Tech in the classroom

From Skype in the Classroom and School in the Cloud to crowdfunded coding tool Hackaball, London agency Made by Many has developed some brilliant digital products for the classroom. Co-founder Tim Malbon and product manager Veronika Janeckova discuss the studio’s work, and the dos and don’ts of designing for education

(Above: Hackaball)

Founded by Tim Malbon, Isaac Pinnock, Stuart Eccles and William Owen in 2007, London agency Made by Many has created digital experiences for some of the UK’s biggest brands, from Burberry to the BBC. But since 2010, it has also been working with teachers to design digital products which aim to make the classroom a more exciting place to learn.

In 2011, it launched Skype in the Classroom, a platform allowing teachers to connect students with other classes, experts and explorers around the world via video calls. In 2014, it worked with TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra on an independent learning platform, School in the Cloud, and this year, raised over $240,000 of funding on Kickstarter for Hackaball; a hackable ball that teaches children how to code.

Skype in the Classroom was the agency’s first educational project, and it has so far proved hugely successful. It has over 100,000 users in 230 countries, and millions of children take part in calls on the site each year: an impressive feat for something that began as a small-scale PR project.

“The scale of the project was tiny,” says Malbon. “Skype’s PR team had some leftover budget, and had noticed some teachers in different parts of the world using Skype to connect their classrooms in live experiences. The brief for us was basically, ‘can you help us make a microsite about these teachers, that will encourage more people to do this?’”

“We said we could, but it would probably be successful for about two weeks, and when you turned off all the media pointing to it, no-one would ever go there again. We felt there was an opportunity to do something much more exciting, and help make Skype more useful for teachers.”

Made by Many conducted research into how teachers were using Skype, and discovered a need for a platform that would help them easily find other educators on the site. “We found a blog run by a teacher in the US, who had basically hacked the comments section of a free blogging platform to set up a directory, and there was about 500 teachers on it, which was brilliant evidence of a need we could address,” he adds. Two weeks later, it launched a sign-up page for a teachers network, promoted it through social media, and within a month, 1,500 people had registered to use it. “At that point, we were able to say to Skype, here’s some evidence we should invest in this.”

 Made by Many raised over 240,000 dollars in funding for Hackaball, a self-initiated product which aims to teach children how to code
Made by Many raised over 240,000 dollars in funding for Hackaball, a self-initiated product which aims to teach children how to code

Since its launch, Made by Many has developed the site into much more than a directory: teachers can arrange ‘virtual field trips’, Skyping with experts and explorers in natural environments (oceanographer Fabien Cousteau held Skype in the Classroom sessions from his underwater lab during his record-breaking Mission 31); or take part in Mystery Skype, a game in which pupils have to determine the location of a classroom they are calling by asking strategic questions. It also runs a guest speaker programme, with talks from authors, inventors and entrepreneurs, and has partnered with organisations from NASA to Penguin to deliver talks on science, history, literature, geography and even Minecraft.

“We’ve had some amazing feedback from it,” says Made by Many product manager Veronicka Janeckova. “There’s a game in [the US] now, where teachers run competitions to see who can be the first school to Skype with other schools in every state. We’ve also seen teachers set up sleepovers to Skype with classes in other time zones. They’ll wear costumes and sing traditional songs, and talk about popular things to do in their country, so you really learn what it’s like to live on the other side of the world. We had one email from a teacher in Alaska who said the kids have been so excited about it, they’ve been telling their parents about what they’ve learned, and now everyone in the village is obsessed with this idea of connecting to the outside world from the classroom.”

Made by Many worked closely with teachers throughout the project, an approach Malbon says has been key to its success. As well as contacting teachers to assess how they were using Skype, and how it fitted into their existing routines, the agency tested prototypes with teachers at each stage of the design process, removing any features they said they didn’t want, and building in new ones based on their suggestions.

“No-one had planned how the site was going to turn out, but I think it’s a really good case study for how, if you go and address one real need with the right audience in a very disciplined way, and you learn from that all the things in other areas you could address, and co-design that experience with teachers iteratively, you end up somewhere quite brilliant,” he adds. “By constantly prototyping and doing human insights with real people, you know immediately when something doesn’t work.”

 Sugata Mitra's School in the Cloud platform
Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud platform

The site has strict quality controls, and is monitored by a moderation agency, which verifies user accounts and blocks any inappropriate content. Speakers are encouraged to talk for no more than 15 minutes, and spend the rest of the time answering questions, with calls limited to two or three classes at a time. As Malbon and Janeckova point out, the live and interactive elements of the platform are a key part of its appeal: talking with experts or classes in other parts of the world provides a much more compelling experience for children than watching a video or listening to their teacher read from a textbook.

“Most kids have access to the internet and on demand video now, but there’s almost too much of it, and it’s not the same as when it’s live. Watching someone talk to you from Mount Everest is much more exciting than just watching a video about someone who climbed it,” says Malbon. The platform has also helped museum and gallery education programmes reach a wider audience, and provides some great publicity for Skype.

Made by Many has since handed control of the project back to Microsoft, but continues to provide some technical support. “We want Microsoft to own as much of it as they can, as our model isn’t about operating other people’s sites … we still have some involvement, but it’s a matter of hours a week now,” explains Malbon.

After working with Skype in the Classroom, however, the agency was asked to create another digital learning platform, School in the Cloud. A pioneering research project led by TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, it aims to demonstrate that children can learn with minimal supervision from educators, in what Mitra calls ‘Self Organised Learning Environments’ (SOLEs).

The site gives teachers, parents or educators access to a series of ‘Big Questions’, which cover topics from maths to religion. Questions range from ‘Why won’t woodlice grow as big as elephants?’ to ‘Is protesting good?’ Students can use the internet to research answers or work on activities in groups, before sharing what they have learned with the whole class. SITC also gives children access to a remote network of moderators who are on hand to provide support and guidance to children during SOLE sessions.

“We went to meet with Sugata and his team in 2013 and it became obvious pretty quickly that although it sounded similar to Skype in the Classroom, this was a very different kind of project. This was about replacing teachers, rather than giving them new tools to do teaching in a traditional way,” explains Malbon.

“[Mitra] had already been running the project for quite a long time. He’d built a prototype out of free software, and set up this community called the Granny Cloud, made up mainly of retired teachers from Britain. You could book an appointment with them and they’d be beamed into a classroom somewhere remote, to talk English to children. Sugata’s theory was that if the children could talk to them and learn a little bit of English, they could learn almost everything else through the internet.”

 American students speak with children in the remote island of Kiribati via Skype in the Classroom to learn about climate change (watch a film of the project at bit.ly/1KTA0y1)
American students speak with children in the remote island of Kiribati via Skype in the Classroom to learn about climate change (watch a film of the project at bit.ly/1KTA0y1)

Made by Many was responsible for rebuilding Mitra’s site, and did so by working closely with the ‘Grannies’ who were using it. After conducting interviews with Grannies, they identified key areas that needed addressing, and developed new prototypes for them to test (you can read more about the process on Made by Many’s blog).

The product was launched at TED Vancouver in 2014, and thousands of schools around the world have set up SOLEs since. Newcastle University has also opened SOLE Central, a global hub for research into self organised learning, and Malbon says the site is used by teachers, parents and home schoolers in both mainstream and special needs education.

“The project had a very fixed deadline, but the intention was always to spark a movement, rather than build a finished tool,” says Malbon. “It was designed to be very hackable and open – you don’t have to use the software, you can just grab ideas and big questions. It’s quite chaotic, but Sugata wanted people to be able to do their own thing with it, and on the whole, it kind of works,” he adds. “The whole thing is a research project, and is designed to prove that is a really good way to learn.”

Through working on Skype in the Classroom and School in the Cloud, Made by Many has learned some valuable dos and don’ts when it comes to designing for education. Janeckova has published a helpful article, The 20 things you should know when designing for classrooms, on Made by Many’s blog (bit.ly/1eFb5lr), in which she discusses the importance of knowing your user and the environment they are working in.

“The thing about knowing your user is really important, and it’s something that’s really easy to pay lip service to. No-one’s going to say, ‘we don’t know our customer’, but you need to really know what’s going to have some real value for them,” says Malbon. “You used to see people building digital experiences with a whole bunch of personas, each representing a different section of the audience, and companies would try and build these personas into their processes, but I think there’s only so far you can push that. Unless you know the world through the eyes of the people you’re designing for, you won’t really understand whether you’re solving a problem for them, and you won’t understand the really good opportunities which are their unmet needs. That’s why we do a lot of human insights work – you have to bring people into the centre of the design process, rather than just treat them as someone to be considered,” he says.

“One of the biggest things – it’s common sense – but it’s also about understanding the reality of the classroom,” adds Janeckova. “A lot of people are really idealistic about the sorts of technology teachers have available, and then you get in there and find out they’re running on super old software, and there might be 15 iPads for the whole school. We often go into classrooms and think about the kind of computers and things they’re using there, and it’s a great learning experience for us, because often, it’s completely different to what we imagined.”

The studio also spent a great deal of time in schools when designing Hackaball, which aims to teach coding in a creative and tactile way (children can use it to create games via an app, and programme it to respond to actions such as kicking or throwing). As we wrote about on the blog in March (bit.ly/1IhyToe), Made by Many tested multiple prototypes with teachers and students, and is now working with schools to create lesson plans using the product. Several schools have signed up to buy Hackaball sets, and parents will soon be able to buy it for children in stores.

“We’ve been testing Hackaball with different age groups and users and different topics to make sure it can fit into the curriculum,” says Janeckova. “With products like Hackaball, it’s really about making sure that people don’t just put it in a corner after the first ten minutes. And if you’re designing for education, you have to make things that are sustainable, and help train teachers in how to use them. We did a lot of hand holding with Skype, particularly with teachers who weren’t as confident at using technology, but a lot of companies don’t think about that generation of teachers that aren’t as skilled or don’t have much experience with tech,” she adds. “The feedback we get from teachers is that they get [a lot of] software pushed on them, and often it’s not applicable to what it claims to teach.”

Malbon agrees: “Teachers have all been hyped and sold stuff that hasn’t particularly worked … with many companies, the thinking is more like ‘what can we do with our tech, or what do we want to achieve as a business?’ rather than, ‘what do you think teachers would really value, or what would make their lives better’?”

While digital technology has transformed almost every aspect of daily life, education has been relatively slow to embrace it. Janeckova and Malbon think this will soon change, but admit there are a number of factors which have prevented mainstream schools from adopting or investing in more digital tools for the classroom.

As Malbon points out, education is a complex industry: schools have varying budgets, tools and resources, and are required to meet strict assessment criteria and objectives. In addition, teachers, who have more demands on their time than ever, are often given conflicting advice on the best tools and resources to use in the classroom.

“There’s a lot of vested interest in education, with publishers and tech companies who have been making huge amounts of money from education telling teachers what they need, so it’s all very confused,” he adds.

“I think there’s also a problem in that education is managed centrally, so it’s subject to electoral cycles, and it’s very hard to change a system with these challenges,” says Janeckova. “In terms of putting tech into classrooms, one of the main issues is that tech moves really fast, and it’s difficult to come up with robust evidence that this tech is having some impact, and providing some real value.”

By working with teachers to deliver products for which there is a real need, however, Made by Many has shown that digital technology can have a positive impact on education, and be a valuable tool even in schools with limited resources. Progress has been slow, but with curriculums now placing more emphasis on technology, and the government recognising the need for children to learn coding and computer skills, Malbon and Janeckova think it won’t be long before we see an explosion of digital products and platforms in the classroom.

“I feel like we’re approaching a tipping point,” says Malbon. “There’s a lot of money going into education now, and at some point, things will suddenly shift. They have to, partly because education has been under-invested in to date, and it now has a job to catch up with the rest of the world, but also because we literally can’t scale education to meet everyone’s needs unless we do it in a really efficient way.”

“What’s fascinating for me is who is going to be the key players in that,” adds Janeckova. “Is it going to be a push from government level, is it going to be big companies, or are start-ups going to make that change? There are lots of people who graduated from teaching programmes like Teach First, who are now entrepreneurs and have launched tech start-ups within the education space, and that’s great because they’ve had teaching experience. They know what being in the classroom is like, and they can build solutions for problems they’ve seen there. It’s been a slow process, but there’s definitely a big shift going on.”

Some top tips for working with schools, from a report by Made by Many, titled 20 things you should know when designing for the classroom

1. Focus on what the user needs, not what you think they need. Teachers know the classroom better than anyone else, just as kids know the playground. You will be proven wrong — and that’s a good thing

2. Involve teachers across your whole product cycle. They will reward you by adopting your tech and giving it a purpose you couldn’t imagine

3. Want teachers to adopt your product instantly? Help schools and teachers satisfy the criteria against which they’re judged. Show teachers how exactly your solution fits with their teaching and learning objectives

4. Teachers trust other teachers’ expertise and they love to share their stories. Peer-to-peer is the most successful amplifier of a good story amongst educators

5. If your hardware will be used by kids, it needs to be indestructible — things get broken. Expect daily repeated use by many children.

See madebymany.com

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