Learning in a Flash? Education, Rasperry Pi, and the product that won’t die

Like everyone, I’m a great fan of the Raspberry Pi. We bought our grandson one some time ago, and the innovative projects published in the MagPi Magazine and others demonstrate its value for those learning about and exploring computers.

There are times, though, when I wonder if it might encourage a certain myopia about computing. Take Eben Upton’s recent post announcing the release of PIXEL, the ‘desktop environment’ for Debian Linux running on Raspberry Pi systems. I can see how useful it can be for an avid Raspberry Pi enthusiast or developer to want to run the same operating system on their $2000 Mac or PC as well as their $35 Raspberry Pi.

But is the founder of Raspberry Pi serious when he thinks that PIXEL can compete on more expensive systems with macOS and Windows 10? He writes that “bringing PIXEL to the PC and Mac keeps us honest. We don’t just want to create the best desktop environment for the Raspberry Pi: we want to create the best desktop environment, period.”

I have used some pretty innovative operating systems in the past – products such as AmigaOS, and BeOS – and they often have some strong features. But I really can’t see Mac users switching by the million to PIXEL. Especially when he also reveals that it includes “a curated suite of productivity software and programming tools, both free and proprietary; and the Chromium web browser with useful plugins, including Adobe Flash, preinstalled.”

At first, I thought that I might have misread those last few words. Upton considers that one of PIXEL’s strengths is that it comes with Adobe Flash preinstalled?

But in the strange other world that is education, Adobe Flash is not only seen as really good, but is, for many educational purposes, essential. Our grandson confirmed that when he revealed that he cannot use his wonderful iPad Mini for some of his schoolwork, because he can only access that from a computer which is running Flash.

For years I have been blaming organisations like the BBC for persuading Adobe that it cannot possibly kill Flash, but I have been wrong. Educators, including those who should be teaching our kids about tomorrow’s software, not historic relics, have bought into Flash big time. If Adobe were to kill Flash today, probably half the subjects taught in many schools would lose all their computer-based teaching aids. It reminds me of the day when UK schools thought that being able to program a BBC B micro using BASIC was a great advantage for pupils who went on to use commercial apps on desktop PCs.

Schools are not only perpetuating a product which the world desperately needs to do without, but they are requiring our kids to use software which has an appalling security record – so bad that most modern browsers are now disabling it by default.

Computing, or information technology or whatever other pseudonym it is living under for now, continues to be one of the biggest problems in education. With two completely different sets of needs – turning the average pupil into a computer literate who can survive in the world of work, and developing the software engineers of the future – it currently doesn’t seem to be meeting either.

But forcing pupils to use a product which should otherwise have died quietly is a disaster for both groups. Average pupils need to be steered towards modern replacements for Flash, whether in occupational or private use. For future software engineers, it is a bit like making them use floppy disks.

As long as developers of major educational systems like Raspberry Pi think that Flash is a ‘useful plugin’, and will help PIXEL displace macOS, we can be confident that our kids will not be getting the education that they need. You can safely teach classical languages from books which were first published half a century or more ago. But using a software product which went into decline almost a decade ago, and hasn’t been supported on mobile devices for five years, is beneficial to no one.