Interview: The £25 computer which is teaching British children to code

Jonathan Weinberg

The Raspberry Pi computer is a primitive, stripped-down computer which plugs into any television - and is built to teach children how to code.

Just after Christmas, the £25 gadget, a circuit board which connects to TVs via HDMI, hit the million sales mark worldwide.

Scouts in Southhampton have already used the gadget to create a "mind-controlled" robot - and children around the UK are using the gadget to learn how computers work.

Its creators hope it will ignite a new passion for computer science among young people.

David Braben, creator of the cult space trading simulator Elite, is one of six trustees which created the device, which has just celebrated its first birthday.

Mr Braben hopes Pi will lead to a resurgence in British students studying computer science at university - and says a previous generation appear to have been put off by earlier experiencing lessons that instead fixed on teaching how to use Word or Excel.

[Related: British inventor 'solves' mystery of Hindenburg disaster]

He said: "The situation is dire. The vandalism done by the Government in the late 90s was shocking. Hopefully we can start to recover from that. We are just starting to reap the damage that's been done as there's a huge lack of experienced senior programmers coming through. I hope that in five years time we will start to see an influx of new trained people.

The low-cost Raspberry Pi can be up and running as a desktop computer in less than an hour with cheap peripherals such as keyboards available to buy and plug in.

But its main use is to show young people, primarily from the ages of six upwards, how the coding languages behind computing work.

The Pi now offers BBC Basic for free and a video camera will soon be available.

The trustees hope to keep as much of the wider ecosystem free or very affordable, in order to boost take-up and education.

Other ways it has been put to use include being the "highest personal computer in the world" after featuring in a hot air balloon, streaming Android to a TV and controlling various robots that can carry out simple tasks such as picking up or throwing objects.

It can also run popular building game Minecraft.

Mr Braben, famed for his work on classic 80s space-trading game Elite, said: "A lot of the uses are quite surprising but the best is just kids tinkering. All of these things are drivers for children to see computers in a different light.

"It is the computer undressed. In its finery the iPhone is really hard to get into and understand or program. This is the sort of thing I had with the BBC Micro and Acorn Atom and I am forever grateful."

"The current situation eats into the ability to do good technological work in the UK. It caps the amount we can do. Some can be outsourced to other countries like China but it makes us less competitive. The games industry is affected as is everything from aviation, banking simulation, the film industry, just about everywhere.

"Even just running IT for places like Tesco or the BBC. Building vehicles also. Think how much IT there is in a car. Now we have self-drive cars coming through but that has prodigious programming problems."

He added: "Some people I hope are reaping the rewards now. They are learning. Even a little bit of learning is useful. I am not expecting everyone who plays with a Raspberry Pi to become a computer programmer. But I am hoping they will have a little bit more knowledge of technology and a little less techno-fear and a little bit more confidence when it comes to approaching it.

"Technology is not a magical alien thing. An iPad is incredible but how it does what it does is hidden from you. There is a magic when you realise 'I can do that magic'."

The success of the Raspberry Pi was recently boosted when Google announced it was to purchase 15,000 to give to schools across the UK and later this month it will go on display at London's Design Museum as a nominee in the Designs of the Year contest. The winners are due to be revealed in April.

A new book just released also aims to demystify it. The Raspberry Pi Manual by Haynes is written by computer scientist Dr Gray Girling.

He was involved in testing one of the very first BBC Micros for Acorn Computers and the book features coding 'recipes' to get anyone started on everything from creating a game of snake to designing an MP3 server or home media centre. It also includes a guide to the different programming languages and operating systems available on it.
Dr Girling said: "It is incredibly important kids learn to code. Over the past few years they've stopped being able to play with computers. When the BBC Micro came out it came with an operating system that didn't take half an hour to turn on and had a prompt that asked you to start programming.

"When Windows arrived, you couldn't have seen a more dramatic change. You are not expected to do anything, you are a consumer of someone else's programs and you're not encouraged to make the computer do anything yourself. We have really lost an opportunity with an entire generation."

Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, marked this week's International Women's Day (Friday) by encouraging pupils at two inner-London girls' schools to code. She said: "The Raspberry Pi is democratising technology. For the first time we have a 'teaching computer' sold at pocket money prices which runs much the same kind of software (Linux) as high-end corporate clusters.

"Girls can learn a set of skills on an Raspberry Pi and go and get a job with these exact same skills at some of the world's most prestigious businesses. The Little Miss Geek campaign is all about inspiring girls to create technology as well as consume it."

Mr Braben now hopes the next 12 months will see an extension of the support network that has begun to build around the Raspberry Pi.

He said: "We are moving from infancy to maturity. The richness of the code support we are offering is getting better. We want more support for teachers, after-school clubs and kids who are trying to self-learn. The objective of the foundation is to improve the education. The Raspberry Pi computer is just one of the pieces in that jigsaw."