Careers & Education

Commited to dynamic learning

Halls of Learning: Boosting educational outcomes through robotics

BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR Career & Education editor williamsp@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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AFTER seven years in the classroom, Marvin Hall decided in 2003 that it was time to shake things up among Jamaican students.

Intent on helping to boost learning outcomes among them, he settled on robotics as the tool and his own company — Halls of Learning — as the medium.

"I wanted to take my teaching to next level and I couldn't do that by remaining in the classroom per sé, or on someone else's clock. I also wanted to build a school for my son and launch a chain of schools across the island," said Hall, who, up to 2003, had taught mathematics at the American International School of Kingston, Camperdown High and Campion College; and educational technology at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.

Of his choice of company name, he said: "It was inspired by Marcus Garvey's actions as a 'man of learning' [as noted by] Professor Tony Martin [at the] Garvey Syposium [in] 2001; my last name and a commitment to providing the highest quality educational experiences for young people, equal to, or exceeding international standards."

Since day one, he has sought to do just that.

Halls of Learning offered their first after-school 'Lego Yuh Mind' robotics workshop in January 2004 at Campion College.

"In July 2004, we offered our first summer programme — 'Digi-School' — and offered our 'Lego Yuh Mind' robotics course and another course called 'Build Yuh Riddim', which taught digital music creation," recalled Hall, who currently runs the business out of his home in Kingston.

Those early efforts required a US$15,000-budget, which did not phase Hall.

"It was an actualisation of an idea that I wanted to pursue," the father of two children said simply.

It was an idea that took shape in Singapore to which he had travelled in 1995.

"I travelled to Singapore to find out what their best practices were in math education as their students ranked number one in the world, based on a 1995 international study of 30-plus countries. That trip prompted a second trip that same year to a conference that showcased the successful implementation of their master plan for using information technology in education," said Hall, who holds a first degree in mathematics and computer science and a diploma in education from UWI Mona.

"On the second trip, I saw primary school students building race car robots and creating robotic zoos. This motivated me to want our Jamaican children to have the same opportunities. My original plan had Halls of Learning as a distributor of Singapore-made educational software for math and offering robotics workshops," added the educator, who also holds a master's in educational and training systems design from the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

His offerings reflect much of what he saw on that trip.

"We offer after-school programmes, summer programmes and outreach to the inner city. 'Lego Yuh Mind' is our most popular programme and it offers hands-on learning experiences that allow children to playfully explore concepts in math, science, engineering, technology, and art through the building of simple machines and robots," Hall told Career & Education.

"This year, we launched 'Lego Yuh Mind Day' that brought a one-day robotics workshop to 500-plus students at 12 high schools across Kingston," he added.

Also on offer at Halls of Learning is a programme called 'Puzzle Yuh Brain'.

"It uses a variety of games to teach children logic, systematic thinking and problem solving and also develop their visual-spatial intelligence," said Hall of the programme which is only available in the summer.

According to the Halls of Learning founder and chief educational revolutionary, as he refers to himself on his curriculum vitae, their programmes range in cost from $8,500 to $22,000 per term. They also offer scholarships — more than 600 of which they have already awarded through their outreach and programmes and courtesy of the work of volunteer staff members.

According to Hall, their offer of the scholarships is fuelled by the belief that "every child, regardless of background, must be given access to high-quality experiences in learning".

Meanwhile, his close to nine years in business have not been without challenges, not the least of which have been the "high cost of the technology, overseas talent and the curriculum".

"Finding a sustainable niche while keeping our products at a high standard and access to inexpensive loans that didn't require collateral [have also been among the difficulties faced]," Hall said.

Ongoing challenges, he said, includes:

* making their offerings available to as many locations that require them;

* a dependency on foreign-made items;

* maintaining a sustainable model and realising exponential growth; as well as

* access to capital, equipment and the right talent.

However, Hall is undaunted, noting that his two permanent and 10 part-time staff members are "steadily, patiently and creatively... one step at a time" tackling each hurdle.

"The challenges don't go away completely and so that is what keep us motivated," he said, adding that he has no regrets.

"The journey so far has provided many lessons, each of which has led up to this point in time," he said.

Hall's tips for prospective entrepreneurs.

* Be patient.

* Take risks.

* Ensure an income stream alongside entrepreneurial activity.

* Equal or exceed the international standards for your product or services.

* Create/offer something unique.

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