Q&A: Eben Upton from The Raspberry Pi Foundation

The creator of the ₤15 computer talks about the rollout, and why education struggles with IT funding

After announcing the launch of a ₤15 ($A23.50) computer designed specifically for the education sector in May this year, London-based charity, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, spoke to Computerworld Australia about the progress of the project.

What's the background to thee Raspberry Pi Foundation and your role there?

The foundation was set up a couple of years ago by a group of us here in Cambridge [University]. We had become concerned about the decline in programming skills among young people in the UK. I was experiencing this in my role as a director of studies at the University, where we'd seen applicant numbers fall by a factor of two between 2000 and 2005, and where the typical skill set had changed from assembly language programming to web design. Other founders had seen a similar decline in the number and quality of graduate applicants for jobs in the large Cambridge IT sector.

I have overall responsibility for the hardware and software architecture of the Raspberry Pi device, and am coordinating our go-to-market strategy.

How do you think the ₤15 computer will change the education sector?

We hope that it will provide students with a platform for self-directed learning about computer science and engineering topics. This is a board which can be given to every student, and which is cheap enough that the user does not need to worry about breaking it, losing it or having it stolen from them. Over time we hope that a variety of curricula will grow up around the device, and that we will be able to offer a system of prizes to incentivize students to develop their programming skills.

Why do you think the education sector struggles with IT funding?

Three reasons. Firstly, there's a substantial and recurring capital cost involved in providing hardware and software. Secondly, maintaining fairly fragile hardware in a challenging environment like a school is a labour-intensive process, not to mention the effort involved in keeping machines free of viruses and other malware. Finally, on the supply side, IT in schools often struggles to articulate a clear vision of what contribution it makes to the educational process; is it really worth all this money just to teach children to use Microsoft Office?

What role does technology in schools play in ending a broader digital divide?

In the UK at present, very little. The ICT curriculum focuses solely on the use of currently popular office applications; Professor Alan Mycroft, one of our trustees, jokes that when he was at school in the 1970s this subject used to be called "typing". To the extent that the education system should be providing training for jobs, why are we focusing on precisely the sort of low-value-add clerical roles which are most vulnerable to offshoring? Education contributes to social mobility when it gives bright, disadvantaged young people a path into careers like engineering, which in turn requires schools to teach fundamentals. This means programming - not word processing.

How are plans going for the rollout of the Raspberry Pi Device and when do you hope to have it made available for purchase?

Plans are going well. We completed the final schematics for the developer board release three weeks ago, and are due to have the first assembled units in a few day's time. Assuming everything checks out, we should have units available for purchase by the end of the year.

What's coming up next on your IT agenda?

The initial boards will go out with a fairly vanilla install of Ubuntu, but in the longer term we intend to provide educational software with a common look and feel. Once we have boards in the field, we'll be focusing our attention on this.

For more information on IT in the education space, check out our comprehensive education section.

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