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In your interactions with CIOs of leading companies, what sense do you get of the challenges they face now in the EdTech space and how is Sphero effectively addressing these issues?
The overwhelming challenge for the last few years has been student data privacy. We constant-ly get requests asking us to abide by school district privacy policies or affirm that we meet stu-dent data privacy standards like COPPA. Our strategy is to make sure we never collect student data in our education software applications. Our new Class Code feature in the Sphero Edu App gives teachers the freedom to create classes and assign work to students without any individual identifying the data. Additionally, since COVID-19 affected most schools, we are getting a lot of requests to help facilitate hybrid classrooms with some students remote and some students in the classroom. This presents several challenges for an interactive hardware and software com-pany like Sphero. Our software applications handle remote learning just fine, but we are also trying to help CIOs and districts manage the robot-to-device communication when the robot and the device may not be in the same building. We have a long way to go here and our part-nership with districts across the country is providing us with opportunities to gather a lot of technical data to solve the problem.
“Educators, coders, makers, artists, problem solvers and curious-minded people everywhere use Sphero’s educational kits and robots to bring effective STEAM learning into the classroom.” Please walk us through this statement and shed some light on the EdTech solution on the basis of its methodology, features and benefits involved?
Sphero is on a mission to inspire the creators of tomorrow. The statement quoted above is an expansion of that mission as it pertains to education. Sphero didn’t start off as an educational technology company. At Sphero’s inception, it was a company at the forefront of smartphone and robot communication and interaction. The initial idea was to create a new kind of fun with technology. Then teachers started using the product. This inspired us to build an ecosystem around the robots that included fun activities, lessons, and eventually a comprehensive com-puter science curriculum mapped to national and state standards across the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. In August 2019, Sphero joined forces with littleBits to expand our education offering from pre-made coding robots to an electronic invention system used by makers and artists across the globe. Our method is simple. We try to make the scary and daunting technical sub-jects fun and less intimidating by using relatable robots and simple building blocks in order to spark creativity. We provide activities and lessons to get students started in the classroom and beyond. Our inventions, activities, and lessons break down complicated subjects into small, di-gestible pieces like, “how a switch works” or “how to program a robot to go in a straight line.” We then build upon those concepts and layer on more technical concepts. In the area of com-puter science, students can start making a robot move by simply drawing its path. They can then graduate to block-based programming and, eventually, creating text-based code with Ja-vaScript. Simply put, at Sphero, we try to use physical, hands-on, tools combined with smart software to make learning fun and inviting for learners of all ages and skill levels.
We are focusing the majority of our efforts on providing the best experiential learning tools for K-12 students and teachers
Giving students hands-on programming experiences with Sphero robots from CodeFWD by Fa-cebook made computer science real for 4th-5th grade students from Harlem Children’s Zone.
Schweitzer was working as a professional in the CS field and felt a calling to help young students who were like him to help them find success in school, career and life. He wanted to do this without leaving his work in programming behind. He found a great opportunity to do that by teaching some of the fundamentals of computer programming by joining the team at one of Harlem Children’s Zone’s local after school clubs. In doing this he found great success with students with prior exposure to computer science but he needed a way to bring new students into the fold.
More approachable and accessible CS education for both educators and learners
Harlem Children’s Zone worked with Facebook as one of the first groups to try CodeFWD with a select number of their clubs. In New York, Schweitzer was one of the facilitators who received educational resources for his club to introduce students to the idea of programming in a simple and friendly way and inspire more interest in the field. Even more powerful than reaching the students, he was able to share some of these resources with other educators, many of whom had no prior exposure to computer science to help them understand why bringing these con-cepts to students was so important. After completing the first exercises which consisted of pre-packaged lessons and video resources as well as a quiz to do with his students, Schweitzer and his class were awarded a classroom set of programmable robots to continue their work along with classroom guides from our partners at Sphero. Giving these students hands-on experience with block coding in a way where they could see their work manifested in the real world right in front of them instantly made the lessons they worked through before feel more real and tangi-ble. They were even more excited about what they could do. Capitalizing on this excitement Schweitzer was able to take things even further with his group by coming up with his own Sphe-ro challenges including lessons on metric units and comprehending angles. What was even bet-ter though was when he was able to combine multiple concepts together in his “Ocean’s 11*” activity where students commanded Sphero robots to stop a bank robbery in the maps he created on the classroom floor.
Schweitzer’s club was just one of many clubs and the amazing stories we heard from groups that brought CodeFWD into their classrooms. Across all the clubs that participated in the pro-gram they were able to create opportunities that resulted in over 24,000 kid-minutes of coding and 1000+ lines of real code written!
For Schweitzer and Harlem Children’s Zone the next step is to continue bringing more students into the fold with new ways to inspire interest in the field of computer programming. Schweitz-er shared that his goal with this work is to help students find more opportunities for partner-ships and scholarships as they proceed in their academic career in order to help them find more success later in life. Additionally with his programming experience and his knowledge of working with classroom resources like Sphero, he is excited to share some of his activities with other educators in the broader CodeFWD and CS Education community.
What according to you are the distinct features of Sphero/differentiating factors that give it a competitive edge?
Using hands-on technology learning tools in the classroom is still a developing market globally and many companies will succeed in the coming years. Being in the top position can mean many things with so many different solutions, and the extremely disjointed education market. We have found that many of our top customers use a variety of tools, including our competi-tors’ products, alongside Sphero and littleBits products. We focus on the value propositions of our product lines. Our ready-to-code robots like Sphero BOLT, Sphero Mini, and Sphero RVR are easy to use, right out of the box, and can interact with iOS, Android, Mac, PC, and Chromebook devices. When combined with our computer science curriculum, Computer Science Founda-tions, our robots are great solutions for schools who want to get started, and progress, with coding. Our littleBits kits give students the tools to create and invent anything without the use of computers or other smart devices. This allows students to invent anywhere and build the complexity of their inventions slowly as their skill and confidence levels increase.
What does the future hold for your organization? Any footprint expansion plans or platform enhancement strategies that you can shed light upon?
In the months since the pandemic closed many businesses and offices, we have learned that Sphero, as a company, can be very successful with the majority of our workforce working re-motely. This has changed our thinking about recruiting and how people work. We are develop-ing products to expand our offering to younger students and students that are exclusively learn-ing remotely. We are focusing the majority of our efforts on providing the best experiential learning tools for K-12 students and teachers. By the end of 2021 Sphero will have computer science learning solutions applicable to all K-12 students, including high school. We are dedi-cated to ensuring Sphero develops solutions that every school can access and afford as these technology tools are essential to developing our future workforce.