Eben Upton: An educational life of Pi
with DJ Walker-Morgan
Education is at the core of the Raspberry Pi Foundation's goals. The H talked to Foundation Executive Director Eben Upton on what progress was being made with these elements of the goals and how the Raspberry Pi hardware fits in with them.
The H: The Raspberry Pi Foundation was set up to focus on education and bring hands-on experience into the classroom. Do you feel that the success of the hardware has obscured that goal?
Eben Upton: Absolutely. I went back and looked at our founding document the other day, and the interesting thing is that nowhere does it talk about making hardware, let alone making hardware for the hobbyist and embedded markets, which is where the bulk of our units have gone to date. Although the assumption was that we'd build something like the Pi, our primary goal has always been to get kids programming again, and the hardware was only intended to be a means to this end.
Now that the platform is stable and selling well, providing us with revenue, mindshare, and a pool of experienced developers, we're consciously attempting to tack back towards our founding aims.
The H: As you are getting back on track for the educational aims, who are you working with in education at an organisational level?
EU: We don't have much in the way of announced partnerships at the moment, though there should be some good announcements coming up over the next couple of months.
Most of what we've been doing has been focused on improving the range of free educational collateral (for teachers and learners) which is suitable for the Pi. This can mean commissioning new content ourselves for release under a free licence (we expect to spend a mid-six-figure sum on this over the next 12 months), or editing existing free content to have a common look and feel with our in-house content; most of this work is being done by individual contributors. A great early example (though pitched at a rather more advanced level than our general target audience) is the Baking Pi OS tutorial.
At the organisational level, we've been working with corporates to set up educational competitions (for example with PA Consulting Group), and to fill in some of the missing pieces of the educational software stack (for example with Oracle). We're also talking to the UK exam boards about producing educational support material to support the delivery of their various qualifications on the Pi, and to organisations like Computing At School.
The H: How are you hoping to integrate the Pi with the currently rather vaguely defined UK curriculum?
EU: Working with the exam boards is the key here. In the two-year window to September 2014, when there is no applied program of study for ICT (see the National Curriculum Review update) they're the only people with a formal curriculum, defined by the things you need to learn to pass their exams, and they are also some of the most powerful voices in the debate about what should happen from 2014 on. Our goal isn't to get the Pi written into the curriculum as a mandatory platform, but simply to make sure that it is possible to deliver the curriculum on the Pi; so, for example, we're trying to ensure that there's nothing explicit or implicit that would stop you from using Linux as the OS on your teaching machines.
The H: Will you be looking at including open source, and its concepts, in the materials you create?
EU: Absolutely. Everything the Foundation produces or endorses in the educational area will be CC licensed, and to the best our our ability we'll be producing stuff which is applicable not just to the Pi but to any Linux-based teaching platform, whether that's another small-board computer like the Pi or an x86 desktop.
The H: Now the hardware is out there, what kind of educational applications should be top of the list for development?
EU: The nice thing is that almost all of the good CS teaching software already runs on Linux, so the bulk of the work is in making sure it works well on the Pi, rather than developing things from a standing start. MIT Scratch is actually a great example of this – it's built on top of the Squeak Smalltalk VM, and because this has generally only been run in anger on modern desktop hardware there hasn't previously been a case for heavy optimisation of its graphics routines, so it's a little sluggish on the Pi right now. We've commissioned a couple of pieces of work, the first of which involves porting it to use Pixman as its rendering backend, and the second involves optimising Pixman itself for the Pi's ARMv6 architecture (which will obviously pay dividends elsewhere in the system too).