A few days ago the Guardian published an article stating that "the UK's attitude to computer education needs a reboot" lamenting the lack of computing education in schools and saying that if this is not urgently corrected then the UK will suffer economically in the future. The article was not unique as many other similar articles and blog posts have been written along the same lines but sometimes I feel that such articles just feed into fears about the standards in the education system and the UK's place in the world and offer little in the way of practical direction. Yet there is hope - if we confront the issues and acknowledge the vital role of lifelong learning as well as computing education in schools.
Google's Go programming language looks like something interesting to explore and one of the aims of the Raspberry Pi is to enable people to learn programming. However if you are using the new Raspbian distribution you may have noticed that the golang package does not work due to problems with the way it is compiled. The package installs without issue but if you attempt to run Go it crashes in a quite ugly way. Fortunately thanks to the power of the Debian package management system used on Raspbian it is relatively straightforward to grab the source of the package, change it and rebuild it so it does work. This is preferable to rebuilding it from the source code on the Go website as it means that the work done to integrate it with the operating system will remain intact.
On Saturday I decided to go out and but the snappily named Sony NSZ-GS7 Internet Player with Google TV, but on Sunday, with great disappointment I took it back. I have been following the Google TV story for some time and was looking forward to it coming to the UK. The price tag of £199 for the box seemed a bit hefty, especially when compared to games consoles but that can sometimes be the price of being an early adopter. I have an Android phone and an Android tablet so a Google TV box would mean that the biggest screen in my house - the TV could be integrated into the Android eco-system. The box would also integrate with my satellite box to some extent, hopefully bringing Internet and broadcast TV closer together. Most of all it is a consumer device so I was hoping that this sort of box would have the potential to change the TV experience for many people. However when I got the box home the disappointment began.
The Raspberry Pi may be designed as a cheap educational computer, but hardware-wise it has a lot in common with set top boxes. However, set top boxes are traditionally locked down and not easily modifiable by the user, the Pi is the opposite and is open to user experimentation. People have been building their own media centres for years and now the Pi offers a very cheap route into learning about this area. XBMC defines itself as a "software media player and entertainment hub" that is packed with features and offers a fairly friendly user experience which follows the ideas in the ten foot user interface. It has also been ported to work on the Pi. I've been experimenting with OpenELEC - a minimalistic Linux distribution that hosts XBMC and makes setting up this sort of environment on your Pi not as difficult as you might think.
The Raspberry Pi might not be a heavyweight in the specifications department but that is no reason why this inexpensive educational computer shouldn't help you learn more about some of the latest technology used to create web sites. The availability of some of the latest open source software in Arch Linux ARM introduces the exiting possibility of using the device as a mini portable web server (you could even battery power it). This could be very useful, not just for learning about these new technologies but also if you wanted to try your sites out with client machines that may not let you install server software locally, e.g. phones, tablets and set top boxes.
It turns out that the Raspberry Pi is capable of quite a lot. I have had mine for a couple of weeks now and have been exploring what it can do, as well as taking the opportunity to broaden my knowledge (after all it is a device intended for educational use). I have been exploring desktop, server and set top box uses (the latter two I will cover in future posts) for the hardware and it has been a very interesting experience. After using the Debian image for a few days I got frustrated with the old versions of software in the Debian repositories. Don't get me wrong I admire and respect Debian greatly but for cutting edge stuff it can be a challenge. I tried to use a technique known as Apt pinning to enable installation from different branches. This worked and enabled me to do quite a lot, but I felt that maybe it was time to try a different approach so I decided to try out the Arch Linux ARM image.
Yesterday I finally received my Raspberry Pi (model B), a small computer designed for educational use that retails at about the £25 mark. I had had mine on order since March and had been reading a lot about it in that time so was looking forward to getting it. The first thing that strikes you about this device is its size, or rather lack of it. The Pi arrived in a box and a padded envelope and yet still fitted through my letter box! So that was the first computer delivery I've had where I didn't need to wait in or find some delivery office to pick it up from. The second thing that struck me is just how raw this machine is. No case, screen, input device or operating system supplied. You need to find these items for yourself. The device is also designed to be plugged into a TV, which might momentarily give it an 80s retro feel. In a time when manufacturers spend so long on polishing products and interfaces and where devices such as mobiles and tablets are starting to bring computing more into a consumer appliance mode of thinking this is quite a shock. This could prove to be a double edged sword.
One of the most interesting features about the Ubuntu's Unity desktop is that it takes the focus away from just applications and files and moves it towards discovering content. It does this through an interface (called the Dash) that is largely driven by a search window. To enable this system to focus on different content (e.g. to primarily look for music files instead of applications) different tabs appear on the Dash called Lenses. These can aggregate in to a general lens that allow searching across local and remote items in one go. What if this idea could be extended slightly to enable the discovery of Open Educational Resources (OERs)? The user might not have even heard about OERs, so might not think to go looking for them, but having OER discovery built into the operating system gets around this issue and makes every search a chance to learn. So I had a go at building such a Lens.
A little while ago I was driving my car and a traffic report came on the radio. It gave some useful information but also a lot of information about roads I was not going to be using. As the report was trying to satisfy lots of people it ended up telling me lots of information I didn't need to know while missing out information that could be useful. I began thinking it would be great to have a personalised traffic report and given that my mobile has text to speech functionality and can connect to the Internet on the move maybe it could generate it (especially as I purchased the SVOX Victoria app which gives the mobile a rather charming accent). Digging around I found that the Highways Agency publishes some great RSS feeds for key roads so I thought I would have a go at building an app. To keep the development time for this experiment to a minimum I decided to use PhoneGap.
The Web Cube from Three is a bit of an odd idea to think about at first. It is a bit like the MiFi, a device used to get access to the Internet through the mobile phone network. Where it differs from the mobile, and most products offered by mobile phone companies is that it is not mobile. This is a device that needs to be plugged into the mains. However many homes have non mobile routers plugged into the mains to set them up with web access. The Web Cube is intended to be a replacement for that device, ending the need for ADSL and the fixed telephone line that always comes with it that many do not use anymore. The Web Cube is only available in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leeds at the moment, but I've been taking one for a test drive in Milton Keynes.