OpenLab transforms high school IT education even in quarantine

Written by Katarina Milova

Education of young people is our favourite CSR topic! For a while Sygic has been a partner to OpenLab - a platform where high school students work on real projects, learn both hard skills and soft skills, such as team work, giving and receiving feedback. OpenGate, a presentation of students´ projects, took place at our office last year, however, this year when everyone switched into online, this event was not an exception. Therefore, students faced another challenge within their projects and that is - presenting their projects fully online.

We talked to Barbora Rusiňáková, the Executive Manager of OpenLab about the projects and challenges they have been facing.

What were the projects´ topics this year?

There were many interesting projects! In HybridLab in Bratislava, students developed hybrid applications. Among the most interesting projects is definitely a car sharing app which students developed for an educational NGO Zivica to share a car ride or ask for one via a simple mobile app. So far, we have saved 468 kg of CO2.

Another interesting hybrid app is called Teach++ and aims to connect students and their teachers in order to share constructive feedback and thus increase the quality of education and encourage a dialogue within classrooms and schools.

Our students in GamesLab developed mobile games. The most successful game is published on Google Play and has reached more than 50k downloads so far - Merge Mobile Phones**. Another game was developed in cooperation with an NGO Ambrela and their international project Bridge47. Our students developed an educational game RealTopia** about recycling which is being used as an inspiration and example for how games can be useful as educational tools.

Students in AppsLab in Kysucke Nove Mesto developed mobile apps using C# and Xamarin.forms. The most advanced app is an online recipe book CooKit allowing users to add and search recipes according to their taste preferences. In Bratislava we also have an IoTLab, where students learn programming and connecting codes to hardware. We opened this lab in February 2020, hence the first projects are yet to come.
You can find the most interesting student presentations on our YouTube channel.

How did the students cope with presenting online?

It was a completely different event than the traditional ceremony with a large audience. We presented our projects via a live stream in June and then in September we recorded best projects in a small group of people directly in schools.

I think all students managed to present their projects clearly and comprehensively. We had more than 6 000 viewers and something over 100 comments during live streams all together.

Overall, students who have been in OpenLab two years already showed better presentation skills - both introverted and extraverted students. Therefore I believe that creating opportunities for students to present their work is the only way how they can develop their skills in this area.

What do you consider the biggest take-away from the online mode this year?

We managed to transform OpenLab into online learning quite easily, as LabMasters and students are tech-savvy. However, OpenLab is not only about tech skills. We mainly focus on soft skills such as teamwork, project collaboration, self reflection, freedom, responsibility, and partnership approach.

Our goal is to encourage students to find their interests and develop their inner motivation. And that is exactly where we struggle when teaching online.

It is extremely difficult to stay close to students when facing screens instead of real faces. It is a challenge to encourage collaboration when sitting at home instead of classrooms. And it is a struggle for students to stay motivated when they are isolated and missing diverse stimuli. We have fully acknowledged that personal contact is necessary in the long-run. We are afraid that teaching online long-term will have a negative impact on overall character development.

Many organisations had to re-evaluate their goals and plans. Was this your case too?

Our mission has stayed the same. We are here to transform IT education systematically and in collaboration with best tech high schools and professionals from the tech sector.

What we had to re-evaluate were some of our short and mid-term plans. Specifically, we postponed the opening of new labs to next year.
Similarly, we planned to launch an internship program for our students. As tech firms are mainly working from home, they temporarily suspended internships and student hirings. It makes sense. However, I really hope that we will open an OpenLab internship program next year.

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