Robotics kits can be an amazing addition to your curriculum and add whole new depth of learning during your computing lessons.
However, with limited budgets, time and staff, its important to make an informed decision when it comes to purchasing.
Whilst each company that develops robot kits for schools is doing their best to create a good product, its always necessary to look past their marketing and ask the important questions. If possible, I would highly recommend you test their kit first.
*If you are a company selling robot kits to schools and you do offer trials of your products, please do get in touch as I can help connect you to teachers.*
So when deciding what to purchase, here are a few of my recommendations on what to look out for and some questions to ask:
1. How long has the company or product been around and how long will they offer support for a product that gets outdated?
It can be very fustrating - and I know a number of teachers in this predicament - when you purchase kit only to find that
a - the company has shut down
b - they have upgraded their product drastically and no longer support the version you have
c - the company is new, and you are feeling their teething pains becuase promised features aren't quite working correctly
So to avoid this, do your research and ask around. Find a reliable contact in the company that is genuinely looking to help you as opposed to making a quick profit.
2. How long will the product last?
This includes its physical durability, but also the number of age groups that it can cater for.
I would recommend buying a kit that can be used across at least 3 different year groups and ideally 2 different key stages.
Will there be regular software updates? Will it work with a new version of Windows? Again, be sure to ask all of these questions.
3. An obvious one - is it worth the money??
Not all robotics kits are, and be careful of going too cheap. Sometimes it is worth buying a more expensive kit, like the lego or Vex kits, becuase they will last for several years and can be used by KS2, 3 and 4.
Also when deciding your budget, remember, most robotics kits have parts that will go missing or depreciate. These will need to be replaced, so depending on the kit and number of students, this can cost around £50 - £300 per year. Remember to allow for that in your budget.
4. How easy is it to learn? Do you have the time?
A lot of robotics kits use block coding similar to scratch, which is easier to learn especially if you have already taught yourself scratch.
However some come with their own programming software/language and others use Python or Java.
Before purchasing, be honest about how much time you can dedicate to learning and using the kit. Then choose a robotics kit that will fit in with that. i.e. if you don't have much time choose a simpler kit, or plan ahead with some students and give them the responsibility of learning and teaching other students; this will save you a lot of time and stress ;)
5. Does it tie in with your syllabus or scheme of work??
If you are using python, it makes sense to buy a kit that is also programmed in Python.
It is much easier to plan a module around a robotics kit that already aids what you are teaching, as opposed to having to design a new module around something that doesn't fit in with anything else.
6. Connectivity and software
School ICT provision varies greatly across the uk and the globe.
Before purchasing anything, really consider what is your most reliable equipment. E.g. if you have a fairly new ICT suite with desktop computers than a kit that connects via USB, Wifi or bluetooth should be ideal.
However if your school is very tablet driven, then it makes sense to look at app-based robotics kits.
Always plan ahead, if you can, for about 3 - 5 years. What I mean by this, is make sure you and the technical team have a clear understanding about how the ICT provision may or may not change over the next few years. It would be a shame to buy expensive kit only to learn that the shiny new desktops you were expecting, won't be arriving after all...
7. Ease of set up and use
Ideally you want a kit that has minimal software installation required, minimal set up time, connects very easily and keeps bugs to a minimum - I know that sounds like a non-existent utopia in the world of computing - but it is feasible.
Arduino does this fairly well, and there are a number of kits out there that are quite decent when it comes to this criteria.
I hope you have found this article useful, if so please share it with your contacts.
If you have any further suggestions about what to look for when buying robotics kits, please do get in touch.