A taste of Raspberry Pi for Open Education Week at Oxford University

To celebrate international Open Education Week we promoted a number of our Open Spires projects that are releasing free resources from Oxford including the Great Writers literature project, our World War 1 resources and the Oxford University podcasts. All our material is labelled and released using a Creative Commons licence for reuse in education worldwide. In addition to round the week off and to look into the future I invited a special guest to Oxford, Professor Alan Mycroft from Cambridge Computing department to talk to 80 IT experts here about an open educational project that is generating a huge amount of buzz in the schools IT community – the very memorably named “Raspberry Pi”.

Myself and fellow enthusiast Matthew Buckett introduced the project and then Alan demoed the computer. Remember that this is one of the handful of prototypes in existence, with an early version of the Debian OS, – the first 10,000 developer versions are set to arrive later in April or May 2012 for the lucky few who managed to buy early at the 6am launch.

Here is the film of the lecture at OUCS – “An Introduction to the Raspberry Pi”:

An Introducton to the Raspberry Pi at Oxford University

An Introducton to the Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard, which can be used for many of the things that your average desktop does – spreadsheets, word-processing, games and it also plays high-definition video. The device is designed and sold by the Raspberry Pi charitable foundation who have set themselves an educational goal of seeing the device motivate kids and schools back into programming and electronics by being priced at such a low price that it is irresistible. The price has been kept down to less than 30 pounds for the development models that have been sold to early developers. The initial batch of 10,000 Raspberry Pi’s are hopefully arriving any day now, with the launch being heavily oversubscribed, with around 700,000 registrations of interest worldwide.

Less than 30 pounds for a fully functioning computer is amazing in itself – but how is it an Open Educational project ? Well, for me this UK based project is trying to fit the vision of open education as much as possible by running an open operating system (LINUX), promoting free educational software designed by professionals for school use (Scratch and Python) and creating a charitable trust to oversee the project and to ensure their core educational aims. They’re also working in an open manner discussing the design of the product so that enthusiasts can create add-ons and they openly discuss the management of their activities through a public forum. The team behind the project includes professors like Alan Mycroft and Eben Upton from Cambridge University, top electronics experts from industry and famous games programmers ( David Braben co-writer of Elite), all united by a belief that a simple cheap computer could generate again the buzz of programming that swept the UK in the era of the 1980s home computers. Could the Raspberry Pi again excite kids to program and tinker in the way the legendary ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro project did? The professors at Cambridge behind the project certainly hope so because they’ve noticed a worrying drop in the programming skills of students entering their University courses. They feel this is because computers are becoming more expensive, more closed-box and more difficult for a child to program or interface with the electronics.

Why is the computer getting everyone so excited ? How can it be so cheap?

Well it’s designed from the start to be cheap. It’s an amazing combination of size, state of the art System on a Chip (SoC) technology, free OS software that boots from an SD card and a philosophy of leveraging external parts that you already own. The Raspberry Pi comes in two models, Model A without ethernet ($25) and Model B with ethernet ($35). The developer version is without a case and saves money by using SD cards for storage, presuming you already have a spare USB keyboard and mouse, a phone charger power supply and a TV or monitor.

The Raspberry Pi measures 85.60mm x 53.98mm x 17mm, with a little overlap for the SD card and connectors which project over the edges. It weighs just 45g. It’s tiny !

Raspberry Pi developer board

What operating system (OS) does it use? How do you learn programming on the device?
Debian or Fedora are the current recommended Linux distributions. More are in development. It’s straightforward to replace the root partition on the SD card with another ARM Linux distro if you want to use something else. The OS is stored on the SD card, and all disk files too. By default, Python and Scratch are the educational languages the foundation will be promoting. Any language – C, Php,Pascal etc – which will compile for ARMv6 can be used with the Raspberry Pi, though; so you’re not limited to using Python.

What’s the hardware and System on a Chip ( SoC ) ?

The SoC is a Broadcom BCM2835 chip, postage stamp sized, which is often found in set-top boxes. This contains an ARM1176JZFS, with floating point, running at 700Mhz, and a Videocore 4 GPU. The memory is 256 RAM, included in the SoC (not expandable).

The GPU is perhaps the Raspberry Pi’s greatest feature – capable of BluRay quality playback, using H.264 at 40MBits/s. It has a fast 3D graphics core accessed using the supplied OpenGL ES2.0 and OpenVG libraries. Basically if the software can take advantage of GPU for graphics then the graphics will be accelerated and look amazing. Graphics capabilities are roughly equivalent to Xbox 1 level of performance. Overall real world performance is slower than a desktop, something like a 300MHz Pentium 2, only with much, much swankier graphics **if** the software can take advantage of the GPU.

How can the Raspberry Pi be used in schools?

Once formally launched the foundation hopes that community bodies like Computing at School will put together teaching material such as lesson plans and resources and push this into schools. In due course, the foundation hopes to provide a system of prizes to give young people something to work towards.

There’s lots of discussion of educational uses and resources in the Raspberry Pi Education forum – http://www.raspberrypi.org/forums.

Thanks again to Professor Alan Mycroft for bringing the beta version of the product – ‘Raspberry Pi No1 !’ and the amazing Eben Upton and Liz Upton from the Raspberry Pi charitable foundation in Cambridge for helping us organise the talk and providing such an amazing educational vision!

Again, here is the film of the lecture held at OUCS in March 2012 – “An Introduction to the Raspberry Pi”. Enjoy!


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One Response to “A taste of Raspberry Pi for Open Education Week at Oxford University”

  1. thomas driscoll says:

    Dear Professor Mycroft,
    In america we call this a home run ! Thank you for all your efforts in bringing such a powerful tool to the world for such a small price.I only hope I can master the system since I am new to Linux .I have needed a unit of this caliber to tie my aging electronics with the speed of the internet.I will excel on this like alot of the people of the world with limited means will do.Thanks again . I hope you are able to keep giving the world these incredible tools for many years to come!

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