Kano review – doing it for the kids
Learning can be fun, especially when it uses Minecraft to teach coding and then allows you to do whatever you want afterwards
The Kano computer system revolves around two core things: a Raspberry Pi and the Kano OS designed for it. More than just another Raspberry Pi kit, it proved itself with a successful Kickstarter, promising a system that would help get kids into real computing and allow them to start down a path of programming and coding.
While the full kits are being prepared for shipping out to backers and other people that have pre-ordered, the beta for the full OS is available to anyone who wants it right now completely free of charge. It doesn’t require any of the specific hardware in the kit such as the Wi-Fi dongle or the wireless keyboard, so it will work on any normal Raspberry Pi.
With the OS, correct human inputs and a connection to the internet, you can get the full Kano experience. The first two books for the project are available for free and teach kids how to set up and use everything available in the Kano OS; they cover a lot of ground and the OS itself picks up the rest of the slack.
Make a computer
The installation and setup of a Raspberry Pi with Kano is an event in itself, covered entirely by the first book of the series. If you’re on Windows or OS X, Kano provides tools to initially burn the image, however on Linux no such tools exist and you’ll need to use the standard dd method. This is a little disappointing as Kano itself is built upon Raspbian Linux and the team are very keen to promote FOSS in their operation.
Once written to disk, the true Kano magic starts for everyone. Turning on the Raspberry Pi for the first time has it ‘speak’ to you; a pre-determined script to set a username and a couple of key presses to make sure the keyboard is properly working and you’re paying attention as you follow the white rabbit. It’s all very movie hacker – although without the Jonny Lee Miller crime angle – and it’s engaging to younger kids who can be so influenced by media and pop culture. Following this and some very simple graphical setup tools, you’re dropped into the main Kano desktop; it’s all very quick to get here and afterwards you won’t need to engage with the ‘hacker script’ again.
Learn to compute
From here you can start using the Kano as you would Raspbian, with full access to the default apps and some installers for LibreOffice and Wolfram if you need to do a little more than the basic apps provide. The main event though is the series of coding and computing challenges: making a video is the first one, a simple matter of making sure your Pi is connected to the internet and typing YouTube; playing and modifying Snake, Pong and Minecraft to learn the basics of changing or modifying code; and making music with Sonic Pi to put it all together in actual written code.
Each of these comes with a set of specific challenges to complete that teach kids the intricacies of what they can modify and by how much. The Snake challenge is about giving different options to a terminal command, where as Pong and Minecraft take a Scratch approach to building the code.
They’re all very good at what they do and using the Minecraft Pi edition for these challenges is a truly excellent way to engage younger audiences that cannot get enough of the game. The full version is also fully playable off the image, which is not the case with standard Raspbian.
Too good to be true?
There are a few caveats to Kano though, ones that will eventually bring people to standard Raspbian. The main issue we had with the OS is speed: browsing with the included Chromium browser brought the Pi to a halt and it took a long time for it to render Google or even the Linux User webpage. There is also the issue of the overclocking that Kano does to the Pi without even telling you about it; this will damage your Pi and at the very least shorten its life span in the long run – and Kano has it running at one setting below the maximum 1 GHz threshold.
Generally though this doesn’t affect the actual teaching components of Kano: while there was a bit of slowdown in Minecraft that was to be slightly expected. You can also turn down or turn off the overclock completely, while Midori is in the repos if you want to customise Kano a little more.
For now it’s still an excellent teaching tool and a great way to get kids excited about programming and the Raspberry Pi, something no one else has quite been able to consistently capture.
Kano is a brilliant tool for teaching and beginning the graduation to using the Pi as a proper computer. Although there are some speed issues to contend with, these may be ironed out for the final release and shouldn’t deter you.