There has recently been quite a lot of excitement about the Raspberry Pi, and rightly so. At around £25 for a computer (you need to have a keyboard and TV) it has lots of features that make it interesting.
For me though its most interesting feature is it is a no-frills device that doesn’t look like the black box in the corner – it’s a circuit board with some chips and connections. Why is that interesting? Well, that’s what a computer essentially is. It is cheap enough that if it breaks it is not a serious problem, and in most cases people are unlikely to write something that will break the machine anyway.
There has, quite rightly, been a lot of excitement – because of the price, and for encouraging school children to learn to program. I agree with this whole-heartedly, but there is potentially a more interesting feature, what else can you do with it? Yes, you can word process, run video or connect to the internet, but what if you connected it to something else? What if you combined them together or connect cameras to them – what could you produce at a relatively low cost?
A low cost device that can be used to encourage ideas to be played with, where it doesn’t matter too much if it goes wrong – that is where the excitement should be. I do not know what is going to come out of it, but I am very interested to find out.
Recently there has been a lot of interest in the news on more programming and computing in schools (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16493929). I believe this is very likely to be seen positively by a lot of the computing profession. The British Computer Society (BCS) have been campaigning about computing being seen as a separate subject to information and communications technology (ICT), or computing – at the very least – as an option within ICT in the National Curriculum.
So what is the problem? Computing is more than ICT; there is a belief that people are being put off computing by the difference not being clearer. Common myths include:
- Everything has been done. This is not true, it’s an area where new things come along all the time. This is one of the exciting challenges of being a computing professional.
- It is all about using databases and spreadsheets . Using databases is important but so is the theory of them. Spreadsheets, in a computer science course, only play a very minor role and may not even be taught.
- It is all about business analysis. That is just one aspect, other aspects included but certainly not limited to are:
- Games and other graphics. Who writes the software in the first place?
- Hardware. Someone has to write the programs that go into aircraft or cars.
- Mobile applications A growing area at the moment.
- Web based applications. Webpages can be produced without a lot of computing knowledge, but making the pages do some of the more ‘clever’ things does.
- Security. All those online transactions we all do, understanding where the loopholes are, programming tricks that hackers will or could try, takes some computing knowledge.
What role can universities play? Even before the recent news articles, universities have been actively going into and working with schools, trying to bring in a different perspective of computing. Examples from this University include.
- Junkbots: Using a real programming language to program Lego robots. This has been successfully carried out in primary and secondary schools reaching over 150 students.
- Be Switched On: An on-campus activity giving Year 12 and 13 examples of computing at university. Activities include programming robots or building 3D computer models.
- Women into computing: presenting an alternative face to computing by school students meeting female computing professionals and computing students.
It is in the best interest of universities to do this. Undergraduates who know something about programming and computing before they start would make the courses even more intellectually stimulating.
As an aside, personally I find ideas tried in outreach activities sometimes inform or lead to activities I do with undergraduates, as well as the other way around.
- Damian Pickard
- Early Years
- Higher Education
- Jack the Ripper
- Lifelong learning
- Northampton Business School
- Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs
- Occupy movement
- Office of the Vice Chancellor
- Press Office
- Professional Development
- Radicalism and New Media Research Group
- Science and Technology
- Social Enterprise
- Social media
- Social Sciences
- University Technical Colleges