Research Essentials

Perspectives on an academic environment: a collaborative blog by Gill Clough & Rebecca Ferguson

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Raspberry PI

December 27th, 2012 · 5 Comments

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.

Raspberry PI and cool Maplin protective case (un assembled)Assembling the case

Attaching the caseThe finished protected RPi

By Gill

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. 

Tags: by Gill · Raspberry PI · Research Tools · technology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael Horne // Jan 26, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Hi.
    Found your blog via the EventBrite booking page for the MK Raspberry Jam.
    How are you getting on with your Pi? Have you managed to ‘do’ anything with it?

  • 2 michael // Apr 16, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    I am a retired OU AL. I was recently given a RasPi-B and thought I had enough computing skills to get it purring. Initial problem : the screen resolution and text size on a HDMI TV screen. My vision is still good, but the minuscule text size is a challenge. Perusing the web discourages. Many have this problem. Is there no simple, sure-fire way to modify screen resolution – as under Windows? (Bring back Lyceum, all is forgiven…) If Linux stumbles on such elementary settings, MS profits are safe for aeons to come… Practical, step-by-step elucidation would be much appreciated. Otherwise my RasPi will end up in landfill. Probably.

  • 3 afrab_null // Jun 26, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Desktop font size is simple: Right-click the desktop, select ‘Desktop Preferences’, and at the bottom of the ‘Appearance’ tab, you should see ‘Text’ in bold followed by ‘Label text font’. Select font and font size from the pull-down menu. Screen resolution is handled in the file /boot/config.txt. I’ll leave it to your discretion if you want to pursue this. The subject is too large to cover here, but ‘config.txt’ for RPi is exquisitely documented at eLinux.org.

  • 4 Phil Hampton // Oct 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Incredibly dissapointed by the raspberry Pi. I am an NHS Consultant with a medical degree, a BSc in neurobiology and a PhD in molecular dermatology. I can work out quite alot of things. But this coding business is absolutley impossible. It has been marketed as this fun thing for children but unless you have a fairly reasonable knowledge of computing and code , making any progress on the Pi is impossible. we have tried following various coding projects from books, online etc. None of them have worked and without the background knowledge of coding it is impossible to work out what is wrong. Very very every annoyed that I was taken in by this con. Has anyone else had the same problem?

  • 5 Alan Bennetts // Nov 23, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Can’t we do any better for our kids? Isn’t a bare circuit board vulnerable to static and dangerous (electrocution)? I used to teach programming in BASIC, Pascal and 6502 assembly language. The RPi seems to be the equivalent of the first Apple computer kit (1977). What we need is the equivalent of a BBC Model B.

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