‘Maker’ Movement Draws Attention at SXSWedu, and littleBits Shifts Into K-12

Managing Editor

Austin, Texas

One way to gauge the K-12 activity that is most intriguing to ed-tech aficionados and others gathered at this conference is also one of the simplest: look at the agenda.

A review of this year’s schedule at the South by Southwest Education conference suggests that “maker spaces”–places where students can build and create with varying degrees of adult oversights–are drawing strong interest from educators, and from companies trying to sell products to them.

This week is bringing sessions on “open maker portfolios,” micro-credentialing in making spaces, and “Taming the Making Beast: Getting Mobile and Modular,” among other SXSWedu maker-focused events.

On Tuesday, a well-known player in the world of maker education, littleBits, announced the release of its first kit the company has created specifically for the education market, after having focused primarily on the consumer space previously. The kit is focused on “STEAM” subjects—science- and math-focused topics, with art and design incorporated.

See a video, below, the company produced explaining its K-12 product:

The kit is the first the New York-based company has created that includes an entire STEAM professional development offering to help educators make use of the product in the classroom.

LittleBits offers electronic building blocks for maker spaces; its STEAM package includes 38 accessories for students in grades 3-8. It comes with a teacher’s guide that provides companion lessons, tips on implementation, and other tools. Educators can also get ideas through a mobile app.

On Tuesday, I moderated a discussion with Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of littleBits, about trends in the maker movement and how her company has evolved to try to tailor its products to meet K-12 demands.

Today, more than 12,000 educators and 2,200 schools are using littleBits, the company says. The company told Marketplace K-12 that it sees a “diverse buyer base” for its kits. Buyers could include individual teachers and librarians who can buy directly through the company’s Web site, or through Barnes and Noble and other education retail outlets.

Or buyers could include entire school systems, the company says, who would purchase through a distribution agreement littleBits has with CDW+G.

Instead of relying on “outdated, top-down modes of instruction, we need to better engage and excite kids through relevant, invention-based learning,” Bdeir said in a statement, “to help them become creative thinkers, collaborators, and curious life-long learners who will change the world.”

The cost of littleBits’ kits is not cheap–$299.95 each. The littleBits site lays out discounts for educators, though they’re relatively small. Whether teachers will be able to dig into, or pool, their discretionary funds (assuming they have any such money; it varies by district) remains to be seen.

In taking questions from the audience during her panel at SXSWedu, Bdeir acknowledged the high pricetag, attributing it to the costs that goes into producing kits loaded with relatively sophisticated electronics.

LittleBits officials elaborated on the price in a statement to Marketplace K-12, saying that they were “very conscious” of the budget constraints of schools. But they argued that the product is also loaded with curriculum and content that add value, “unlike similarly priced products that charge extra for [that] content.”

Company officials said they hope schools will tap a variety of budget sources to pay for the kits, some of which may shake loose as a result of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Districts can draw from budgets for technology, curriculum, and federal Title I dollars. Some individual teachers and librarians have also sought local grants and crowd-funding, they said.

Lynn Smargis, a 6th grade science teacher attending the conference, has used maker education in a relatively limited way so far in her classes, but is a big fan.

Still, Smargis sees the cost of any maker kit as an overriding factor in whether she’s likely to take it up.

The teacher gets a discretionary pool of about $150 a year from her district, most of which is consumed by the costs of classroom supplies. The dilemma she faces with maker-ed projects is experience tells her they work best if students use them in small groups—but she can’t afford to buy enough of them to use that model in her classes.

LittleBits’ pricetag of $300 would make clearing that hurdle especially tough, said Smargis, who teaches in the Canyons School District, in Utah.

In the past, the science teacher says she’s sought outside grants to support innovative classroom projects, and she might end up doing that to buy maker kits.

The appeal of maker education is obvious to Smargis every time she sees how her middle-schoolers respond to her invitation to tinker, build, and explore.

“Kids get to make their own choices, and they have more buy-in,” she said. “They’re pretty competitive,” and when they’re immersed in projects, she often hears them boasting, “ ‘Oh, mine’s better than yours.’ ”

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly cited one part of a statement from littleBits’ CEO, Bdeir, in which she described her belief in “invention-based” learning.

This post has been updated

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