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Raspberry Pi in schools

With the new Computing curriculum set to come into effect in September, David Crookes looks at how teachers are looking to get in on the Raspberry Pi action

This time last year, Carrie Anne Philbin was a teacher. And not just any teacher. In becoming Google Certified and a Key Stage 3 ICT subject leader at a school in East London, she had grown into something else: an evangelist for the power of a small, credit card-sized computer that we all know as the Raspberry Pi.

Her enthusiasm for all things Pi can be grasped within minutes of seeing her in action. She’s a regular talker at education conferences – one of the most recent being at the Education Innovation Conference and Exhibition (EICE) in Manchester. She advocates going along to Raspberry Jams. She is also the creator of a YouTube video series for teenage girls known as The Geek Gurl Diaries.

Carrie Anne Philbin is a big supporter of the new curriculum, experiencing first hand the effect of the Pi
Carrie Anne Philbin is a big supporter of the new curriculum, experiencing first hand the effect of the Pi

Above all, though, Philbin is bursting at the seams to get her overriding message across. In believing teachers and children can learn so much from the Raspberry Pi, she has made a foray into print. Her first book, Adventures In Raspberry Pi, is a clear resource that is aimed at kids of all ages and a fair few adults too.

Today, however, she has taken her passion further, assuming the role of Education Pioneer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation. With teachers having just a few months left to truly nail the principles of computers before they unleash their knowledge on classes of children, it is her job to show educators the true value of the £25 machine she appears to love so much. “A year ago, there perhaps wasn’t much interest in the Raspberry Pi,” she says. “I was one of the first teachers to start using it in the classroom but this year, thanks to the number of conferences that have introduced it, a lot of teachers have become very interested in how it can be used. There is much more excitement about it.”

The education conference in Manchester worked well for the Raspberry Pi Foundation and the dedicated team it has assembled with the aim of supporting teachers. Last year, the Raspberry Pi Jamboree staged by Alan O’Donohoe was sectioned off in its own series of rooms in the vast space of Manchester Central. This year, with O’Donohoe still at the helm, all things Pi were thrown into the main conference arena. Teachers walking around the venue would spot a classroom of the future on one corner, be able to buy a Pi on another and listen to talks in one of two areas set aside for such purpose. The Pi sat centre stage and could not be ignored.

The hope was that teachers, like the Raspberry Pi Foundation team, would understand the welcome nature of the change about to come in. Philbin says she had her moment of enlightenment around six years ago. Along with other educators, she looked at ICT, saw what teachers were being given to teach and questioned its wisdom. “It’s been a long time coming and not just something that the government decided to do,” says Philbin. “This curriculum change has been needed for a while.”

To make sure teachers feel more comfortable with the new curriculum, the Foundation team has been working on a series of packs aimed at teachers and it is also looking to spark their imagination. “We’re launching a new website that is packed with resources to enable teachers to learn and understand in as short a time as possible,” says Philbin, of the renewed effort ahead of the new school year. “The website has lesson plans, schemes of work that teachers can use, guides on teaching yourself stuff and we’re likely to have a professional development plan for teachers in time. For us, it’s important to lend support.”

Even so, the change has had a mixed reaction. It seems to captivate and yet scare some teachers. One told Linux User that he was keen to learn more about the Raspberry Pi and introduce it into his lessons. He liked the inexpensive nature of the computer; he loved the accessibility of Scratch and its use of Linux – but he did have a concern. He was worried that the increased demand would pile more stress on him and his colleagues. He worried that he would not have enough time to get himself up to speed.

“The pressure on teachers is not coming from schools,” says Philbin. “Schools and senior leaderships within schools are aware that this is happening and that teachers will need time to adjust. I think it’s coming more from media that’s saying, ‘It’s coming in September and everything has to be done’. But the time you have as a teacher to do anything is so small. The government does need to give teachers time to skill up.”

Primary school teachers will feel the strain more than secondary. They need to teach a much higher number of subjects, so devoting extra time and expertise to an area as complex as computing will be felt more keenly among them. Making matters worse is that they are surrounded by computers that they can do very little with in practical terms – and yet the Raspberry Pi can change that.

“You have to consider the environment in which teachers work: schools typically have computers around five years out of date based on Windows,” says Philbin. “The network administrators keep that tightly locked down. You can’t ping someone, run an executable or compile code. It has been difficult to teach with that equipment.”

And yet, although the new curriculum emphasises coding more than it has ever done before, programming isn’t, Philbin asserts, entirely the reason behind the change. It is as much about demystifying coding, which is why the curriculum that is about to come into effect is flexible to a large extent, allowing for differing approaches to the subject. But it is also about ensuring teachers have a wide knowledge of computing and the possibilities of it that they can pass on to kids. “There is a danger that some teachers will just use Scratch forever and it will become the new PowerPoint and lead to ‘death by Scratch’, but we’re looking to encourage teachers to be more creative and to put across the point that computing is fun,” says Philbin.

Certainly, the new curriculum outlines what needs to be done at the various key stages. And while the government has said that it hopes to have bred a new generation of creators rather than consumers in a few years, just being able to open pupils’ eyes to the possibilities is seen as progress. It is the reason why initiatives such as The Hour Of Code exist. So far it has given a crash course introduction to programming and has around 20 million participants in the USA. It has, to date, also had around 1.7 million people taking part in the UK.

With Code Clubs, Raspberry Jams up and down the country, a wealth of online resources and the government’s determination to see the new curriculum succeed, it appears these initiatives have a great chance of affecting long-lasting change. The Pi, Philbin says, sparks inquisitiveness in children and they want to know what it is and how it’s used. “When it loads and they start using it – and start using Linux for the first time and begin issuing commands to the computer – they begin to understand and learn,” says Philbin. “With the Pi, it’s also about controlling real-world things. It’s versatile and that’s why teachers are realising that, it may be small, but it’s so incredibly powerful.”