Making Emaking edTech Products Work Together

A New Education Technology Works With Existing Classroom Tech, On Purpose

In an increasingly tech-savvy world, few things are more frustrating than incompatibility—like when your new TV won’t work with your old, supposedly universal, remote control. If you’ve ever cursed why on Earth would any company would make a new cell phone that does not work with existing cell-phone chargers, you get it. Whatever the reason, the incapability paradigm exists in education technology too. And there, it’s beyond frustrating. Given limited budgets and necessary teacher training required for each new technology, the inability of one product to work with another, by design or not, can even be counter-productive to teaching and learning. It can make even the most patient teachers and students throw their hands up.

The cycle is familiar—schools invest, teachers learn to use it, students adapt to it and—poof!—a new thing comes along that does not use the old thing in any way. Like a two-decade-old history book, two-year-old education technologies gather dust and produce a disincentive to invest in new tools and resources.

But will that change? Can it? The future of one newly launched product may give us a clue.

EdTech Products

One EdTech company, in this case, a tech-ed company, looked around, saw perfectly useful, powerful teaching technologies already in classrooms, and specifically made their product to work with them instead of apart from them.

In this case, the existing technology is micro:bit—“a tiny programmable computer,” their website says. It’s a powerful, middle-school targeted STEM learning tool. Teachers know it. It’s made by a non-profit, has wide adoption in Europe and the United States and their impact results are impressive. Literally millions of micro:bit are in classrooms worldwide. And some, sadly, are sitting around in a closet, having fallen out of regular use.

Then along comes SAM Labs. The company already makes successful coding and STEM education products for early grades, but was preparing a new product, one for grades four through eight— precisely the micro:bit audience [1]. Their goal is to help teachers deliver STEM-related lessons with confidence so, rather than wall off their new product, SAM Labs designed it specifically to work with products such as micro:bit, which teachers may already know.

“If we want students to understand how to build on what they know, how to link systems and tools into functional units, we can’t treat existing teaching technology like it’s the enemy or some foreign language,” said Hilary Aylesworth, head of Products at SAM Labs. “Building code or physical machines is a collaborative process and trying to do it alone, or teach it alone, is a missed opportunity,” she said.

A missed opportunity is right. But for teachers and schools, walling off teaching and learning tech is wasted time, money and learning capital.

Of course, in a cynical world where it can be tough to tell spin from philosophy, it’s worth noting that the new SAM Labs product was also designed to integrate with Google’s Workbench, another tool in wide classroom use.

And while the idea of purpose-built compatibility probably makes you wish SAM Labs made cell phones, it has definitely sent countless teachers and administrators scurrying to their supply closets to inventory—and, perhaps, dust off—their micro:bit and Workbench products. Or at least that's what SAM Labs is counting on.

New And Old Working Together

To be sure, that’s smart business. With stretched resources, financial and human, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for schools to invest in products that make existing ones obsolete, and far more enticing to invest in ones that make existing ones new again.

But it’s also smart thinking too. What’s a better way to show students how things work together than actually making things that work together? What’s a better way to teach creative thinking and design solution mindsets than giving students not just more tools, but more diverse ones?

It’s impossible to know whether the SAM Labs/micro:bit example is a trend. It would be better for everyone in education—from principals to parents—if we didn’t need to toss aside the old in order to embrace the new and if integration became essential to new education. It’s clearly possible. The question is whether it catches on, whether teachers and others who buy education technology products insist on it.


1. SAM Labs Launches New Hands-On, Learn to Code Course Kit for Grades 4-8 (