Raspberry Pi4L: An Innovative Approach to Education

August 22, 2014

Pi for Learning (Pi4L) is a joint initiative between the International Education Association (IEA) and UNICEF Lebanon designed to provide students in Lebanon the opportunity to learn computer coding and related technologies.

“We’re very pleased to see the Raspberry Pi being used to help educate children all over the world; and today’s event in Lebanon is extremely special. Learning computing concepts equips kids with a formidable toolset of problem-solving skills and algorithmic thinking that they can apply to all areas of their lives; we’re delighted to see those skills being developed and shared by the children who are participating in this project. We wish them every success in the future.” Liz Upton from the Raspberry Pi Foundation

About IEAThe International Education Association (IEA) is committed to global partnerships in education based on the effective use of Information Communication Technology in the classroom. With programs across the region, IEA strives to empower teachers, students and local stakeholders through the use of ICT in active teaching and learning programs that make meaningful contribution to their lives and the wider society.  IEA strives to engage educators and youth in dialogue and collaborative learning programs implemented both online and locally to foster understanding, mutual respect, and tolerance.  It is our belief that educators and youth can acquire 21st Century skills needed to excel in a globally competitive world, while fulfilling the very real need for local empowerment and local solutions to issues in education and society.Pi4L, An Innovative Approach to EducationPi for Learning (Pi4L) is a joint initiative between the International Education Association (IEA) and UNICEF Lebanon designed to provide students in Lebanon the opportunity to learn computer coding and related technologies. It is an initiative to promote basic skills and literacy as well as the motivation for self-study and lifelong learning; skills they will need to make a positive contribution to their daily lives.The program consists of courseware by IEA delivered utilizing the Raspberry Pi (RPi) hardware platform to deliver a scalable and affordable learning platform that support participants in their quest to acquire knowledge, education and a brighter future.  The RPi runs a version of linux which allows for local networking and the application of group assessment tools to monitor student metrics related to performance, management and engagement.UNICEF has agreed to partner with IEA to deliver this RPi program for underserved students and for Syrian refugees in non-formal education programs in Lebanon.  This agreement was made after reviewing the successful IEA pilot project conducted in 2013 with high school students at Dhour Shweir Public Secondary High School in Beirut.

The RPi pilot at Dhour Shweir was celebrated on May 16th with the establishment of the Youth-to-Youth scholarship program, thanks to a generous grant from the Global Telecom Women’s Network (GTWN).

Under the Youth-to-Youth program, 10 students from Dhour Shweir who completed the introduction to Scratch visual programming will anchor their skills by mentoring up to 500 students in the use of the Raspberry Pi and the Scratch visual programming language during this upcoming summer 2014.

Affordable and Scalable

UNICEF technology specialist, Mr. James Cranwell Ward, when interviewed with IEA director Mrs. Eliane Metni for The Guardian[1] newspaper on the project, shared the view that the Pi4L initiatives[2] has significant potential to contribute to democratizing access to education in general, and refugee camps in particular.

“The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of promoting the teaching of basic computer science in schools”.

The small size and affordable price (£25) of RPi, as well as the fact that it runs on Linux make it an ideal choice for a large scale and cost effective hardware solution for the PI4L program.  With over 1 million refugees crossing into Lebanon from Syria, the country is facing an unprecedented refugee crisis and is struggling to come up with the resources and solutions necessary to deal with the issue.  Lebanon and other countries like Iraq, South Sudan and Somalia facing similar mass migration issues could benefit from an affordable and scalable solution that provides timely educational opportunities that are market responsive.  Connectivity is not an issue in Lebanon as it has country-wide internet access through mobile operators, albeit with significant costs. Lebanon has been ranked as one of the top five most expensive countries for mobile voice and data communication.   The expense highlights the important role telecom operators can play in facilitating access to crucial resources for refugees and underserved schools in remote areas.

Resources afforded to teachers

The RPi is a great tool in any traditional or non-formal classroom.  When connected to other hardware it can act as an interface to run remote software or as a control machine.   In addition, a community has grown in support of the RPi Foundation’s mission to teach computer science and offer countless resources for students and teachers to achieve their goals individually or seek support from the community.  Software dedicated to learning coding, such as Scratch from MIT Media Labs, will be used in the PI4L program to create stories, games and art.  Teachers and students will have access to Khan Academy Lite (KA Lite) videos on their devices.  These videos will have corresponding exercises that, when completed over the network, will provide an update on progress as well as challenges that students may face as they learn the material.

IEA pedagogical approach overview

Mrs. Metni has over 20 years of professional experience in education. During this time as director of IEA, she developed a pedagogical approach to achieve effective learning.  This pedagogical approach relies on the combination of the appropriate use of technological tools at teachers’ disposal, student ownership of learning, and challenging applications that push students to seek and perfect their answer to a problem.

Mr. Scott Gray[1] from the Oreilly School of Technology offers many valid points about teachers’ appropriate use of tools.  The following statement from Mr. Gray may seem self-evident, especially in the MENA region where a preference for didactic teaching prevails:

“Each decade a new distribution technology for video comes to market and education companies try to seize the moment by using the new distribution model to pump video lectures into the system. In the 60s it was TV, in the 70s it was closed circuit two-way TV, in the 80s it was video tape and CD-ROM, in the 90s it was the web, and now it’s Youtube. However, these efforts continue to fail to make a positive change in education because each fails to recognize that the problem lies not in the distribution and availability of lectures, but in lecturing itself.”

Mrs. Metni has designed IEA’s pedagogical approach to address this particular issue by providing professional development to teachers to utilize these tools to achieve other goals in the mix; ownership of learning and challenging activities.  In the Pi4L refugee program, segmenting the videos and building lesson plans will be a core component of the course.

An additional educational challenge in the MENA region is a sense of apprehension toward new technologies.  Not being able to master the technological tool, effectively deploy it in the classroom and/or a fear that it may replace the need for teachers altogether, rate highly on educators’ list of concerns.

IEA’s approach provides a framework that acknowledges that although students may have access to all the necessary components to take charge of their learning, but the vital component is a supportive community.  Re-creating that support system within the classroom will transform their peers and the teacher as their primary support group that draws on the vast resources available.

Coding skills – necessary?

A recurrent theme in coding education is how coding should be given importance in children’s education or even whether it should be included at all.  IEA believes that it can reconcile both imperatives, that of education and the need to learn how to code, as it has done in the Dhour Shweir School program.  This issue seems to take another dimension in the context of PI4L which was set up with UNICEF and the Ministry of education to provide basic education to Syrian refugees and under-served Lebanese students.

IEA will design courses providing children with the opportunity to “code to learn”.  Through these courses, children will apply coding skills to design and create their own games and stories that revolve around children’s rights in thematic learning, following the model of the GTP Challenge-based Children Rights Circle[1].  In the summer of 2014, for example, the focus will be on Polio, water and child safety.  When children code, they will explore and exploit the themes creating awareness campaigns about Polio, or games and simulation relevant to safety, sanitation and water preservation.

Awareness and coding skills acquired, with some guidance, practical solutions to daily problems might arise – solutions could be replicated in other camps/settings/countries?

Skills, such as coding, have been described as crucial for today’s youth to secure an entry in tomorrow’s workforce.  Combined with IEA’s pedagogical approach, an RPi program could empower students to change their daily lives for the better.  In a country where electricity rationing is the norm and costly generator services supplement the grid, families might find an electricity monitor like the one[2]created by software developer UNOP useful.

IEA looks forward to providing professional development courses to teachers who will work with students participating in the Pi4L, hoping they will come up with innovative and inspiring work to share with the world.

[1] https://lotfeb2014lc8.pbworks.com
[2] http://unop.co.uk/dev/raspberry-pi-electricity-monitor/
[1] http://www.oreillyschool.com/2011/12/my-thoughts-on-codecademy/
[1] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2014/may/28/raspberry-pi-refugee-children-tech-weekly-podcast
[2] http://unicefstories.org/2014/05/08/raspberry-pi-for-learning-initiative-pi4l/