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Mainland Classrooms Look to Nurture Creativity Through Maker Lessons

Keen to kindle innovation from infancy, many schools in China are introducing maker-friendly classes, encouraging students to think for themselves, according to exhibitors at the 2016 China (Guangzhou) International Education Expo.

Photo: Constructions toys: Designed to nurture budding makers.
Constructions toys: Designed to nurture budding makers.
Photo: Constructions toys: Designed to nurture budding makers.
Constructions toys: Designed to nurture budding makers.

The 2016 China (Guangzhou) International Education Expo (CGIEE), the third iteration of the event, attracted more than 100 exhibitors. Helpfully for those visitors with a specific interest, the show-floor was divided into a number of dedicated zones, including smart education, maker education, overseas studies, property investment, educational brand franchising, vocational and employment education, school uniforms and sports facilities.

The continued growth of the event is seen as very much in line with the ever-increasing demand for educational and training services across the mainland. According to the latest government statistics, more than 50% of all Chinese households spent in excess of RMB6,000 on education in 2015, with about 30% of them spending more than RMB10,000. By 2020, the mainland educational market is expected to be worth RMB2.9 trillion.

Maker Education

One of the clear trends this year was the growing emphasis now being placed on nurturing the maker skills of students. With a "maker" usually defined as anyone with the facility to devise something new and turn that concept into a genuine product, such individuals are seen as having a huge role to play in moving China from being solely a manufacturing-based economy into one that adds value through creativity and innovation.

Overall, the industry has high hopes of maker education, seeing it as one area where demand will continue to grow over the long-term. In line with this, several local education departments are now keen to instil maker sensibilities into students from a very young age.

One company looking to take a lead here was Shenzhen GTA Education Tech. Founded in 2000, it now has a 4,000-strong R&D department and a well-staffed support base. From its Shenzhen headquarters, it operates 60 regional offices across the mainland.

GTA's focus is on helping schools establish an integrated learning environment, one tailored to the specific needs of their students with regard to both hardware and software. Typically, the company assists in the development of dedicated on-site maker classrooms, while also providing teaching resources designed to stimulate the creativity of students.

Photo: GTA’s Smart observatory.
GTA's Smart observatory.
Photo: GTA’s Smart observatory.
GTA's Smart observatory.
Photo: Illuminating learning: A maker lamp.
Illuminating learning: A maker lamp.
Photo: Illuminating learning: A maker lamp.
Illuminating learning: A maker lamp.

Over on its stand, this year GTA was showcasing its smart observatory system, a unit designed for use in maker education classes. Featuring a display panel, several circuit boards and a wiring section, the unit can be used to monitor room temperature and humidity via a smartphone app. According to GTA, while its maker products are intended for use by both primary and secondary students, its first priority is to teach students how to design the required systems and create the components needed.

Compared with the spoon-fed approach adopted by the majority of schools, maker education encourages students to take an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the practical problems they encounter in their everyday lives. In order to successfully complete many of GTA's maker educational projects, students require a basic mastery of biology, electrical circuitry and programming, as well as an understanding of several other disciplines.

As well as assisting schools in the development of maker-oriented curricula, and providing the required software and hardware, GTA also trains any teachers who may be new to this approach. As many traditional educators focus on book learning and examinations, some teachers face a number of initial difficulties when they are called on to help instil the maker doctrine. This big shift requires them to help students apply the knowledge they have learnt from books in a new and innovative fashion. In order to foster this, GTA has developed six maker educational teaching modules, each of which takes less than two months to complete.

Other than looking to enhance in-school educational courses, GTA also invests heavily in the development of its extracurricular programmes. Typically, these focus on subjects that are not normally taught in schools, such as woodwork or photography. In order to deliver this, GTA has established a network of well-resourced sites – often in co-operation with local schools – where students can pursue such creatively-geared subjects.

Photo: The Dr Education range of maker teaching aids.
The Dr Education range of maker teaching aids.
Photo: The Dr Education range of maker teaching aids.
The Dr Education range of maker teaching aids.
Photo: Classroom essentials: Smart toys.
Classroom essentials: Smart toys.
Photo: Classroom essentials: Smart toys.
Classroom essentials: Smart toys.

Another company keen to foster the growth of maker education was Nanyang Little Magic Dr Education Technology. With this in mind, the Henan-based company provides a range of maker-friendly courses and resources for children in the three-six age group. Among its more recent offerings are Little Makerspace, Smart Home, Technology City and Smart Car. The Smart Car series, one of the company's most popular ranges, includes supersonic wave obstacle avoidance cars, smart tracking cars, voice-controlled cars and infrared remote-controlled cars.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Another key trend apparent at this year's event was the greater willingness to experiment with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as smart educational tools. Again, this was another area where GTA was well-represented.

This year, the company was showcasing a wide range of smart educational VR products, with modules dedicated to science, medicine, public health, economic management, agriculture, forestry, fishery, animal husbandry, communications and transportation. It also had on offer a number of VR-based vocational training programmes, including car maintenance, human resource management, secretarial skills, hotel management, tourism management and an introduction to animal anatomy.

Photo: On test: VR teaching products.
On test: VR teaching products.
Photo: On test: VR teaching products.
On test: VR teaching products.

Many of GTA's VR products are designed to allow students to conduct virtual experiments. This is particularly valuable in such fields as chemistry and electrical engineering where any such experiments can be hazardous. Through the use of VR, students can repeat and observe every step of any given experiment without being exposed to any danger whatsoever.

As well as offering increased safety, VR products can also greatly reduce costs. For many schools, for instance, cost considerations would bar students from repeated practical work on car maintenance or from the study of a wide range of animal anatomies. VR systems, however, allow students to freely repeat any practical assignments, while also providing the facility to re-run experiments, pausing at any points they find unclear or unusually significant.

For 2017, GTA has particularly high hopes of its automotive assembly VR training programme. Aimed at introducing the principles that govern contemporary car construction, the programme allows the user to examine all the constituent parts of an automobile. A laser pointer allows each part to be identified, while also triggering an explanation as to its exact function and use.

Online Courses

According to sources within the educational sector, some 72.27 million mainland students registered for online courses in 2015. This represents a huge 20.5% year-on-year rise and values the market at RMB119.2 billion, a 19.4% increase on the 2014 figure. Its success has been attributed to one simple factor – online learning gives subscribers the freedom to study anytime and anywhere that suits them.

One company that has been quick to capitalise on this appetite for ease of access to study is Talk915.com, the English learning platform launched by ZTE, the mainland telecoms giant. The company now offers a wide range of English courses, with the options available said to meet the study and work needs of any user. Highly customisable, students can choose their teacher, specify lesson times and define course content.

In the case of GTA, its proprietary education platform is designed for use by both students and teachers. Students can manage their pre-class preparation, class work and revision via the platform, while teachers prepare classes, teach, share resources, select teaching plans and share their teaching experience via the same system.

Photo: Low-tech wearables: School uniforms.
Low-tech wearables: School uniforms.
Photo: Low-tech wearables: School uniforms.
Low-tech wearables: School uniforms.
Photo: Interactive instructional toys.
Interactive instructional toys.
Photo: Interactive instructional toys.
Interactive instructional toys.

Emphasising the flexibility of the system, a GTA spokesperson said: "Students can study anytime, anywhere. Compatible with desktop and mobile devices, our products allow students to plan their study time and act to increase the efficiency of their learning process."

Among the other highlights of the 2016 expo was the range of robot assembly and programming products available from Guangzhou Dizhini Culture and Communication, while Shenzhen Huamei Wancheng Investment Consultants impressed many with its overseas studies and immigration investor programme. On the digital front, Education First chose the event to debut its range of online English language training courses, all of which can be customised in line with any student's individual needs.

The 3rd China (Guangzhou) International Education Expo (CGIEE) took place at the China Import and Export Fair Pazhou Complex from 2-4 December 2016. The event was jointly organised by the Guangzhou Municipal Commission of Commerce, the Bureau of Education of Guangzhou Municipality and Yangcheng Wanbao (Yangcheng Evening News).

Xing Bin, Special Correspondent, Guangzhou

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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