When the Raspberry Pi was first announced in 2011, I was captured by its mission from the start to introduce children in schools to the world of technology, programming, and creation. In a world where schools were filled with Windows based PCs, this was a bold move to disrupt the status quo and empower children to leverage the technology that was rapidly evolving around them. Interestingly, the device to trigger this movement did not come in the form of a state of the art computer, but instead, was a low cost, credit card sized single board computer that you connected to your TV or computer monitor.
When it was launched in February 2012, it exploded in the maker community and was used in everything from programming to sending cuddly toys to the edge of our atmosphere. I was very lucky to get my hands on one of the first batches of the Raspberry Pi and started to explore its potential with the rest of the community that was growing at light speed. In 2013, schools and youth clubs were starting to hold events where children and teachers would gather around Raspberry Pis and learn to create games in Scratch, electronic circuits and all kinds of things in Mindcraft. They where know as “Raspberry Jams” and I volunteered to help move the motion forward as much as I could.
Later that year, I had the opportunity to work with UNICEF Lebanon and create innovations in response to the crisis the was happening in Syria. Amongst my usual belongings, I packed two Raspberry Pi model B’s and left for Lebanon, I had a feeling that they would serve a purpose in some way during the coming months.
The second week in my new role, I attended our annual innovation huddle where I learnt from other colleagues around the world how we were using technology to create learning opportunities and, immediately, I saw the potential for how the Raspberry Pi could play a major role.
I went back to Lebanon and started creating a prototype that would eventually lead the Pi for Learning initiative (Pi4L) with our partners International Education Association (IEA) who had already stated a pilot to bring Raspberry Pis into classrooms in Lebanon. The next step was to bring this to all vulnerable children in Lebanon.
I am very proud to have been featured in The Guardian recently for the initiative and would like to invite you all to read it below and help us create a new generation of producers and not consumers.
UNICEF Lebanon Innovation Lead
Syria’s children learn to code with Raspberry Pi
How did this British innovation go from a hobbyist curiosity to the war-torn middle east?
By Aleks Krotoski, The Guardian, July 26, 2014
It will be another unsettled summer in the makeshift tent communities that line the valleys, mountains and border towns of Lebanon for the 300,000 children who have escaped Syria’s civil war.
But these young refugees, baking in the blasting heat of the Levant and under constant threat of violence, polio and other illnesses, are the incongruous beneficiaries of a confluence of two UK technology initiatives. This summer, they’re going to learn to code.
The multi-award-winning Raspberry Pi – a credit-card sized computer that plugs into a TV and has the processing power of a desktop PC – is arriving in the area, a far cry from its origins in 2006 at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory.
The brainchild of Eben Upton and his colleagues, the idea was inspired by what they viewed as a lack of university applicants’ software skills. Keen to get people coding, they prototyped the board and released it in 2011 for an astonishingly low £25, and never expected to ship more than 20,000 units. In June 2014, during a gala reception at Buckingham Palace, they announced that they’d sold 3m units.
The Pi has been widely adopted in the UK and throughout Europe and the US, particularly among educators, who see it as a cheap and open way of getting computers into classrooms with multimedia functionality, internet capability, and two in-built programming languages: Python and Scratch.
It can also play high definition video and, with add-ons like touchscreen LCD monitors and cameras, the device can be a low-cost, highly functional publishing platform.
It’s been a huge hit this year, the Year of Code, the initiative that introduces kids to the power of computer science via community meet-ups, hack days, coding clubs and other events. And although the UK will be the first country in the world to cement programming into the school curriculum for five to 16-year-olds, the Maker movement and other home-brew communities are infecting kids around the globe with the coding bug.
But how did this British innovation go from a hobbyist curiosity in middle England to the war-torn middle east? And, more importantly, how will coding help these kids face the harsh realities of displacement, civil war and survival?
Eliane Metni is a second-year doctoral candidate at the University of London’s Institute of Education. Based in her home town of Beirut, she helms the International Education Association, a Lebanese NGO committed to global learning opportunities through ICTs for Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. In 2011, she was contacted by a European educators group looking for a way in to the region, hoping to use the Raspberry Pi to give voices to adult women.
But after using the system herself for a few months, Metni realised that the target demographic identified by the European researchers overlooked the real opportunity: schoolkids.
She dug into the community and discovered a very active, thriving educator scene in the UK, using it to take learning paradigms in a new direction: “The trend [in classrooms] is to give kids a tool, like a tablet. But the Pi, through the programming languages Python and Scratch, gives the opportunity for users to construct the content and to build knowledge, rather than just receive information” she explained. The Pi is intended to be used to create as well as to consume.
Metni developed a curriculum for Dhour el Shweir Public Secondary School, supported by the Lebanese Telecom Ministry and the personal funds of Minister Muna Bustros. After a year of piloting the programme with 55 Pis, the results were unveiled at the school in May as part of Pi4L (Pi for Learning), with a wide range of games, programmes and systems the kids in the Beirut institution had developed during the school year.
Meanwhile, James Cranwell-Ward was settling into his new job as the Innovation Lead in Lebanon for Unicef. He’d been one of the early hobbyists who’d played with the Pi when it was first released, and on a return trip to the UK in December 2013, he was impressed by how the Pi community had accelerated, particularly amongst educators.
The success of the final Pi4L project, and Metni’s year of pilot work, caught his attention. He had been searching for an out-of-the-box solution for the under-resourced and under-supported educators trying to serve the needs of the children in the overcrowded camps. The pair connected and, six months on, they’re bringing the coding ethos and the Pi to five locations around the country.
“This is somewhat a radical idea, to use coding – or even the concept of cheap computing – in a refugee population,” Cranwell-Ward explained. “But it’s a concept that is well-understood in other countries, so it’s a matter of packaging it for the context we’re in.”
In fact, Cranwell-Ward realised quickly that Lebanon was an one of the better locations in the middle east for this initiative.”In Lebanon we don’t have many of the same problems as other places Unicef is active in,” he said. “Rolling blackouts are well-understood, so we have generators ready. Everything we’ve developed is designed to be offline even though the country has good network connections via 3G.” And the camps provide ample televisions to use as monitors. The greatest challenge has been the up-sell.
In many ways, Metni did most of the hard work in the year preceding their meeting. She faced down opposition from the educator community in particular, who asked why they should bring coding into schools. Metni laughed. “They said, sure, at university level, but younger? What are they going to do with it?”
Her out-of-the-box solutions and ongoing successes helped Cranwell-Ward sell to his team. “I didn’t want to embark on a huge research project that would take years to get something that would ultimately never see the light of day. I wanted to take something relatively off the shelf and adapt it for the context,” he said. The pair identified a core curriculum in Arabic developed by the Khan Academy, that they could store on an offline server, and is distributed for free.
“I set my price point from the beginning at $100. I’m currently about $110 dollars per unit and at volume I’ll hit the mark.” During the initial pilot phase, the 60 Pis they’ve acquired will be used in school lessons by more than 30,000 refugees. Later, they intend to roll it out to the rest of the community.
But in addition to the traditional learning curriculum, Metni and Cranwell-Ward are emphatic that the kids will also use the Pi’s programming language Scratch to build programmes and games. “It attracts kids who might not necessarily be programmers. It also allows other ways of letting kids think in small, visual chunks,” said Metni.
“It’s approachable to non-programmers, and that’s non-threatening.” Building things in Scratch – from concept to delivery – will help make real essential lessons about their human rights and other issues that affect them, from water sanitation to protecting themselves from violence and abuse that can arise in a refugee situation. And, it’s fun.
It’s also part of gaining skills to be part of the future global community. “The rate at which tech is being rolled out into our lives is phenomenal and coding – or the understanding of technology and how to manipulate it – is going to be a core component of our lives and our children’s lives moving forward,” Cranwell-Ward said, echoing the Year of Code manifesto. “There needs to be some basic understanding of what technology is, how it can be manipulated, how we can use it to help ourselves, and not just be a consumer or slave.” This is the most important part of this initiative for Cranwell-Ward.
“The Raspberry Pi allows us to standardise across the globe,” he explained. “Imagine in a few years’ time that we could have a child who’s come from a setting like this who’ll go on to build the next Facebook or Twitter. That’s the potential,” he says. “Its not out of the realms of possibility.”