We have a big vision, and there are lots of ways to approach it. Our starting point was an amazing box of electronic gadgets and lesson plans for schools.
However we really wanted to check our assumptions and make sure that we were building the right thing to achieve that aim. So we've been following agile/lean methodology, devising experiments, prototypes and tests to help us come to conclusions about the right way to proceed.
Along the way we've been careful with spending the money we've received and we've stuck to the plan of spending on devices and technology rather than people.
Two people are leading the project - Stef Lewandowski and Gavin Summerfield. Stef is a Clore fellow - a technologist and artist, and Gavin is a teacher at Heber Primary School in East Dulwich, where he leads on computing and ICT.
Also involved in the project are the staff who teach at the school and have been trying out the work we've been doing in a live teaching environment. We also have several teaching assistants who run four code clubs during lunch times at the school.
We've recently begun bringing on volunteers and over Summer we will hopefully have a Goldsmiths student working as an intern for three months.
Who is this for?
There are a number of assumptions that we want to test about who we're trying to reach. On the "addressable market" side, we've got a number of potential early stage markets.
- Teachers who want to teach the new curriculum around tech literacy but don't have access to everything they need
- Parents who want to inspire their children and get them interested in technology
- Children who are interested in technology but don't have access to tools and opportunities
An update on the name
Our project is "Distribute the future", and our first prototype is called "Future box". Our website is distributethefuture.com It might be that we focus more on the "Future box" name as the project progresses.
Testing our assumptions
The "addressable market" is quite large, so we began by looking at what "risky assumptions" we needed to test, and narrowing down to who we should be aiming for with our early prototype.
Looking at the resources to hand, we realised that we have access and skills to test the "teaching" market, but parents and children were immediately less open to us as a starting point reaching each of these would require a marketing budget to do landing page tests, or a programme of events and outreach.
The teaching side looks attractive because there is a current pain point the national curriculum has changed recently and some teachers may feel under-prepared to deliver the technological literacy components.
"Start with what you have" is the rule we followed, so we began the project by testing out assumptions around how teachers can use technology, and then build from there.
- Assumption 1: "Futuristic technology can be used in a classroom environment"
- Assumption 2: "Futuristic technology can be used in a classroom environment by non-technical teachers"
- Assumption 3: "Children are able to teach other children about futuristic technology"
We've been working on these assumptions (and some others), devising live experiments we can do, buying just the equipment we'd need to test them.
We began by planning out the first prototypes we would try. The instigation for the project was an "awesome box of futuristic technology" and we felt we weren't ready to start building a box until we knew what it would contain!
We had a gut idea of what we thought the contents should be about anything included in our "box" should answer these questions with a "yes":
- Is it awesome could you imagine a child saying "wow that's awesome" when they see it for the first time?
- Is it hackable can you plug it into something else and change the way it behaves?
- Is it educational can you see ways to use it for teaching?
We researched the latest Edtech on a variety of different mediums from Twitter to Kickstarter and discovered these items which fit the brief - we investigated each one thoroughly and probed teaching staff, pupils and parents for their opinions. Our prototype tech is described below:
- Ozobot an award winning robot designed to teach children about programming and code
- Sphero and Ollie smartphone controlled robots to introduce teaching control, simple algorithms and STEM education
- Vex iQ STEM kits an all-encompassing introduction to STEM and robotics.
- Nao Robot an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot.
- Makey Makey is an electronic invention tool and toy that allows users to connect everyday objects to computer programs.
- Hackaball A ball that encourages kids to learn about technology, play together and be physically active.
- Bare Conductive Electric conductive paint that intersects design, technology and material innovation
- Autodesk 123D Apps used to make things with!
- MiP The first balancing commercial robot to develop control and movement with younger children.
- i Can Animate Stop motion animation software to develop animation and storyboarding - this has been utilised across the school curriculum.
- Technology Will Save Us Technology kits and resources to allow children to learn skills, make cool things and discover what is possible with technology.
Introducing this technology to the staff of our primary school was crucial to its success. As a starting point we delivered a presentation on the project and shared our ideas with the staff team. They suggested ways the tech could be used to deliver and support the new curriculum and we used these ideas to develop and prototype some lesson plans around the new tech.
As an experienced primary computing teacher, Gavin then worked with teachers and staff to find the best ways to use technology to support different areas of the new curriculum.
The project is now part of the school development and computing action plan, to make sure we are working to improve and develop the school through the use of this new technology.
When the box was launched in November 2014 initially, we coined the phrase "The Awesome Box" however there were a couple of other people doing their own "awesome box" and we were not related. During the launch assembly at school, one of the children thought that we should change the name to "The Future Box" because essentially it is a box of the future, full of futuristic technology.
Involving the children in the development of the box was also an important factor we had to consider. Through workshops, clubs and class hack days we have introduced and allowed children to learn and discover the new technology and provide valuable feedback along the way.
Each class had their own rotational learning experience which enabled them to investigate and "hack" the technology. Older children suggested ways it could be used to support learning and lessons. The highlights with the children included Ozobot, Vex iQ, Makey Makey and the Nao robot.
Through weekly computing lessons and lunchtime code clubs, Gavin met with as many children as possible to learn about the Edtech and develop its usage.
Gavin introduced the work we've been doing to the parents of the school in a primary school style tech event called "Meet The Robots" to inspire and engage interest with parents who would be interested in collaborating.
Children from across the school demonstrated the tech to their parents and explained how they were using it in the classroom. It was exciting to see children teaching parents about futuristic techology and there was a buzz throughout the evening.
Parents have since come forward to help run and support the school with the project.
Press, speaking and awards
We're in "prototyping" phase so we've not been focussing on communications outside of the school. However, we've already had some exposure.
A double page spread in the Observer about kidtech kits that we're using in the project.
We have a website that we are using to document some of our progress and gather interested people.
- Stef has spoken about the project at an internal Accenture innovation day, Nesta Future Fest, Grads for Growth and FutureEverything.
- Gavin won the Southwark Good Practice Award for outstanding computing in primary schools.
We've had lots of interest from other people and organisations in fact it's been quite hard to keep up with the level of interest we've seen!
We've had conversations with suppliers and manufacturers who'd be interested in seeing their products in our "box". A few highlights we're going to be some of the first people to have access to Bare Conductive education kits and we'll have access to the new Hackaball before it's release.
- Goldsmiths Computing Department we'll be working with lecturers and students, and there is potential for a research paper around our work.
- British Museum Gavin successfully pitched to the British Museum Samsung Digital Discovery Centre to run two workshops using the Makey Makey and Scratch to allow visitors to create their own interactive museum guide. They liked that the project inverts the 'authoritative voice' by using digital technology to allow families to create their own tour of the museum. The sessions will be running in October 2015.
We're coming out of the early-stage prototype phase and we're ready to bring in further funding to accelerate the project. Short-term we're seeking grant funding, and have two proposals in the works:
- Raspberry Pi Foundation Stef met the CEO in Cambridge and discussed the possibility of a grant that matches the funds received to date. We're putting a proposal to them now.
- Let Teachers Shine we were shortlisted to the last 30 applicants for a grant and are waiting to hear back about a potential £15,000 grant to develop robotics and storytelling as an intervention.
We've also been having conversations, some more formally than others, but to give you an idea of the areas we're exploring about developing the project, here are some potential areas we are exploring:
- Little Devices Lab Massachusetts Institute of Technology Gavin and Stef had a conference call with some of the members of the lab and they discussed a collaboration as they were working with elementary schools in the US to develop biology and chemistry lessons with their technology.
- Bristol Robotics Laboratory We have a link with the team here, and we're particularly interested in JISC funding that is available for applications of technology in a classroom environment.
- Archeology Masters Student, University College London we are developing links with a Masters student to help us develop the use of 3D printers as a tool to enhance the history curriculum.
- Penguin One of the parents who attended Meet The Robots was interested in the possibility of a book around the work we're doing so we will be following that through to see where it goes.
- Shakespeare's Globe We've the beginning of an idea around using robotics to teach Shakespeare that we're calling "The Robotic Shakespeare Company".
- Highgate Secondary School Computing Department We're in conversation with the robotics team at this secondary school to develop links across London with robotics and STEM education
- Southwark Headteacher Briefings Gavin is about to launch the idea of the Future Box to all Southwark primary Headteachers.
- Ministry of Stories Stef advises MoS on its digital strategy and it's possible that we will find a way to collaborate around storytelling workshops that involve technology and robotics.
It's our intention to be open source with the majority of our work. However, this is not the normal approach taken by the Edtech companies that we've come into contact with. For instance, resources for the Nao robot are reasonably expensive, yet it is an open source platform. We've been developing software that works on top of the Nao, and it's possible that we could already start generating some revenue from the Nao app store off the back of this.
For instance, we have built a simple "joke" app, that lets the children write jokes on a web page (any web page), touch the robot's head and have it perform the jokes interactively with them. We're taking that forward into making a web app for iPad and iPod Touch that lets children control the robot by writing a story and controlling it through a performance. Packaging this up as an app that other Nao owners could buy could be an approach that helps us fund future development.
We're still in "prototype" mode, and the aim for this period is to learn as much as possible about how to scale up the work we've been doing at Heber.
So, our next immediate steps are to seek additional prototype funding for Gavin and volunteers to continue developing teaching resources and learning about what works in the classroom.
- Gavin has set aside development time for teaching staff to learn how to use the technology to support the curriculum in the next academic year.
- Gavin is meeting with like-minded teachers to develop the idea and concept with the teaching community.
- We're organising a hack day for people to see what could be done with the kit that we've chosen for the project.
- We're organising a "kidtech" meetup where we can start getting the word out about the project and gather community around us.
- We've gathered people at a number of schools who will begin testing lesson plans we've been working on.
The idea of "the box" is attractive, because of its simplicity. However, the size of the kit involved in the project so far has made it quite difficult to come up with a box design that could sufficiently contain everything we'd want to have included if we were to deploy the project in another school.
We need to test some assumptions and look at our business model. We have some early candidates that are looking quite exciting now.
A Kickstarter around the box itself We've been working with the Bare Conductive Touch Boards and with Hackaball, both of the companies behind these have raised significant funds via Kickstarter. We're considering focusing on the design of the box itself as an interactive object, complete with speakers, contact and proximity sensors, LEDs and other hackable components.
We'd bring in a design agency, possibly Made by Many to take our early prototypes and develop them into a product that could be developed, as well as help us put a good campaign together. From their experience, a physical product took two years from prototype to successful crowdfunding, so we wouldn't do this lightly!
Box as subscription service We package the "box" up as a subscription service. Rather than a school or code club getting one single "box" they are actually subscribing to a series of boxes, one per term that contain amazing tech that can be used in the classroom.
This is attractive for predictable revenue, bulk purchasing efficiencies and that we'd be building a distribution network.
Crowd-funding platform for the future We could start looking at the other side of the market. Parents. This is attractive because whereas schools seem to have very tight budgets for buying equipment, parents who are inspired about technology might be interested in grouping together, and helping pay for a box for their school. We'd either partner with an existing crowdfunding site, or build our own.
The possibilities are interesting here in that we could encourage parents to pay via direct debit on a monthly basis, local businesses could match fund, and when the total reaches a certain point, it triggers the delivery of a box.
By tiering the boxes we could reach a lot of schools, because no matter how much you manage to raise, we'll always send your school something awesome that can be used in the classroom.
Box on the go One way of reaching lots of children would be to take the box on the road, and organise events based around its contents. However, we're aware that the Institute of Imagination are trying that out, so it might be best to have conversations with them about their project rather than to duplicate the approach. On a personal level both of us are more interested in long-term, deep interventions in learning rather than "snackable" or "try it out" models of reaching children.
Focus on robotics A surprising outcome so far has been just how accessible robots have become, and how inspiring they are to use in a classroom. We're applying robotics to teach dance, literacy, music, not just computing. By focussing down on robots it might be that the "box" is a red herring. Maybe it's an "Awesome Bot"? We're investigating this further, but this is again very attractive because of potential to do really interesting non-screen-based learning that could attract grant funding.
Clearly there are several directions in which we could take this project, and to date we have been running it via the school. At some point soon we'll have to look at incorporating as a separate entity to achieve our aims.
We would welcome input from the Clore network on this process.
Obstacles, challenges and barriers
By far the biggest challenge is that as the project stands we are time-poor. Gavin is committed full time on teaching and Stef is consulting more or less full time. So we need to find a way to either add additional resource through bringing on volunteers or additional funds to pay for artists, technologists and teachers to work on the project.
Again, we'd welcome Clore's input on how to resolve this. We feel like we are in the startup / bootstrapping phase and need to transition out of that. Raising significant funds would require us to have solved the question of what type of organisation would be necessary to achieve our aims.