‘Maker’ Movement Takes Steps to Build 1-to-1 Environments

By Benjamin Herold & Michelle R. Davis — October 06, 2015 5 min read
Educators are still learning how best to use 'maker' kits in classrooms, and aim to provide one for each student to use in school and at home. A student, above, uses a maker kit from a New York City-based company for a hands-on building activity. More components can be added to the kits at each grade level.
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Some educators and companies in the “maker” movement are looking to start a 1-to-1 trend in schools akin to the push to put a digital device in the hands of every student.

But questions linger about whether the maker movement— which aims to create places where students can tinker and build hands-on projects—should move to 1-to-1 environments.

The Killeen Independent School District in Texas, for one, is testing the concept. The 43,000-student district will be the first school system in the United States to incorporate maker kits from a company called littleBits, for a districtwide library “maker space” program. All students in grades K-6 in the district’s 32 elementary schools will have regular access to the electronic building blocks.

“We’re trying to put spaces into the libraries to help students be engaged, to create, innovate, and prototype those problems,” said Helen Mowers, the district’s executive director for technology services. “We want them doing deep-thinking kinds of projects that they don’t get a chance to do necessarily in the classroom.”

New York City-based littleBits—which has built a consumer business of maker products—recently launched littleBits Education, a line of products aimed at bringing its modular electronics components to schools and libraries. The idea also dovetails with schools’ increasing interest in teaching coding, computer science, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) subjects.

“We wanted to make it easy for educational institutions everywhere to find a way to bring more 21st-century learning to their students,” Ayah Bdeir, the company’s founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Founded in 2011, littleBits reports that its consumer products are already being used in some capacity in 2,200 schools and 240 libraries and maker spaces in 60 countries. And in June, the company announced that it had raised $44.2 million in Series B funding, a round of venture capital funding, much of which would be devoted to expanding its education-specific offerings.

Standardization Concerns

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

In addition to the Killeen school district, the private, 744-student all-girls Marymount School in New York City is creating a 1-to-1 maker initiative with the company’s kits. All girls in grades 3-5 will receive a personal “student set” of littleBits that includes mounting boards, a variety of sensors and LED lights, and other components.

Students will be allowed to carry the kits from class to class, take them 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 take part 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 skills set of solving problems together.”

But some creators of products that fit the maker mold feel uncomfortable with the idea of pushing for 1-to-1 use in schools.

Eben Upton, founder of the nonprofit Raspberry Pi Foundation and the creator of the Raspberry Pi, a $25 microcomputer the size of a credit card that plugs into a monitor and uses a standard keyboard and mouse, questions the idea of an company or organization outside of education lobbying for 1-to-1. Students often use his product to learn coding and to program and interact with outside devices.

Upton expressed reluctance at the idea of pushing schools to buy a Pi for every student and doesn’t see his product as replacing, for example, laptops or other devices that students use for education. Raspberry Pi is more of “low-consequence, hackable and breakable” technology that encourages students to push the technological envelope, he said.

“We don’t want to get drawn into asking schools to equip whole classrooms” with Raspberry Pi devices, he said.

Other people in the maker movement caution against the idea of schools’ putting too much emphasis on one particular type of maker product for every student. That environment, they said, could cut down on creativity.

“Standardization isn’t always a good thing,” said Dale Dougherty, the founder and executive chairman of Maker Media, who coined the term and also created Maker Faires as well as a Maker Education Initiative.

“But having commercial options with a nice product design might really work for a parent or teacher to feel more comfortable getting started,” he said.

Dougherty said some students will be interested in a device like Raspberry Pi, while others might be more intrigued by littleBits. So it’s important to have a variety of options for students, to encourage creativity and to pique students’ interests.

Plus, Dougherty emphasized, schools shouldn’t feel that if they can’t get a device or a set for everyone, that’s it not worth putting a few in the hands of students to share. In fact, that sharing can spur inventiveness and collaboration, he said.

Eliminating Barriers

But Dougherty also acknowledged that leaping into the do-it-yourself maker culture can be intimidating for most teachers. Distributing tools and devices to everyone in a school gives teachers a common challenge, through which to support each other, and troubleshoot as a group.

“If it makes it easier for a parent or teacher to feel more comfortable and get started making, that’s great,” Dougherty said. “That eliminates a barrier.”

In the Killeen district, educators are excited by the possibilities opened by having enough littleBits for every student in a class, said Anna Adam, a digital learning specialist.

“If you have too many kids watching and not doing, you stifle creativity,” Adam said. Allowing all students to participate “helps build that collaboration as they are working in groups and helps with their creativity.”

One challenge with expanding the adoption of maker kits 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.

In Killeen, students aren’t thinking about that—they’re just building. Students have already used littleBits to create buzzers, used dimmer switches to adjust light bulbs and are planning to create a “hacked” Halloween pumpkin, complete with motion sensor and lights.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Hands-on Tech Movement Begins 1-to-1 Access Push


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