Before I came to university, I worked for a year as an IT Technician at a high school and a primary school and whilst I was a student there in my A level days I was involved with Microsoft Education, promoting Microsoft hardware and software on a worldwide scale. I’ve written several times on this blog in a fair amount of detail about my thoughts about working as an IT technician and so I won’t cover that again – I want this post to be more about what I like about working with education and students, how technology and UX can actually improve a student’s workflow and if I ever think I might go back to i from a UX perspective.

Being involved with Microsoft Education played a big part of my A level days.

I’ll always be an advocate for technology in education – no matter what!

No matter where I am, what industry I’m working in or where I am working, I’ll always be an advocate for technology in education. Why? At the age of 18 I went through the trouble of researching, writing and then finally presenting a TEDx talk about the use of technology in education – or rather lack of it. My talk sums up pretty much perfectly why I feel technology needs more of a place in schools, so have a look at the talk below.

Whilst it is debatable that I was perhaps a little naive in some of my ideas when I presented this aged 18 (and only being 20 doesn’t really make me a whole lot less naive!), but the core ideas are there. You can read about my thoughts on the presentation and how the audience reacted here. Essentially, I believe that despite the fact that technology plays such a huge part in the modern world and that everybody is using it in some way or another, it is often overlooked by schools and the education system in general and seen as being a ‘big bad wolf’. As mentioned in my presentation, the mainstream education system just sees technology as a distraction that deters from learning and an expense to invest in and teach. It’s not just a lack of focus of how to safely and correctly use technology in lessons, it’s little things too like not even really embracing technology as a note-taking tool and an alternative to paper! Back in my Microsoft Education days I wrote chapter and verse on why using technology (being a Microsoft student I suggested using a Surface Pro 3 and a copy of OneNote) is a great alternative to paper which you can read about here, but not wishing to quote myself, this is the take-away point from that article that I wrote over three years ago.

We do not like using our natural resources to produce electricity, heat homes or manufacture goods. We are always being told that renewable energy is the way forwards and we are constantly being pestered to save paper and ‘think green’ and recycle just about anything we can. We are always being told about the damage that logging does to the rainforests and the environment and how we can help by buying sections of rainforest to protect to stop this. So why are we still encouraged at school to print out work and put it in a massive file when we know that this is not sustainable?

That pretty much sums up my thoughts on using technology as a replacement for paper in schools. The stats in my TEDx talk speak for themselves about why technology needs to be made more of a focus in schools.

16% of 8-11 year olds own 5 or more media devices

72% of 12-15 year olds own 3 or more media devices

51% of households with a child aged between 3 and 15 have a tablet compared to 7% in the UK in 2011

Schools teach maths and English proficiently because it’s required in life. Don’t the statistics above show that actually technology is soon becoming ‘required in life’ too?

So for the simple reason that using technology is a life requirement in 2018 (and actually it probably has been since the turn of the century), I will always be an advocate for technology in education.

I hope that presenting at TEDx NorwichED in 2016 got educators thinking about how technology could improve education.

Microsoft Education experience

I’ve written in detail about my Microsoft Education experience in other posts, such as at the end of the February 26th-March 2nd Reflective Journal and if you want to read even more about it you can visit this blog that I contributed to whilst I was a Microsoft Education Student, but I just wanted to explain how the opportunities provided to me was a springboard for running digital leaders and enhancing my interest in educational technology.

Like all the big things that seem to have happened in my life thus far, falling into Microsoft Education was quite an accident. My work with Microsoft involved working with the UK (and later worldwide) Education team to promote the use of Microsoft hardware and software in schools. The school that I was attending at the time became a Microsoft Showcase School in November 2014 because of how we were using Microsoft technology in our school in such an innovative way. As a student I was able to use all of this groundbreaking hardware and software in my lessons and fully understood how they were impacting students’ lives in a positive way and Microsoft had their attention on me. Earlier in 2014 as all of this was starting I was invited to visit the Microsoft TVP in Reading which is Microsoft’s UK Headquarters to learn about the new features of Office 365 and new devices that were going to be available. In May 2015 I was able to attend the Microsoft E2 Global Educator Exchange at their worldwide headquarters in Redmond, Seattle, USA, where I even got to meet Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and learn more about how Microsoft technology can be used in education as well as deliver some presentations about how I felt that a curriculum could be delivered through the means of technology. Later on in October 2015 at the Microsoft Redefining Learning event in London I also delivered a presentation about technology in education. This event was also the first time that the SurfaceBook and Lumia 950 and 950 XL Windows 10 phones were shown in the UK. The event also featured the launch of ‘The Feed’, a Microsoft in Education publication that was sent to schools in the UK to encourage them to use technology in education and also to tell them about the latest Microsoft Education news. My photograph of a Surface Pro 3 sitting on a pile of folders to symbolise the fact that the Surface and OneNote could replace several heavy folders went on the front cover.

My photograph of a Surface Pro 3 on top of a pile of ‘traditional’ folders was the cover image of the first issue of the Microsoft Education magazine ‘The Feed’ (October 2015 at Redefining Learning).
I was also one of the first people in the UK to see a SurfaceBook, which was a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid (October 215 at Redefining Learning).

As a student using the technology, I was fully able to understand how the technology was making a difference to my educational life and improving my workflow. By being able to fully understand how to use the technology in an educational environment myself I was able to pass on this passion and knowledge to other students and teachers and inspire them to use technology more in education too. That’s how I was able to write those articles explaining my thoughts about Microsoft OneNote on a Surface Pro and how it can help. It’s not just using Microsoft technology though, there’s so much great technology out there that can be utilised to improve education.

Student Digital Leaders

Besides maintaining the IT infrastructure and implementing new systems, I ran several little societies for the students at the schools. Between September 2014 and July 2017 I ran the Student Digital Leader team at Wymondham High Academy – I did this whilst I was a student and also whilst I worked there for a year. The Student Digital Leader team are a group of students in Years 7-11 who have a passion for IT and my aim as the coordinator of the program was to inspire them and enhance their IT skills. Our most successful project was sending a Raspberry-Pi computer into space using a weather balloon to record the journey into space (‘Pi In The Sky’) which you can watch the video about below and also as a cross-curricular activity involving computer science, geography and science. Other successful projects included the rocket car challenge which involved racing model rocket cars and recording the stats using BBC Micro:bit computers and we also taught Scratch and Python to students in local primary schools.

Doing what I did for Microsoft Education and promoting Surface tablets and Office 365 on a worldwide scale was great and I had many fantastic opportunities doing that, but really I found that by running the digital leader clubs at Wymondham High and Ashleigh Primary School (as well as Old Buckenham High School, to a degree) I really enjoyed working with the students and being a role model for them to look up to, as well as see what the ‘next generation’ as to offer. Whilst I was involved with running the Student Digital Leader team at Wymondham High I wrote several articles explaining my newfound enthusiasm for working with students, such as this one. I guess I liked working with the high school students because of the banter that children aged 11-16 are generally able to deliver and because their subject knowledge and maturity in general tends to be higher than that of the younger children, but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy working with the younger children too.

My 2017 digital leaders and I at the Bloodhound SSc Race For The Line model rocket car race.
Preparing to launch the Raspberry-Pi into space with some of my 2016 digital leaders.
The flying Raspberry-Pi ascends into space!
The final meeting with my 2017 digital leaders from Wymondham High in July 2017.

Opportunities to work in education beyond Student Digital Leaders

Going to university was definitely the right thing for me, however one thing that I felt was lacking was working with students in the same way that I did when I worked at Wymondham High and Ashleigh Primary School. Of course, I didn’t really ever expect to be able to given that I was no longer working in schools, but having run digital leader teams for the past three years it seemed odd not doing it! It’s always good to try new things and get stuck into other industries, like I have gotten back into coding and have learned so much about research and analytics and have decided that this could be an ideal role for me, but thanks to my university offering to support a local tech club for 8-18 year olds, I am still able to have the experience of running tech clubs with students.

‘Step Into Tech’ and the Techathon

Step Into Tech is a Saturday tech club organised by Claire Riseborough and supported by a host of volunteers from various local technology companies such as The User Story and also by Norwich University of the Arts. The university has several students, including myself, whom volunteer to be ‘mentors’ at the club which involves supporting students with any projects they might be doing as part of the club and also running sessions. On March 24th I ran a session on the various stages of the ‘UX journey’ with Katie Fisher who is a researcher at The User Story. We ran a practical session on paper prototyping and got the students to create a paper prototype of a website. We were impressed by their ideas and how quickly they understood the concept of paper prototyping and how much thought and effort they put into creating their paper prototypes. I felt that this was a great session because it gave me an opportunity to put my degree subject (UX design) and my passion for working with students together. It was a successful session and The User Story have been invited back to do another session so there might be another opportunity to do something like that again.

A paper prototype that a team developed during the session. Screens were drawn on individual sheets and the sheets were swapped when the tester tapped on one of the hand-drawn buttons.

On April 12th and 13th the tech club organised a large ‘Techathon’ event in the Norwich School right by the cathedral. The event was sponsored by Aviva, Barclays, Microsoft and Almary Green. Each sponsor had organised a challenge for a group of students to complete over the course of the days and at the end of the event prizes for several categories including ‘the best idea’, ‘most awesome’ and ‘got out of the trouble the best’ were awarded by each of the sponsors. The mentors had to help and guide the individual teams. The event was very well attended with around 80-100 students participating and 20-30 mentors volunteering to guide the teams.

It was amazing being part of this 2-day ‘Techathon’ event in Norwich acting as a mentor to a team of three 9-13 year olds and even more amazing when my team WON the prize for the best idea!

The Techathon was very well-attended which was fantastic to see! Photo courtesy @Techathon2018 Twitter account.

My team took on Aviva’s challenge which was to build an app that utilises spare change and my team also thought about how the app could be used to educate children on how to earn, save, spend and count money – something that is missing from the school curriculum. The students in my team had little coding experience so I introduced them to Axure RP which I have sworn by for designing wireframes and prototypes for Nellie’s Nursery and during this event, Axure’s ease-of-use was proved as even an 11 year old was able to understand how it works and use it in no time at all. The students in my group may not have been the best at coding or actually making the product, but they were very good with coming up with ideas and developing from them and also doing digital art, so the app would feature original artwork drawn on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet which Microsoft had donated for the event.

My team working hard to create the app! Photo courtesy @Techathon2018 Twitter account.

The final product was a series of games that children could play on their tablet to ‘earn’ money (‘virtual money’) and then this virtual money could be spent in the app’s store or saved. Credit could be added to the ‘virtual bank account’ by using the device camera to take a photo of coins that the app would interpret and exchange into the ‘virtual currency’. This was incredible thinking from students and this thinking meant that Aviva awarded them the prize for the best idea. Each team member received a BBC Micro:bit Inventor’s Kit.

Working with the students really reminded me about what I loved about working in e-Learning and ‘technology in education’. I was amazed that three students aged between 9 and 13 could come up with an idea as developed as this and make it all in the space of under two days! I was also extremely impressed with their leadership skills and delegation skills as well as being able to come up with an idea that not only fitted the product brief of ‘an app that can utilise the spare change you have lying around’, but extending it to make it into an app that had an application more useful than simply to ‘use money’. The judges felt that the app my team had designed considered education and helping a generation, as well as preparing them for the future and giving them critical skills for life.

From a networking point of view, I spent a lot of time talking to Katie Fisher from The User Story again. She introduced me to her UX designer colleague, Olivia Campey, whom I also spent a long time talking to about UX and even a little bit about working in education and with students. I was also able to catch up with Paul Foster from Microsoft whom I first met several years ago whilst being involved with Microsoft Education. His role is not in education, rather development (so he spends a lot of time programming) but the interesting thing about Paul is that he studied at Wymondham High, the school where I also studied at and worked for a year. When I first met him in 2015 or 2016 I was very excited to tell him that the school was now a Microsoft Showcase School and he was equally excited to hear it! It was good to meet him again – when I heard that Microsoft were a big sponsor in this event I had hoped that I may bump into somebody from my Microsoft days!

I am hopeful that with the success of this event, Step Into Tech will be able to also run this event next year.

My team collect their prizes from Aviva. Photo courtesy @Techathon2018 Twitter account.

‘Move On Up’ UEA event – featuring VR!

‘Move On Up’ is an event hosted by the UEA (University of East Anglia) each March that encourages Year 10 students (aged 14-15) to explore different degree and in-turn career opportunities. I ran an event designed to get Year 10 students interested in creative sciences (specifically at NUA) with Tom Haczewski, also from The User Story, on March 21st and 22nd. Our event engaged students by getting them to draw a wireframe of how they envisaged a social media app such as SnapChat, Instagram or Facebook looking and operating in a VR environment. To help them out a little, we brought along an Oculus Rift and let several of the students play on the Rift before we gave them the challenge just so they knew exactly how much space they had to work with and also what buttons are on the hand controllers and to give them an idea about how they might be able to effectively these assets of the VR headset.

As the students were completing the task, Tom and I explained that we felt that the ‘digital design challenge’ of the 2010s decade has been mobile design and making content display efficiently on an ever-changing range of mobile devices and that we feel that one of the digital design challenges of the next decade will be designing apps and even websites and other content such as video and games for VR (virtual reality), MR (mixed reality) and AR (augmented reality) headsets. With companies like Oculus, HTC and Microsoft already pouring a ton of research and development into VR, MR and AR and with plenty of PC vendors such as Lenovo, Dell and Asus all now offering affordable MR headsets for Windows Mixed Reality and HTC and Oculus competing fiercely in the consumer-grade VR market, it’s very likely this will be the next ‘digital design challenge’! We explained that currently UX and interaction designers have no idea how to design interfaces for these new platforms and [games] developers need to learn how to code for these new platforms and learn about the new technologies. Conveniently, almost as if by magic in fact, all of those points relate to the three creative science courses on offer at NUA: BSc (Hons) User Experience Design, BSc (Hons) Interaction Design and BSc (Hons) Game Development.

The students couldn’t be photographed during this event, so here’s me using the Rift before the event started. It was a very interesting experience – quite mesmerising!

On the whole Tom and I were fairly impressed with the designs that the students came up with it. Many were very imaginative and featured using gestures to navigate between screens and pressing various buttons on the hand controllers to activate certain functions. We were particularly pleased that some students thought about the UX nightmare that is typing in a VR app and that some students suggested using voice recognition to replace typing. Many of the wireframes designed by the students appeared to showcase an immersive interface that made good use of vertical and horizontal space and would make for a very interesting interaction experience.

Asides from obvious differences like the task and the format, the students at this event were harder to motivate and interest than the students at the Techathon – mainly because students had been brought to this event by their schools whereas of course only students who are interested in technology would go to the techathon. People have often asked me if teaching would be something that I would be interested on and on the whole I’ve often replied with ‘I don’t really know – I only tend to work with students who are really interested. I don’t know how I’d work with students who weren’t interested or I couldn’t motivate.’ I guess I’ve had no real teaching experience, only experience with encouraging motivated students to take what they love doing with technology to the next level, but I guess a good teacher is one that can motivate all students, even the less-able and less-interested ones.

I just couldn’t resist wearing the NUA t-shirt at the UEA!

Will I ever get away from education?

At one point I thought my career was dead-set in the direction of education, however I am studying user experience design at university now which I’m not sure has a massive place in education – yet. Why? It comes back to this age-old problem that my TEDx talk rose – the fact that technology is still not fully accepted in education!

At the time of writing, I’ve not really looked into UX opportunities in the education sector and upon some research I may completely surprise myself, but at the moment it seems that the only ways that UX can be applied to education is by creating apps or websites that allow students to take notes (replacing books and paper) or maybe by creating more educational apps and games that teach students things – a little like the game that my team made for the Techathon. Evernote and Microsoft OneNote already corner the digital note-taking market and on a tablet at least, the OneNote interface is lovely, but there might be room for another competitor in that industry and as more and more children are using devices at younger and younger ages, there will be more and more educational apps. Perhaps ‘education’ needs to be thought of not ‘education = in schools’, rather ‘education = learning’ when applying UX and interaction design to education. By creating an app that teaches children how to count, even if schools don’t invest in it or use it, are you still contributing to the ‘e-Learning market’ and/or thinking about ‘technology in education’? Of course!

It appears that just thinking about things on the Surface, the e-Learning UX and ‘children’s UX’ sectors might have a lot of overlap. Maybe there are more prospects out there for UX in education than I thought. Who knows?

It will be about five years this autumn since I first got involved with Microsoft and education and whilst I have very little, if anything really, to do with them now, the education sector still massively interests me and probably always will. I likely won’t become a teacher because at the end of the day although I love seeing children develop and become better at doing what they love and having a real passion for the technology, I want a job designing interfaces and user experiences and maybe even coding out there in industry to essentially do what my degree projects have currently taught me to do in the real world to make real products that make a real impact – whether that be a human or monetary impact. Perhaps after working in the UX industry for a number of years I’ll consider teaching it, maybe my fascination with education naturally makes me interested about being a teacher or maybe I would make a good teacher? I don’t know. Too early to tell!

The final photo with my 2016 Student Digital Leader team at Wymondham High Academy.

For the next two years at least whilst I am still at uni, as long as the Step Into Tech club is being run I can continue to volunteer there, by which time I will have had almost six years worth of ‘tech club’ experience. After that, who knows? I doubt I’ll work directly in a school again as schools don’t tend to call for UX designers, but perhaps one day a website or an app I make will have the e-Learning sector in mind and put me back in the ‘technology in education’ field and give me that feeling of changing lives again. As for student interaction, it might be something that a UX career does not necessarily involve unless students are part of some kind of usability test for an e-Learning app. But as long as clubs like Step Into Tech are around, I’ll still be able to volunteer there, but again maybe as I get older I will begin to lose that ability to have good interaction with students as the age gap between them and I gets bigger. If I have children of my own perhaps that’ll encourage me to find a way to make e-Learning a more UX-orientated field. Who knows what the technology landscape will look by the time I have kids? It’s an ever-changing world and at my age I guess my career interests are ever-changing too. It wasn’t long ago that I dreamt of designing infotainment systems and doing ‘car UX’ as a career. Industrial systems such as power station control systems interest me too!

Before this article starts to sound like I’m experiencing Microsoft Education withdrawal symptoms, I’ll just wrap it up and say that technology definitely does have a place in education, I was introduced to the idea of ‘technology in education’ at a relatively young age (16) and I guess for the time being technology in education has been what I’ve known about. Maybe as I progress through my degree, get exposed to new ideas, sectors and companies my ideal career choice will change again, but I still think that you ‘never get over your first love’ and the same is probably true about your first truly realistic career choice or experience.

Although the UX industry probably doesn’t offer many opportunities to work in schools, by making educational apps for students the UX industry does serve the e-Learning sector.