Back to the future of school: edtech gadgets that would blow Marty McFly’s mind

1 Sep 2015

A student at Barclay Primary School, London has an edtech experience with Google Cardboard Expeditions. Video still via Google for Education/YouTube

By now, kids across the country are back to school, with gadgets and technology previous generations could have only dreamed of at their fingertips.

You could say that 2015 has lived up to the expectations of Back to the Future Part II. Hoverboards? We got ’em. Self-lacing shoes? On the way. Wearable tech? Everywhere.

But if Marty McFly, the time-travelling ’80s teen, dropped in on a modern-day classroom, his mind would surely be blown away by what educational technology has to offer.

DIY computers

While I remember collecting ‘Computers for Schools’ vouchers so our class of about 30 students might get access to just one computer, kids today can build their own interactive devices with pocket-sized components such as Raspberry Pi single-board computers, Intel Galileo development boards, and microcontroller-based kits from Arduino.

Kano Computer Kit

Kano Computer Kit

Perhaps what’s most incredible is how simple it all seems to be. For example, instructions for the Kano Computer Kit claim assembly takes just 15 minutes. After that, young makers can use their DIY computer to modify Python-based code for simple games such as Snake, Pong and Minecraft.

LittleBits build-your-own electronics

Lego is still a brilliant, beloved toy and educational tool, and LittleBits takes the Lego concept of building what you like and brings it to electronics. With a LittleBits kit of modular magnetic electronic pieces, kids can build synthesisers, smart light switches or cloud-controlled doorbells as easily as they would a Lego helicopter.

LittleBits Arduino Coding Kit

LittleBits Arduino Coding Kit

Smart pens and digital ink

In an increasingly digital, paperless world, it can be tempting to do away with old-school ink and paper altogether. Yet, the satisfaction of putting pen to paper endures and, sometimes, it is infinitely better to write things down than to type them up.

Lucky students of today – they can do both.

With smart stationery from the likes of Livescribe and Neo, handwritten notes are easily digitised for storage, search and sharing.

Take the Neo Smartpen N2, a Kickstarter success come to life, for example. With this aluminium pen, strokes of ink in any N Notebook will be recorded, page-by-page, and can even sync up with Evernote. The central hub is the Neo Notes App, which saves and organises these notes for offline use.

Google Cardboard

Google’s low-tech VR headset was first revealed at last year’s I/O developer conference, followed by a new version at I/O 2015.

Google provides the instructions so that anyone with some cardboard, lenses, magnets, Velcro, a rubber band, a sharp knife and a bit of DIY creativity can make their own low-cost headset.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard

Also at I/O 2015, Google launched Expeditions, an app for shared virtual school field trips that builds on the Cardboard toolkit, giving students the ability to travel to places they have never been before through virtual reality.

3D printers

Maybe the token-collecting campaign for 2015 should be ‘3D Printers for Schools’, bringing school crafts to the next level.

As well as transforming the world of manufacturing and prototyping, 3D printing can have a huge impact on education. Having this kind of equipment in a classroom will not only let students create and build more, but they can also learn how to use 3D-rendering software.

In China – where production of goods is the highest in the world by a considerable margin – they’ve already cottoned on to the importance of 3D printing in education, with the country revealing plans this year to supply each of its 400,000-plus primary schools with a 3D printer.

Osmo interactive learning

While few schools are equipped with 3D printers just yet, many are already using iPads in the classroom, which is all the Osmo Game System requires.

Built by former Googlers, Osmo is built to teach kids aged six and up using colourful block shapes, lettered and numbered tiles and even good old pen and paper.

With an iPad settled into the Osmo dock and the Reflector piece snapped over the front-facing camera, any surface can become an interactive playing field.

Sphero SPRK edition

SPRK – schools, parents, robots, kids – is an offshoot of Sphero’s community outreach initiative to teach programming, starting with local meet-ups and eventually through a series of free online lessons and activities.

Sphero SPRK Edition is the next step in that evolution, with an education-focused version of the original Sphero robotic ball.

SPRK comes in transparent casing, letting young minds see right into the inner workings of the robot. The kit teaches kids to create and execute programmes using a custom C-based coding language, and watch their code come to life in Sphero’s movements.

Virtual tours around the world

Kids today don’t even need to get a form signed for a day’s excursion to a museum, as the Google Cultural Institute is putting the world’s cultural artefacts online.

From art galleries to historic exhibitions and world wonders, there are virtual tours to bring students around the world without getting out of their seat. They can visit Stonehenge, Robben Island Museum or New York’s Museum of Modern Art, or even collections from the National Library of Ireland, The Library of Trinity College Dublin and The Little Museum of Dublin. No permission slips required.

It’s enough to make you want to go back to school and do it all over again!

Main image from ‘Expeditions: Take your students to places a school bus can’t’ by Google for Education via YouTube

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic