Will the Raspberry Pi hit the school computing mainstream? Tony Parkin investigates
An eclectic mix of around 70 hackers, coders, beginners, educational computing veterans, teachers, would-be geeks and students gathered at Mozilla's MozSpace in St Martin's Lane, London, for the first-ever London #Raspberry Jam.
What is a #RaspberryJam? Organised by Alan O'Donohoe (@teknoteacher), who also compèred the event, a #RaspberryJam consists of a meet of Raspberry Pi computer owners and enthusiasts, gathering to share stories, swap ideas and generally work out what to do with their new devices.
Actually not all those present were owners – as was clear from the groan at the start, many were still impatiently awaiting delivery. And among the crowd were a significant number of educators, keen to find out the potential of the Raspberry Pi to play a role in children's learning, as has been widely promised.
A series of #RaspberryJams are being held across the UK to build new groups
A series of #RaspberryJams are following across the UK, and the hope is that groups will spring up – wherever there are enough enthusiasts – to organise regular meets. And by the end of the evening Alan had five volunteers prepared to organise the next London #RaspberryJam.
Icebreaker activities had included a very analogue series of sticky-note exercises about what people were looking for from the event, and what they intended to do going forward. The overwhelming impression I got was of those early 1980s gatherings of excited Spectrum or BBC B owners, excited by the technology but unclear about the way forward. Throughout the night there was passion and excitement aplenty – also drinks, nibbles and fruit thanks to Mozilla, and scones from @rslosek.
During the almost-formal part of the evening Alan introduced a number of speakers that gave some inkling of the range of interests gathered. Several of the inputs were not primarily focused on the Raspberry Pi but belonged in the wider context of the interest in computer studies, the excitement of coding, the joy of geekdom and putting some excitement back into ICT.
First up, and a classic example of this, was Genevieve Smith-Nunes (@pegleggen), whose Hack Day sadly won't feature any Raspberry Pis this year. However, she described her project to get nearly a whole cohort of Year 9s engaged in a Hack Day, courtesy of some dogged persistence and the continued existence of Activities Week at Dorothy Stringer School.
Gen hopes that other schools can engage with the day via the Dorothy Stringer Hack Day website. Throughout the Hack Day there will be expert talks, lasting for about 15 to 20 minutes, which teachers elsewhere should be able to use as video streams in their lessons, wherever they may be in the world. Gen is keen to exploit the Raspberry Pi's potential to build on the Hack Day event.
There's even a Raspberry Pi with own power supply for outdoor learning
In contrast Neil Ford (@neilcford), who some will know from his work with Emma Mulqueeny's Young Rewired State, described his work so far on a portable network field array using wifi and a web server application, based on a Raspberry Pi with its own power supply that could be rucksacked to outdoor activities. He even had an Amazon wish-list of parts (link below). We were now in serious techie terrain... geographically speaking.
Next up was Keith Dunlop, with a second dollop of geek goodness. He is an enthusiastic user of RiscOS, the operating system of the Archimedes computer, and a member of the RiscOS User Group Of London (@rougol). He showed how RiscOS, a 20-year-old operating system created for use in education on ARM chips similar to the one in the Raspberry Pi was looking at this stage in its Pi-variant development. This was especially interesting, not only for its appeal to the educational nostalgists at the event, but also as, uniquely, it was a real-time demo actually using a Raspberry Pi.
The graphics program he used still looked inspiringly impressive, despite its longevity. There are some issues with supporting standards such as wifi and USB – that didn't exist at the time of the Archimedes – but a stable version is expected to be released in September. So, surprisingly, RiscOS still has its passionate advocates after all these years, though perhaps less surprisingly its development has forked, so you can find active community sites for RiscOS enthusiasts at https://www.riscosopen.org/content/ and at http://www.riscoscode.com/.
John Bevan (@bevangelist) is the learning partnership lead at Mozilla, the open source corporation behind the Firefox browser (among other things), and was host for the evening. Mozilla is also offering a number of events targeting the coding agenda, which have been packaged as its Summer Code Party, which started on June 23. His short demo of Thimble, one of the Webmaker tools that Mozilla has launched, showed students could easily become web writers as well as web consumers. To demonstrate just how easy this could be, he customised the Make Your Own Meme project for the the Raspberry Jam event – and you can see the YouTube video below.
If you weren't there, and want to know what happened in detail during these talks, worry not, as the omnipresent Leon Cych (@eyebeams) was there to video the event in its entirety. And he had presenters wearing an infra-red medallion which allowed his second, remote camera to follow them as they moved about – fascinating to watch! You can see the whole thing on YouTube below although of course it's not quite like being there.
If the sessions were eclectic, they were trumped in the networking sessions that followed, and were a main focus of the evening. Everyone scurried around trying to meet up with others with similar interests, or the person with the answers to their problem, or just to admire some of the cool stuff on display. Some of the coolest came from the beaming S K Pang, with his flashing light array – and he has a store which carries an interesting collection of goodies for use with the Raspberry Pi.
Raspberry Pi needs an ecosystem to bridge learning gap for non-geeks
At this point I met up with Mary Farmer (@ebd35), one of the teachers present, and Shreyas who, aged 12, was the youngest person in the room. As a total novice – though she had been there, got the Pi, and wore the t-shirt – Mary Farmer finds the initial learning curve on the Pi rather steep, and had been hoping to find easier access routes to get her using the device educationally as a non-geek.
The Raspberry Pi team are certainly hoping that there are teachers and others out there who will plug this gap, but I believe that Mary is right – for now the gap remains to be filled. James Abela (@eslweb) is already tweeting about developing key stage 3 materials based on the Pi, so hopefully the wait will not be too long.
But it was Pi-owning Shreyas who perhaps pointed us to the future. At 12, Shreyas finds himself in a school where his favourite online games are barred. A friend sitting next to him in the library showed him Scratch online, and he found it cool, and realised that he could play the games that other students had developed and put into the Scratch community.
He found some of the games weren't to his liking, and started to hack them about to improve them and, guess what, he found he enjoyed creating games more than he enjoyed playing them. He was excited to find that Scratch can run on the Pi, but now he also wants to explore other programming environments for game-making. Ironically, his friend lost interest when he heard that the Pi couldn't run Flash, as all his favourite games were Flash-based. But there is no stopping Shreyas now.
If you are an interested educator, and find there is a #RaspberryJam near you, it will definitely be worth going. If there isn't, you may even like to consider organising one. How do you find out where they are? Well the #raspberryjam hashtag on Twitter seems as good a way in as any, and Raspberry Jam is also on Eventbrite.
However, beginners do need to recognise that these are early days, and that while the devices are now speeding from supplier to user, there is still some way to go before the essential supporting ecology and infrastructure for education is in place. But that's also something you could also have fun helping create!
Scientific Moustache's blogpost of the evening
Genevieve's Hackday site
Neil Ford's Amazon Wishlist
Mozilla's Thimble HTML/CSS tool
Raspberry Jam on Eventbrite
Raspberry Pi website
The #Raspberry Jam attended by Tony Parkin was held in St Martin's Lane, London, on June 20, 2012