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Raspberry Pi – What is it and how can it be used to support learning in an educational context?


Against the backdrop of recent concern about the wayward state of ICT education and current rhetoric from government about returning to a more traditional style of computer education, the new Raspberry Pi, a pocket-sized computer running a Linux operating system, has finally been released.  With huge demand and an enormous amount of hype, many individuals still await the delivery of this new device.


What is a Raspberry Pi?

About the size of a credit card, this device is a cheap, yet capable mini-computer that can perform many of the typical tasks of more powerful desktops.

The Model B Raspberry Pi (the more expensive version) runs as a system on a chip, with 256Mb of RAM, 2 USBs and an Ethernet port.  There are also composite and HDMI outputs that support 1080p30 H.264 video quality. Audio is supported over HDMI as well as via a normal 3.5mm audio jack output.  (Note that audio is currently a little flaky and switched off by default).  There is also a General Purpose Input Output (GPIO) port to enable in/out communications.

The Pi boots from an SD card containing the operating system, typically a Linux distribution such as Debian.


What's all the fuss about?

A computer-on-a-board like Raspberry Pi is an indisputably cool idea.  Being able to see the actual components can be intriguing for students and there is potential here to demystify computers from simply being 'clever boxes' by teaching about how computers actually work.  They are also cheap enough to buy in bulk so that individuals and small groups can work together on specific projects.

A Linux operating system is highly configurable and there is tremendous opportunity for students to gain in-depth understanding of how software can be used to control hardware, especially through the numerous programming environments that are available, such as Python and Scratch.

Over time it is likely that many peripherals become available to attach to the Pi, e.g., robots and expansion boards that can be interfaced with sensors and motors.  In this way students can learn more about programming and I/O control technologies.


Getting started

Firstly, it is important to source a suitable display device.  The Pi is designed to be hooked up to a TV via the composite or HDMI output, or a DVI monitor via an HDMI to DVI adapter.  There is no VGA output from the Pi, although it may be possible to get adaptors to interface with older screens.  Other peripherals needed include a USB mouse, keyboard and spare Ethernet cable to connect to a router.  Sound can be obtained over the HDMI output, otherwise a cable will be needed to attach speakers to the Pi's 3.5 mm audio jack.

The Pi boots from an SD card containing a suitable Linux distribution - a Debian-based distribution is recommended for novice users, although there are various others that have proved popular.  For more information visit -

A simple way to get up and running with the operating system is to buy an SD card with a distribution already set up for you when you initially purchase the Raspberry Pi, e.g., from one of the official distributors like Premier Farnell/Element 14 and RS Components.

Otherwise it is possible to buy your own SD card and install a Linux distribution yourself.  Be aware that not all SD cards work - a full list of supported cards can be viewed here -

To do this you will need to download a suitable Linux distribution image to your main computer.  More information can found here  - .

You will also need to install a distribution installer program like Win32DiskImager (note that there are installer programs for Mac and Linux machines as well).

In this way it is possible to place the SD card into a card reader attached to your main computer and write the operating system onto the card.

For more information visit -


Note that it is possible to test out a typical Pi distribution (like Debian) without actually having possession of a Raspberry Pi.  This can be done by installing software like Virtualboxand QUEMU which provides a way to virtualise any operating system.


Raspberry Pi projects

One of the main educational justifications for investing in this type of technology is to get affordable and cool technology into the hands of students so that they can immerse themselves in projects that are personally interesting and motivating.

The Raspberry Pi is a perfect platform for developing programming skills.  Not only are there are many different programming tools available, but Linux is open source software and the Pi is scalable in terms of the potential for interface with peripherals such as webcams, motors, robots, kits such as Lego Mindstorms and expansion boards like Gertboard.

Python, KidsRuby and the more graphically driven programming environment Scratch, are all suitable for children and young people to begin to learn basic programming.


There are numerous ideas for how to use the Pi for more general projects.  The Pi can easily be turned into a NAS drive, a media streaming device or an Internet radio.  The Pi can also be set up as an emulator in order to play a myriad of old-style arcade games.


General links

Raspberry Pi Foundation -

Raspberry Pi Wiki -

MagPi -