From Robots to Apps: Learning Technologies That Stood Out at This Year’s Consumer Electronics Show

January 15, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA

From motorized spider vehicles to therapeutic animatronic baby seals, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had, well, just about everything one could imagine—including plenty of new technology designed specifically for young learners. Although we weren’t lucky enough to be there, several of these exciting innovations caught our eye.  So, from robots to apps, here’s a few of our favorites from this year’s show:

We couldn’t have a round-up of CES standouts without including the Lego Mindstorms EV3, the latest generation of programmable robots unveiled by LEGO Education last week. The robots are the third addition to the platform, first released in 1998, although these robots bear little similarity to their predecessors.

Some educators have had success using Lego and other robotics tools in the classroom to teach basic programming skills. They say that in addition to helping with engineering, science, math, and technology skills, these tools help kids learn to think critically and to solve problems as a team. 

The new bots were created, in part, by users themselves, and this generation of Mindstorms was built around a series of “intelligent bricks” that allow you to control how the robots move. The company says these devices are so user-friendly that anyone can get an EV3 robot running within 20 minutes of opening the box and can start programming without even turning on a computer. LEGO Education also suggests that this evolution of Mindstorms can easily be worked into a 45-minute class period.

Daniel Terdiman, writer for, broke down the components of each of their intelligent bricks:

Each programmable EV3 brick comes with an ARM9 robotic processor, an SD expansion slot and embedded 16MB flash memory, Linux, Bluetooth 2.1, iOS, and Android compatibility, a USB 2.0 interface allowing Wi-Fi connectivity, four input and output ports, [and] a Matrix display with a loudspeaker.

Can you imagine having students design and program their own robots—maybe even without using their own tablet or desktop computer?  Hack Education blog writer Audrey Watters explained that the software for these educational robots includes a customizable curriculum that allows teachers to track and assess students’ progress, as well as a digital workbook for students to moderate their own progress and submit assignments.

Keeping within the category of robotics, Cubelets proved to be another big hit at this year’s show. These little devices can be snapped together to design a variety of robots without programming or connecting any additional devices. No wires, computers, or experience necessary. But if your students want to take things to the next level, all of the code is available on the Cubelets website and kids can connect the cubes to an android or PC and reprogram individual cubes to make them do whatever they want. The bots come in kits of six for $160. To learn more, check out this demo video from the show posted on the MAKE Magazine blog.

For younger learners who may not be ready to build their own bots, Fisher Price released a new line of “Apptivity” readers, designed to help formulate the bridge between virtual technology and story time. As Los Angeles Times Tech Now blogger Michelle Maltais points out, these “readers” are essentially cases for iPads and smartphones that allow younger learners to physically flip the pages of a book while viewing content from a screen. However, ranging from $20 to $50, the more elaborate Apptivity cases do include action figures and cannons to be aimed and fired at the screen. We wrote about new research on e-readers last week. Experts say no matter what the tool, what makes use of apps, videos, or e-readers time well spent for young children is parental involvement and qualified, trained teachers. Read more here.

As for apps, some commentators felt one of the most memorable releases from the show would have to be Letterschool, designed for students to learn and improve their handwriting. This is quite a step up from the handwriting workbooks my first grade teachers used! This app applies a “tap, trace, write” method to learning the ABCs, and it won the annual Kids at Play Award for “Best Younger Children’s App,” given by the Children’s Technology Review.

For more highlights and noteworthy educational releases from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, check out this round-up of student-friendly apps from the Ars Technica blog, or Mashable’s slideshow for the latest tablets and e-readers. We’d love to hear to what you all think. Would you be likely to use any of these technologies in your classroom? Would they work, or would they be problematic, and why?  What other new technologies have you or your colleagues been using? Respond in comments or share on Twitter.