I treated myself to a Raspberry PI as a kind of late Christmas present. I am intrigued by the idea of something so small and inexpensive aimed at giving kids (and interested adults) the ability to get to grips with basic computing at a very low cost. I bought the Maplin Raspberry PI starter kit which cost £74.99 and included the Raspberry PI itself, keyboard, wireless wifi USB eifi dongle, mouse, USB hub, SD card containing the Linux Debian wheezy distribution and two power supplies,
I purloined a tv screen from the spare room and set about putting it together. To my surprise it was fairly straightforward. My biggest problem, I’m ashamed to admit, was remembering to change the tv input to HDMI so I spent 15 minutes puzzling as to why the little lights on the Raspberry PI board were on yet nothing was displaying on the TV. 🙂
I posted on Facebook to say that I had bought an RPi and a number of friends commented to say that they too had done so. One mentioned an iPad app iSSH which allowed you user in an iPad as a remote shell, like a terminal window where you can enter commands. I installed this and after reading the help, soon successfully got it running. It was much easier driving the RPi from the iPad than sitting crouched on the floor. I felt very pleased with myself.
A high priority is to to protect the RPi with a case as it is very vulnerable perched on the cardboard packaging with wires etc coming out of it and the cats roaming around it looking interested. I had ordered a very nice case from Maplins which arrived promptly and although relatively expensive at £12.95, was really well made and worthwhile.
My first impressions are that this is a neat little tool that is surprisingly powerful considering it is running from an OS installed on a 4Gb SD card. I found it fairly easy to use, but I found myself dredging back into my ancient memories of unix when following the instructions on the Maplin getting started leaflet And the beginners guide.
The Raspberry Pi beginners guide is very good and introduces you to the command line, bandying around text strings like bash, shell, Linux flavours etc. I wonder how kids whose ICT lessons consist of learning how to use word and excel will take to this. I suspect that even the most technically astute might struggle with such concepts.
Everything is configurable, but you really need to get down into what feels like the nuts and bolts to effect changes. For example, I wanted to make the font size bigger on the TV. Looking in the very well written RPi beginner’s guide I first tried to edit the config file called console-setup to change the “terminus” values as instructed in the book. However, I got the message that the file did not have write permission to edit. In the GUI I then right-clicked the file to change the permissions on it and got a message that I did not have sufficient privileges to do this.
At this point I needed to call upon knowledge that a beginner would not be likely to have about file permissions and file ownership. I opened a terminal window, used “cd” to get to the directory containing the config file, I used “pwd” to check the permissions and then “chmod” to change the permissions on the file. These are all cryptic commands, and I had forgotten the precise order you need to specify permissions after the chmod command. The online help is accessed via “man” command which is suggested by the book, but it is both is very difficult to read and understand. I took several trial and error attempts to get the permissions fixed so that I could edit the config file. That was successful and that worked on next boot up shell, but didn’t work on shells created from the GUI. I then needed to use lxterm configuration to change font size from within the GUI environment. I right clicked the desktop to fix the size of the desktop icons, but within each app window I then had to change the fint size there too.
This is an awful lot of different files and preferences to change in order to do what feels like a simple thing; to make the fonts on the TV screen easy to read. It is the sort of think anybody using the RPi for the first time will want to do. Kids will search google for answers, but may give up fairly quickly if the answers aren’t rapidly available.
There are social networks focused on using your Raspberry PI which may support novices, eg the google+ RPi community and forums in which people discuss all aspects but which can be fairly difficult to navigate to find the information you want. Whether or not children will use these resources remains to be seen.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the RPI is a brilliant and accessible piece of kit. I think that kids whose parents have a grounding in computers, and kids whose school ICT teachers are inspiring and prepared to encourage interests that extend beyond the current ICT curriculum will really get a lot out of playing with it. However those children whose parents lack the skills necessary to support their kids through the initial learning curve may well get put off in the early stages.
Update 2nd Jan 2013
Just found out via twitter that there is is now a neat Educational Manual available via Crelative Commons as a PDF. First look suggests it may well help beginners get going.