organisations like Computing at School, which is supported by the British Computing Society. You’ve also got all these after school clubs and schemes like Coder Dojo and CodeClub.”
Despite his optimism about computer science finally entering the UK curriculum as the fourth science, Upton says he’s concerned about whether the country and its teaching workforce is ready for the change.
“It’s an enormously challenging transition,” he says. “I think the scale of the funding required to do this teacher training properly is a hundred million pounds, or high tens of millions.”
Though the government has its own scheme to teach a select number of teachers, who will then go on to educate their colleagues, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is also playing its own part in preparing them for the coming changes via the Picademy.
The free, two-day course works by bringing in 25 primary and secondary school teachers to the Raspberry Pi offices in Cambridge, showing them how to use the Pi in the classroom and assist with teaching the new curriculum. Though currently taking place at its offices, the organisation aims widen the net and begin hosting sessions off-site by the end of the year.
And the early signs are that the Picademy is working, and the Pi is slowly making its way into real classrooms across the country.
“At the moment we’re trying to work out what the best way is to integrate it with the existing computing facilities that schools have, because schools already have computers,” admits Upton.
“There’s an argument that what you should do is install educational software like Scratch on the computers at school. Scratch also runs well on the Pi, and the child can have the Pi at home, so they can use it as a way of getting an extension of the experience they’re having at school at home.”
Industry veteran and UK creative industries champion Ian Livingstone, who co-wrote the Livingstone-Hope report, is a keen supporter of computer science on the curriculum and of the Raspberry Pi. He has claimed on a number of occasions that for £15m, the government could buy every child in the country a Pi. Despite the costs of such a venture, he believes the net outcome would be “way beyond the cost of a Raspberry Pi”.
“Computer science is the new Latin,” said Livingstone at last month’s Develop Conference in Brighton.
“No matter where you come from, or how disadvantaged, any child could learn to code and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. It is the great equaliser and a great opportunity.”
RASPBERRY PIS FOR ALL
Upton says though the Pi isn’t the only way for children to learn to code, he does see value in ubiquity, and thinks such a scheme could work if government was willing to make the investment.
“A really good example of this is France back in the 1980s,” he explains. “They had this thing called Minitel, which they replaced their telephone books with, and they gave it to everyone. Because everyone had it, you could assume everyone had it, and this whole ecosystem grew up around it.
“So I think there is value to it, and I think in general what there’s value to though is just making sure that everyone has a programmable computer, and the Pi isn’t the only way of doing this. You can do this with recycled PCs, you can do it with maybe other little computers and cheap laptops.
“We live in this age of appliance computing. A world in which the majority of computing devices are closed platforms, such as games consoles and set-top boxes. There’s value I think in making sure that every household owns at least one computer which is not an appliance, and we are surprisingly far away from that world at the moment.”
Having already made an early impact on the UK programming and education scenes, the Raspberry Pi surpassing the original goals set for it with each passing day.
And with further software enhancements on the way, the Picademy scheme and the introduction of computer science to the primary and secondary school curriculum, perhaps the Pi could play a central role in the future of education in the country.