Really Small Cheap Computers in Education

A reader brought this to my attention. An organization has developed a prototype of a small cheap computer on a USB stick that could bring back the enthusiasm of young people for IT that they had in the 1980s with the Ohio Scientific Superboard, and other inexpensive PCs for ordinary people. In those days, there were many who could afford a PC that cost a few hundred dollars but not the commercial stuff costing $thousands. Today there are still children who can be stimulated by smaller cheaper computers.

This video describes the device and the goals. ICT is “Information and Communications Technology”, a current theme in education, basically “using a PC”. The speaker wants to encourage youth to create programmes and content rather than just using a PC.

The speaker makes the point that “using a PC” stifles the creativity of young people who are curious and want to understand how things work rather than what others want you them to do with a PC. A lot of the vitriol on this blog is about that. Some folks think it is just fine to use M$’s software and no other. Others think we should cast off such limitations. In education ICT is a big step forward in making use of ICT universal but it does not encourage the mastery I have seen in “Information Processing” courses where computer programming and servers and networking and other content creation is taught/learned. Many high school students are turned off by “keyboarding” when they could be stimulated by solution of real problems and understanding the basics of computer science and pushing the limits of what a PC can do.

One of my most interesting lessons involves getting students to do a measurable amount of computation to see how fast a PC is. It is amazing to them that an 8 year old PC can do millions of calculations per second and yet be sluggish with XP… I also love to teach what kinds of things brute force attacks can do, like cracking passwords or graphing or searching. Comparing a binary search to a linear search is mind-blowing for some students. One of the tasks I loved to do in a computer lab was taking some large project and dispatching parts of it to every PC in a lab so that it is done N times faster. Simple ideas like that are immediately useful for students who are not afraid to look under the hood and use the hardware for what it can do and not just what some business lets them do. GNU/Linux and ARM has a role to play in making this kind of technology more available.

see also
A 15 pound computer to inspire young programmers

Geek.com

RaspberryPi The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a UK registered charity (Registration Number 1129409) which exists to promote the study of computer science and related topics, especially at school level, and to put the fun back into learning computing.

We plan to develop, manufacture and distribute an ultra-low-cost computer, for use in teaching computer programming to children. We expect this computer to have many other applications both in the developed and the developing world.

Our first product is about the size of a USB key, and is designed to plug into a TV or be combined with a touch screen for a low cost tablet. The expected price is $25 for a fully-configured system.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
This entry was posted in Linux in Education, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Really Small Cheap Computers in Education

  1. Nope. GNU/Linux tools no more invent the wheel than any software. GNU/Linux works and I have few problems with it. I do use GNU/Linux for some projects where just installing the packages does not get the job done so I do occasionally have some problems to solve but they are minor compared to millions of malwares being out to get me and my PC slowing down with that other OS.

  2. oldman says:

    “Solving problems is what I do. I don’t see at as wasted energy, but living.”

    So using linux tools to reinvent the wheel is “living” but using more capable tools that happen to be commercial is somehow, not living.

    IS that what you are inferring, Pog?

  3. Solving problems is what I do. I don’t see at as wasted energy, but living.

  4. oldman says:

    “Why should I or hundreds of millions of people expend time/energy/money because M$ does not follow standards?”

    And yet you have no trouble expending time and effort “working around” Linux’s limitations, and you would have no problem sticking me or someone else with Linux only FOSS tools that would waste OUR time/energy/money working around their limitations vs. what we have now.

    I guess its a matter of whose ox is being gored.

    Eh Pog?

  5. Why should I or hundreds of millions of people expend time/energy/money because M$ does not follow standards?

  6. oldman says:

    “Most users of that other OS do not use PDF as output to me. They send .docx, y or z.”

    So all you have proved is that you refuse to expend the time to make a simple request of your correspondents that would solve your problem. No matter, the FUD that you have attempted to propagate about format incompatibilities in microsoft products is still exploded.

  7. Most users of that other OS do not use PDF as output to me. They send .docx, y or z.

  8. oldman says:

    “When I send an attachment I almost always use PDF.”

    I find it quite interesting that when you are called on the high bushwah content your “example” you then effectively admit it is a non-issue because you send files in PDF format.

    Whatever.

    “It was years before M$ had any support for PDF.”

    Who cares! They do now, or you can use FOSS.

    End of problem.

  9. It’s not a one-time thing. I may send/receive a dozen documents with a dozen correspondents. It amounts to hundreds of transactions. When I send an attachment I almost always use PDF. That way there is no negotiation required. It was years before M$ had any support for PDF.

  10. oldman says:

    “Two minutes, at both ends, many times is a lot of time.”

    Actually, the only effort on your end is to ask them to save in word 97-2003 format. You can then pass that document back and forth all you want without effort.

    “Time is money/wasted effort.”

    Having had my estimates of the real time=money that I save by choosing selected commercial applications over open source dismissed, or ignored. I find it funny that you complain about the miniscule effort it would take to allow you using office XP and another person using Office 2010 to collaborate.

    But then again, accepting delivery on my fix, also explodes you myth of format incompatability.

  11. Two minutes, at both ends, many times is a lot of time. Time is money/wasted effort.

  12. oldman says:

    “Negotiating file formats is tedious.”

    Where is the negotiation Pog? A two minute request that takes two minutes to implement and the problem is solved.

    Of course, your argument also collapses in a heap, but Whatever.

  13. Nope. Correspondents don’t want to lecture each other on file formats. When I was teaching, I might exchange a hundred documents with folks all over. Negotiating file formats is tedious.

  14. oldman says:

    “File format again… Suppose I have XP and Office XP running well for me and want to run it until my machine dies. M$ releases Office Whatnot and it has a new file format that my stuff does not read. People start sending me files I cannot read.”

    At which point you tell them to hold down the Alt key and press the letter F followed by the Letter A (to access the File save As dialogue) put in the file name and use the File Type pull down to select Word 97-2003 format. Once the file is saved in the legacy format, the file will remain in that format unless your correspondent inadvertently uses a feature that is not supported by Word XP, in which case a dialogue box will pop up and inform him/her exactly which formatting is problematic, and tell them to either do another save as in the newer format or to proceed and lose the newer formatting.

    You see, microsoft knows that people either can’t or won’t want to upgrade right away and are doing a pretty good job these days with backward compatability. So with a little bit of effort, you don’t have to spend anything Pog.

    Now that wasn’t hard, now was it? ;-)

    “That’s the Wintel treadmill and it is not a problem for one who loves to support M$ but that is not why I was put on Earth.”

    Pog, If getting work done according to my own standards is supporting microsoft, then so be it. The fact is that Microsoft has met those standards and EARNS my money. The “equivalent” FOSS desktop tools have not, despite being free.

  15. File format again… Suppose I have XP and Office XP running well for me and want to run it until my machine dies. M$ releases Office Whatnot and it has a new file format that my stuff does not read. People start sending me files I cannot read. I can hassle them to convert file formats, migrate to LibreOffice, find some convertor or I can do the easy thing and spend more money to get the latest version which offers me nothing except the new file format. That’s the Wintel treadmill and it is not a problem for one who loves to support M$ but that is not why I was put on Earth.

  16. oldman says:

    My. my. Pog, that’s quite a spiel… Too bad it is’nt real. Lets start with the easy stuff.

    Frequent reboots: most people I know leave there computers on. Mine office computer stays on continuously, the Microsoft update process occurrs in the wee hours without a hitch. My portable desktop has a 25 second boot time, when I actually boot it. Most of the time it is coming in andout of hibernation. In any case the total amount of time spent booting my system is negligible in comparison to the amount of time I spend being productive using the applications that run on windows. As far as your specualtion on its origins, pure hogwash. There is NONE of the code from windows 3.x left in 7.

    File Formats: I’ve never understood where you get this one from Pog. I read old files all the time from newer versions. I just read in a word file from ca, 1998. I read in an excel file from 2000. My autocad 2.17k files also import, as do the finale 1.x from 20+ years ago, also reads without issue. Writing in an ancient formats back to Office 97 is also possible, though I do this less often. So as far as I am concerned, this is a non issue.

    Authentication codes and re-authentication: I don’t know of anyone who likes having to deal with the authentication technology that Microsoft has baked into its product line. However we do live in a world in a world where one has to offer for license an item that has no physical tangibility in a world of people who think that because software should be free or because they can’t afford it, they can just help themselves to what amounts to someone else’s property, and don’t think twice about it, because unlike a wrench, software is not a tangible object. The problem for you is Pog, that as annoying as it may be, for most of us who live in well connected portions of the world, it isn’t a tragedy. Adding a key code takes maybe a minute or two at software install time, and that’s It. Bottom Line, it’s the cost of doing business, its relatively painless, and it’s a non-issue.

    Server & CAL’s cost money: Microsoft is a bu$ine$$ Pog, they have the freedom to set the terms of license for their products. There is nothing forcing anyone to agree to thyeir terms, and many people yourself included, choose not to. But those who do are doing so because they value the commercial applications that run on microsoft OS’s.

    “So, they sell you something that makes you a slave who not only works for them maintaining their software but charging you for the privilege of being a slave.”

    Pog, You may wish to consider the possibility that I and others like me pay for licenses for Microsoft applications and the applications produced by their ISV’s, not because we are slaves, but because that software meets our specifications. Institutions like my place of employ even pay for microsoft support and We have a microsoft technical account manager at our call. As microsoft customers, We have been interviewed several times by their product groups asking our opinions of their product line and software initiatives. Does the master interview the slaves, I think not. The reality is, Pog, microsoft is a bu$ine$$ and as a bu$ine$$ they follow the money, which comes from us, their clients.
    What strike me in this whole discourse of yours is that all you talk about are peripherals issues nowhere do you talk of the real reason that we purchase computers at all, to run applications. The operating system, as important as it is, is nothing more than the bit of color one sees in the backround as the application that one needs is starting up.
    The set of desktop applications that run on on Linux do not meet my specifications sufficiently to warrant my using them full time. The applications that run under windows do, its that simple Pog. That I have to pay money to license the windows based applications no different that having to pay for any item that I wish to own/use. I want to have the functionality, I pay the cash. End of story.

  17. One example is worth 1K words. Suppose I sell you a product, say, a wrench. I don’t charge you five times the market price of it. I don’t require you to phone home. I don’t require you to buy a bunch of other tools just to use that wrench. That is normal business. Now, M$ sells you permission to use an OS and requires you:

    to type in weird codes before the thing will work (“authentication code” or whatever the damned thing is called,
    to phone home periodically, just because,
    obtain other software to protect and delouse the OS, because it is a fragile thing,
    endure frequent re-re-reboots because they want to stick with a poor design choice from the early 1990s (Lose 3.1…),
    buy server software and pay per machine for the privilege of using it to have any hope of managing a bunch of machines running that OS,
    constantly jerk your chain by changing file formats and protocols to make life easier to repeat the cycle even before your machines die,
    etc.

    So, they sell you something that makes you a slave who not only works for them maintaining their software but charging you for the privilege of being a slave.

    If you add up all the time/money put into keeping that other OS running and compare that with GNU/Linux the difference is huge at acquisition, operation and renewal. It’s like buying a hole and then paying to fill it in. It’s like being a willing slave.

  18. oldman says:

    “You are working for M$. I run software, both the OS and the applications that work for me.”

    Pog

    The software you use to get your tasks done is your choice and your business. While I do not expect you to ever like commercial software in general and microsoft in particular. I would hope that you might entertain the possibility that those of use who continue to use commercial software do so because we have made an informed decision and have freely done so.

    Calling us slaves, or saying we work for microsoft because we CHOOSE to use their software or an application based on their OS is pure and simply your opinion.

    And it is also unfortunately, IMHO, an ill informed load of cr-p.

  19. Zombie Chan says:

    But I like using the right tool for the job, as well as the best tool. I’ve seen a lot of text editors, but my favorite one is Notepad++. If microsoft cranked up the prices of Windows(which they won’t), then I won’t buy a newer version of Windows. I’m perfectly happy with Win7. Plus my company does really well, any software I need to do the job, they’ll buy for me.

  20. Well, you’ve locked yourself in by choosing those apps. M$ could ramp up the price of its software indefinitely and make a bigger killing. You are working for M$. I run software, both the OS and the applications that work for me.

  21. Zombie Chan says:

    @Oldman

    Every time I come here I see you saying the the same old thing, and Chapman and Pogson not getting your point..

    @Pogson
    Oldman’s just saying that people want to run their commercial software… and some of those commercial software won’t run on Linux.

    At work I use Notpad++, MS OneNote, Visual Studio and Some In-House applications that needs .Net. None of those will run on Linux natively. With Windows I get these application plus all those applications that run on Linux.

    And no… I don’t want to start using a FOSS alternative.

  22. oldman says:

    “Gimp running on Windows has nothing to do with any special qualities of Windows. It has everything to do with special qualities of FLOSS. So give credit where credit is due or risk losing your own credibility.”

    First Off, You do not determine my credibility Mr. Chapman, in any way shape or form.

    Secondly I have a hard time giving credibility to someone who keeps trying to limit the discussion to FLOSS as opposed to FOSS.

    The above having being said, I do indeed give credit to the creators of GIMP for accepting the fact that people wanted to run their product on windows and OS X, not just Linux.

  23. Richard Chapman says:

    Gimp running on Windows has nothing to do with any special qualities of Windows. It has everything to do with special qualities of FLOSS. So give credit where credit is due or risk losing your own credibility.

  24. oldman says:

    “Sure. A call might go like this:
    Adobe, I have been using GIMP and I am told it’s not as good as PhotoShop. I don’t want to relearn the GUI. Can you make up a version with the UI of Gimp and get rid of that confusing CMYK stuff.

    (…dial-tone…)”

    Oooh that was a good one Pog…

    Of course, you could just run Gimp on Windows, whereas I Linux users can’t run Photoshop on Linux. Nice Touche though.

  25. oldman wrote:“Try asking for a feature that does not exist in your favorite FOSS package to be included. If you are lucky and it is not too much work to implement or not considered an appropriate feature to be added by the developer, it may be considered, it may even be added on the spot.”

    Sure. A call might go like this:
    Adobe, I have been using GIMP and I am told it’s not as good as PhotoShop. I don’t want to relearn the GUI. Can you make up a version with the UI of Gimp and get rid of that confusing CMYK stuff.

    (…dial-tone…)

  26. I have worked for many schools. Few had any paid support. It cost too much compared to the budget. A decent IT guy costs as much as a teacher but where a business might have hundreds of PCs to keep running a school may have less than a hundred and the cost per PC is just too much. Schools can obtain a PC for less than one year’s maintenance. One school where we had paid support could only get a visit once every few weeks and the ToDo list was always long. The guys spent more time driving than fixing. Forget optimizing IT in any way. They could not keep it running. With GNU/Linux and a teacher setting things up performance is better and costs are less. Folks who are in business getting “support” from vendors are paying for nothing as far as I can see. Remember Vista? Some businesses paid for the right to upgrade to Vista and it did not come on time. They paid for nothing. Last year, I was in a school with paid support. Half the PCs were not running and the supporters did not even know it. No one could bother taking the time to talk with them on the phone. When I switched to GNU/Linux, everything worked and better than ever before with the same hardware. FLOSS works.

  27. oldman says:

    “Then your point escapes me. Is not the object of the game to have good software to use?”

    The object of the game is to have software that does not require even a tangential commitment to being your own programmer. FOSS has this implicitly built in as part of the terms of use of FOSS.

    “FLOSS is a lot more responsive system for the money than commercial software that is non-FLOSS.”

    Bushwah. FOSS developers are no more or no less responsive than commercial ones. AS far as FOSS developers are concerned, it is a crapshoot. Try asking for a feature that does not exist in your favorite FOSS package to be included. If you are lucky and it is not too much work to implement or not considered an appropriate feature to be added by the developer, it may be considered, it may even be added on the spot. However the possibility also exists you will be told that it is not possible, or not going to happen. If you push, you will be be told to add it yourself.

    If you have committed to an all linux platform, you are basically stuck – Either implement it yourself or hire to implement a programmer to do it. Either of these options will have you paying. At least if you are still running your FOSS on a windows platform, you will have the ability to pay for a commercial package with real support and just get on with using the program. Your cited experience is a corner case. Most vendors, even those in the educational space I have dealt with, are far more responsive than this, especially if they are made to believe that you will be sharing your less than stellar experiences with your peers who for the rest of their customer base.

  28. Then your point escapes me. Is not the object of the game to have good software to use? FLOSS does that. The mechanisms are well known. If some FLOSS offends you, you can fix it yourself or file a bug report. FLOSS is a lot more responsive system for the money than commercial software that is non-FLOSS. I was once dealing with a company that my boss insisted on using. It took weeks to get their stupid authentication code to work. It took minutes to install the equivalent FLOSS application.

  29. oldman says:

    Asserting that the changes get distributed is not an real answer to my point pog. And even if I accept the relevance of the needs of the world to the discussion at hand, Do you really believe that. What amounts to saying beggars can not be choosers is a valid answer to my point?

  30. It is worth the while if you are the world and need software. That is how FLOSS works. The changes get distributed.

  31. oldman says:

    “Not true. You can submit the patch upstream and if it is sound the authours may well include it in later distribution. That’s one of the major roles of the Debian developers. The send bug-reports and patches upstream.”

    So lets say you submit your patch upstream and its not accepted or you get told that they will look at it. IN either case you are now left in exactly the position I suggested, supporting your mod. If you are both lucky and skilled enough at programming, this support will be minimal. but if your modded version has issues, you will by definition be stuck figuring out those issues because you changed the code yourself. the developers will not be able to help you because of your mod.

    Of course the average joe computer user is not going to modify their code in the first place.

    “Availability of source code is the ultimate assurance that software will remain available.”

    The availability of the source code only assures that when push comes to shove, if you really want to continue to use a particular version of a particular software package, you can take over as its developer. As someone who has actually gone through the drill of maintaining a modified version of FOSS code, I can assure you that what will happen in that case is that you will turn from user to programmer. Something that I have found is not worth the hassle if all you want to do is get a particular task done.

  32. oldman says:

    “Nonsense. I can use apps that run on that other OS, I have several”

    So you are using some of the cross platform applications, Good for you! That does not change the base assertion. There are many applications free and commercial that do not run on Linux that you would willy-nilly cut off

    “So, you can put down FLOSS as much as you like. It does work for us.”

    I did not put down FLOSS. I pointed out the reality that it is a small subset of the continuum of available free software. Your “works for us” assertion is irrelevant as is the size of the Debian repository, or any Linux repository for that matter. Leaving the windows platform is easily demonstrable as the best solution. It allows all to work with a familiar platform, It allows access to the widest possible software spectrum and it addresses or eliminates most of the cost issues that you regularly bring up as a reason to remove windows.

    What it does not do, is allow you to pave over the OS and existing applications of the company that you hate, but then you hatred of microsoft is irrelevant in that case.

  33. Nonsense. I can use apps that run on that other OS. I have several. Locked out != locked in. In the Debian repository I have more applications than I know what to do with.

    Counter example: I was reading Dave Richards blog and he described problems he had with Evolution on GroupWise, “commercial” software from Novel for which his outfit paid $25K per annum for support. I have used Evolution in the past and found it nice. Inspired by his comments, however, I checked our Citadel and found it trivial to install and to set up. It is also very scalable being written in C rather than PHP on LAMP. It does e-mail, e-mail lists, simple calendaring and bulletin-board functions. Citadel has been around since the 1980s and was modernized for the web in 1998 and remains in active development.

    So, you can put down FLOSS as much as you like. It does work for us.

  34. oldman wrote:“the minute that you apply a mod to a piece of code, you are stuck maintaining that modification. No computer “user” wants to play programmer!”

    Not true. You can submit the patch upstream and if it is sound the authours may well include it in later distribution. That’s one of the major roles of the Debian developers. The send bug-reports and patches upstream.

    Availability of source code is the ultimate assurance that software will remain available.

  35. oldman says:

    “FLOSS has no lock-in.”

    By its very nature. the use of FLOSS, which requires abandoning the Windows platform for Linux, locks one in to only those applications that run on Linux. Even of one finds a good piece of commercial software that is affordable, if it doesn’t run on Linux, you’re locked out. Find some freeware at sites like http://educational-freeware.com/ that runs on Windows/Apple but not Linux, you’re locked out.

    “With M$, you cannot have anywhere near that kind of flexibility.”

    Your average user doesn’t need the “flexibility” that you cite Pog. They need access to applications, and you proposal cuts off that access.

  36. oldman says:

    “Except freeware doesn’t come from a trusted repository and is a bundled executable in most cases. Who knows what’s lurking deep beneath that exe.”

    Actually Dann, repositories like tucows, zdnet, and even sourceforge are as reliable as any of the so called trusted repositories. Once can also go directly to the actual software creators site if one is concerned.

    YEs, one does not “know” what is in a pre-compiled binaries, but let me ask you Dann.

    Wnen did you conduct your last source code review, to check for bad code?

    The average computer user, and even a large number of computer professional simple dont care about source code availability, and even when they do, most know that the minute that you apply a mod to a piece of code, you are stuck maintaining that modification. No computer “user” wants to play programmer!

  37. Dann says:

    “The same could be done on windows and with windows based freeware”

    Except freeware doesn’t come from a trusted repository and is a bundled executable in most cases. Who knows what’s lurking deep beneath that exe.

  38. FLOSS has no lock-in. Don’t like the kernel from your distro? You can get one from http://kernel.org and customize it or roll your own. You can run FreeBSD or openSolaris, too. Don’t like the default apps or configurations? Change them. There are many suppliers. You can get them through a distro or on your own. With M$, you cannot have anywhere near that kind of flexibility.

    Lots of people are making money on FLOSS. FLOSS is commercial.

  39. oldman says:

    “Some folks think it is just fine to use M$’s software and no other. ”

    But you seem to think that locking schools into FOSS only is just fine as well. entry level data processing can be taught on windows based systems as well. I could easily see a course in programming built on windows based system using Powershell 2 (Which can be installed on XP) and the free PowerGUI visual IDE/debugger, for instance.

    “Simple ideas like that are immediately useful for students who are not afraid to look under the hood and use the hardware for what it can do and not just what some business lets them do. GNU/Linux and ARM has a role to play in making this kind of technology more available.”

    The same could be done on windows and with windows based freeware and FOSS, Pog. The resulting environment would also be more relevant as well. few of your charges are going to become linux geeks Pog, but most of them will go on to a world in which commercial software is the norm.

  40. Zimmer says:

    “but they sure are rendering obsolete many tonnes of e-waste.”

    On the contrary. Those old radiation 3000 CRTs are going to stop sucking up power like no tomorrow. LCD technology is much more efficient.

    Recycle, recycle, recycle!

  41. The government of Canada is phasing out analogue TV here… Digital does improve video especially on cable but they sure are rendering obsolete many tonnes of e-waste.

  42. Ray says:

    I was thinking of something like composite video, as most people still have those old analog TV.

  43. oe says:

    This is one area where FOSS OS’es are just great – most of them come jammed packed full of compiler’s, interpretors, and IDE’s under from logo tortoise level all the way on up….it seems most commercial OS’es think of programming as the dirty “P” word nowadays.

  44. I am not sure what point you are making. The thing is so small that it is likely practical to choose one kind of port and he chose HDMI. What would you prefer? VGA is being phased out by some. It used to be universal.

  45. Ray says:

    I was thinking of using the video output, instead of those HDMI ports.

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