The Raspberry PI Question

Very often when I tell people what I do in Nepal, their next question is often, “Have you heard about Raspberry Pis?”

And as it goes, I have. A Raspberry Pi isn’t a fun fruity dessert, but a small, low power computer. They are cheap, very cheap. A simple Raspberry Pi starts at about £15 on a scale up to about £55 for a basic computer, without a monitor, keyboard or other accessories.

People like Raspberry Pis. They can be programmed to do different things and these clever little devices are often used to teach some elements of computing within schools in the UK.

They sound like a perfect solution to the lack of computers available in Nepali schools. Cheap, low-power, light and easy to import. They should be a hit!

And yet they are not.

Why not?

The major reason is because they run Open-Source operating systems and software. Or in other words, they don’t run Windows.  They don’t look right.

In Nepal, a computer is synonymous with Windows, Office and other Microsoft software. Apple products (apart from the occasional iPhone) are rare, and unsupported, other systems just don’t feature.

The school text books teach step-by-step how to open a program such as Microsoft Word.

  • First Click Start
  • Then Programs
  • Then Microsoft Office
  • Then Microsoft Word 2007

Children need to memorise this information for their exams. It doesn’t matter that an alternative word processor may be just a useful, or that a program could be loaded without a Start Menu.

So, unfortunately as much as an Open-Source alternative could be valued, it generally isn’t.

An argument from the West would be that Open Source software is free, unlike Microsoft Software. That’s why Open Source software is often used in the technological solutions designed in the USA/UK for the developing world. But, that money-saving logic doesn’t apply in Nepal. Microsoft products don’t cost anything here. Well not more than the 20p (30 Cents) required to buy a dodgy, cracked copy from the local store, and officially, Microsoft products are free for schools anyway.

Not just the Pi

In my experience, the Raspberry PI isn’t the only clever bit of technology in the category, of smart, but un-valued.

I have witnessed a Government official unwrap a brand-new, low-power, education-focused, computer from a charity, turn it on and then immediately assign it to a cupboard where it will stay permanently. Why? Because it doesn’t run Windows. It doesn’t look or act like a computer should.

There has also been great fanfare about the global One Laptop Per Child project over the last ten or twelve years. It is another example of a low-cost rugged laptop, and Open Source software designed to get school students using computers. And again, I have been to schools and seen piles of them, maybe 50 at a time, sitting in a corner gathering dust. And I guarantee you, if they could run Windows they would be in use. Perhaps not always by the students… the teachers may have taken them for their own teaching purposes, or even to their homes – but they would be used.

In conclusion

While I own a Raspberry PI and agree that it is a very smart little device, to actively provide Nepali schools with something that they would value, we need to supply a solution that is low-power and low-cost while also enabling the students to develop their IT skills using Windows and Office as seen in their text-books and exams. Though I don’t want to see a Microsoft monopoly, it’s important to appreciate that there already is one here and that we should equip students with the relevant and necessary ICT skills for their future employment opportunities.