A free Raspberry Pi for every child is a bad idea, says its designer

The government should not hand out free Raspberry Pi educational devices to school children, according to its designer – but there is room for the computers in the classroom
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Since its launch in February, commentators have called for Raspberry Pi, the wildly popular £16 Linux computer, to be used to reinvigorate ICT teaching in schools and get pupils interested in programming in much the same way the BBC Micro did in the 1980s.

Eben Upton

The government should not hand out free Raspberry Pi educational devices to school children, according to its designer Eben Upton. Image credit: Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Schools haven't been slow to start using Raspberry Pi devices in the classroom, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt recently announced the company would begin funding Raspberry Pis for use as teaching aids by trainee computer science teachers. However, according to the device's designer, giving out free Raspberry Pis wholesale to all schoolchildren wouldn't be in kids' interest.

There is a risk that children would not value the credit card-size computing devices if they were given free, government-funded Raspbery Pi computers outright, according to device designer Eben Upton.

The danger of giving away Raspberry Pis is that "three-quarters of them would end up in cupboards or on eBay", he told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

"The problem is that kids don't value, and people don't value, something that they're given for free," he added. "I'd like every child who wants one to be able to get one, and I would like a situation where there is no barrier to that — if a way could be found to subsidise access for people who aren't well off."

Rather than a blanket distribution across the entire school system, Upton would prefer to see the computers given to all children in a particular school year. "The annual cost of that is about £20m to £25m. It's significant but not disastrous," he said.

At £25m, such a distribution would cost around 0.2 percent of the UK's annual education budget, which reached £90.6bn last year.

A Raspberry Pi for every child?

Eidos life president Ian Livingstone is among those calling for a broader Raspberry Pi distribution in schools.

"You could give [a Raspberry Pi] to every child in the country," Livingstone told the Westminster eForum event in London on Tuesday. "If they broke it, it wouldn't matter, and they could work together collaboratively."

"The potential upside will be enormous," he told ZDNet UK. "You will inspire people to create technology. This is a programmable computer, not a locked-down computer. Children have got to be able to create content, not just use other people's content."

The device also got the blessing of Professor Steve Furber, one of the principal designers of the BBC Micro, the device that kick-started access to programming for UK school children in the 1980s.

"With the Raspberry Pi, there is a real buzz about what can be done in schools [to encourage interest in technology]," said Furber. "The problem with the iPhone, the iPad, and the PC is that they are far too complicated for people to get into and play with. The BBC [Micro] was simple and Raspberry Pi is trying to bring that back."

No government cash

Despite enthusiasm for the Raspberry Pi, the Department for Education (DfE) is unlikely to provide additional funding to schools to subsidise the devices, DfE technology policy unit head Vanessa Pittard told ZDNet UK.

People don't value something that they're given for free.
– Eben Upton

"The government's position is that it is for schools to decide [how to allocate budgets]," said Pittard. "Raspberry Pi is marvellous in terms of potential improvement for young people, but it's very much for schools to take the decision about kit." There is very little funding held centrally for activities such as the provision of equipment, she added.

Raspberry Pi has proven to be very popular in the UK since orders began to be taken on 29 February. UK distributers have managed to clear the backlog of orders for the first day – around 100,000, with hundreds of thousands more orders on the books, according to Upton.

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