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Is "Maker" Education Ready to Go 1-to-1?

LBsClassroom2.jpgInstead of laptops or digital tablets, what if schools gave every student kits of programmable electronics that can be used to build, tinker, and create?

That's the question being asked by New York City-based company littleBits, which announced today the launch of a new line of educational products aimed at bringing its child-friendly modular electronics components to schools and libraries.

"We launched littleBits Education because we wanted to make it easy for educational institutions everywhere to find a way to bring more 21st-century learning to their students," said Ayah Bdeir, the company's founder and CEO, in a statement.

"We have loved seeing how incredibly engaged students all over the world get when inventing and making with littleBits in their classrooms," she said.

An all-girls private school in New York City is the first to test the company's 1-to-1 model.  And Texas's 43,000-student Killeen Unified district will be the first to use littleBits as the foundation for a districtwide initiative to outfit all its elementary schools with "maker spaces" where students will have hands-on learning opportunities.

The new initiative aims to take advantage of multiple big trends in educational technology.  For more than a decade, schools have been going 1-to-1 with digital devices, learning important lessons about how to effectively put technology into students' hands. Over roughly the same span, the maker movement has also taken off. And schools are increasingly interested in teaching coding, computer science, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) subjects.

Leslie Wilson, the CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that helps districts implement student-computing initiatives, was enthusiastic about the new direction that littleBits is aiming to take the field.

"The first thing that draws me to this is that it's bringing learning and problem-solving to life by [having students] actually doing things and making stuff," Wilson said. "It dovetails beautifully with what we know about effective implementation of technology."

Going 1-to-1 with littleBits

Founded in 2011, littleBits has a robust consumer business. According to the company's statement, 2,200 schools and 240 libraries and maker spaces in 60 countries are already using littleBits in some capacity.

In June, the company announced that it had raised $44.2 million in Series B funding, much of which would be devoted to expanding its education-specific offerings.

To boost that part of its business, the company is now offering standalone professional development, large bundles of its electronic components for school-wide maker spaces, and sets designed to support use of littleBits across multiple classrooms.

The private, 744-student Marymount School in Manhattan is the first in the U.S. to go 1-to-1 with the company's kits. All girls in grades 3-5 will receive a personal "student set" of littleBits that included mounting boards, a variety of sensors and LED lights, and other components.  Students can carry the kits from class to class, take the kits home, and add more components as they advance from grade to grade. For its "STEAM Room," the school also purchased an "invention lab bundle" with extra components that students will be able to borrow and use. All teachers in participating grades will participate in littleBits training workshops. 

"The [kits] will be used to help students understand not just electronics, but the concepts behind them,and it will be done in a way that's collaborative," said Lillian Issa, the deputy head of school, in an interview. "That way, they're not just learning content, but also the skill set of solving problems together."

The Killeen, Texas district meanwhile will be "the first in the U.S. to incorporate littleBits into a districtwide library maker space program," according to the company release.  All students in grades K-6 in the district's 32 elementary schools will have regular access to the electronic building blocks.

Ed-tech only as good as its implementation

Officials from littleBits declined to share growth targets for the company's new educational offerings.

Wilson, of the One-to-One Institute, said the potential to use the tools across subjects bodes well for not only their adoption in schools, but also their effective use with students.

"It's the same as using a laptop or a Chromebook," she said. "The more multi-disciplinary [use of a tool] is, the more relevant it will be for providing a 21st century learning experience."

One challenge with expanding the adoption of littleBits by schools will lie in educators figuring out how they can best be used, said Gary Stager, an educational consultant and author on progressive teaching, technology, and the Maker movement.

"Is it science equipment, used by a teacher to teach a concept? Or is it a toy, like blocks or Legos with functionality you never had before? Or is it a prototyping platform?" Stager asked.

But in general, he said, littleBits have the potential to help students act as scientists and engineers and inventors, with the freedom and tools to solve real-world problems.

"My only concern would be whether kids are going to have access to sufficient materials to build everything they can imagine," Stager said. "That's good news for the company."

Photo courtesy of littleBits.

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