Can Affordable Computing Education Bridge the Global Digital Divide?

Digital Access

Can Affordable Computing Education Bridge the Global Digital Divide?

from Endless Network

By Abbie Misha     Dec 15, 2023

Can Affordable Computing Education Bridge the Global Digital Divide?
A Code Club session in Athens, GA

This article is part of the guide: Equitable Access to Education: Global Efforts to Close the Gap.

Despite the promise of digital technologies, not all communities around the world have the access they need. One way to lessen the global digital divide is to provide affordable and accessible computing education to all, regardless of socioeconomic background. Focusing on inclusivity and affordability empowers young people, helping them develop the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly digital world while fostering a more equitable and diverse tech landscape.

Endless Network, a worldwide organization dedicated to tackling equity gaps resulting from challenges like insufficient internet access, strategically allocates investments in global companies that align with their mission and actively work toward achieving it. This article highlights the initiatives of one such company, the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Founded in the United Kingdom, the Raspberry Pi Foundation set out to inspire young people to study computer science by inventing a programmable computer for the price of a textbook. Over the last 15 years, its commercial arm, Raspberry Pi Ltd., has evolved into one of the world's most successful computer companies, selling over 55 million computers that are used by engineers, scientists, hobbyists and young people all over the world.

The Foundation is on a mission to democratize access to computing education. While Raspberry Pi computers remain an important tool in this mission, the Foundation is device- and platform-agnostic, supporting learning across a wide range of hardware and software. Their activities include assisting schools in integrating computer science into the curriculum, promoting non-formal learning through code clubs and online resources and conducting research through a center at the University of Cambridge. The Foundation's approach is guided by 12 pedagogical principles, informed by research, to enhance effective and inclusive computer science education globally. Recently, EdSurge spoke with Philip Colligan, the Chief Executive Officer of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, about the important initiatives to which his organization contributes.

EdSurge: What are some of the critical challenges facing the education sector, particularly in the realm of technology and computer science, and how is your organization addressing these issues?

Colligan: There are two big issues in the education sector that we're trying to solve. The first is ensuring that schools are offering a comprehensive curriculum addressing computing, computer science and digital skills and whether it is keeping pace with technological developments. AI literacy is the new big challenge. No curriculum in the world currently has a credible answer for what skills and knowledge young people need to acquire to help them thrive in a world that's being transformed by AI. That's a problem we're trying to solve, including through Experience AI, which is a partnership with Google DeepMind to research and develop lessons that help young people learn about AI systems. Those lessons are already being taught to hundreds of thousands of young people in the U.K., and we're now translating them to make them more accessible globally.

The second issue is that almost every computer science lesson will be taught by a non-specialist teacher who doesn't have a degree qualification in computer science. There is a small number of computing teachers who do have backgrounds in computer science, and while those teachers are exceptional, they represent a minority. If you can persuade a government or an education system to put computer science in the curriculum, that's great. That's the easier step. The difficult bit is, then, how do you support teachers in that education system to be able to deliver it? That requires a huge investment in ongoing teacher professional development. In India, we are working with two states to train tens of thousands of teachers who have no background in computing to be able to deliver the computer science curriculum.

Students in a Code Club in Chennai, India

How is Raspberry Pi working toward making computing education accessible globally?

Raspberry Pi’s big goal is for every school everywhere to offer a world-leading computing education to all young people. Additionally, we want every young person to have access to safe, informal spaces where they can get hands-on with technology. This is where Code Clubs come in. They are the world's largest network of free computing clubs run by an amazing community of educators and mentors.

It's a genuinely global mission; we want to change the world. We are particularly focused on six countries: the U.K., Ireland, India, the United States, Kenya and South Africa. Also, we have partnerships in about 50 other countries with nonprofit organizations that we support through curriculum and resources, helping them set up networks of Code Clubs, train teachers and more.

Our immediate goal, which we are achieving currently, is that nearly every classroom in England now uses the curriculum and resources that Raspberry Pi created. We've trained tens of thousands of teachers here! We're working in India and Kenya to develop their curriculum and introduce large-scale teacher training initiatives, always in partnership with the local education system and with other local organizations.

Adarsh's coding story

What primary hurdles has your organization faced in executing your mission, and what is your team doing to address them?

One significant challenge is access to technology and the internet. This is still an issue in countries like the U.K. and the United States, where far too many young people lack access to a computer at home for learning. It's even more stark in countries like India and Kenya, where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to have access to a device, and even if you have access to a computer, there is often limited or no internet. One of the ways we're trying to address this, with support from the Endless Foundation, is by making our learning resources and experiences accessible offline. The idea is that we can ship a Raspberry Pi computer with all of the educational content and tools that you need to learn computing without needing an internet connection.

That's more complicated than I make it sound, and price isn't necessarily the problem. Political will plays a role, too. In addition, we're trying to help schools worldwide introduce a completely new and fast-moving subject despite the lack of confident teachers. One hurdle we face is emphasizing the relevance of computing to school leaders so that they understand that this is an incredible engine for social mobility. Computing education gives young people access to jobs and the tools to build things and solve problems in their own lives. It can be transformational for not only that young person but also their families and communities. I'm very sympathetic to the pressures on schools. I was the chair of a school governing board for over a decade, and I know the daily challenges that schools face. Putting computing education front and center is hard, but it's crucial.

Students in a Foundation-supported edtech hub in rural Kenya

How does your organization assess the success of its initiatives?

We measure success in two ways. First, through reach, where we look at both volume and demographics. We aim for broad accessibility, reaching the largest possible number of young people, but we particularly want to benefit young people who face educational disadvantage or are underrepresented in technology because of factors like poverty, gender, race, ethnicity or disability.

Second, we focus on learning impact, assessing not only inspiration but also the meaningful and practical knowledge gained. Our ongoing efforts ensure that we consistently deliver positive learning outcomes.

Could you recount a success story from your experience with Raspberry Pi that showcases the organization's influence and achievements?

One of the best things now that we've been active for over a decade is that I get to meet young people whose lives have been changed through our work. I was lucky enough to meet one of the kids who attended one of the very first Code Clubs when he was just 11 years old. That experience inspired him to get hands-on with technology. He also got one of the first Raspberry Pi computers and used our free online tutorials to make some pretty cool stuff. He went to a school that used our curriculum and was taught by a teacher that we had trained, and he used our platform, Ada Computer Science, to study for his A level, which is similar to an AP exam. He is now studying for his undergraduate degree in computer science and cybersecurity at Newcastle University, the first in his family to attend university. Every year, there are more and more kids like him whose life trajectory has been changed through our work, and that's pretty special.

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