NEC is thinking ‘Out of the Box’!

We were pleased to receive funding from the Nominet Trust for a new initiative called ‘Open School in a Box’. The project aims to demonstrate how innovative digital technology can improve educational chances and have social impact. Open School in a Box will provide access to high quality digital materials for GCSE courses from NEC over a local wi-fi hot spot.

The project is one of 17 funded as part of The Nominet Trust’s social tech/social change projects in 2014, sponsored by the Founders Forum for Good. About the project, CEO of the Nominet Trust Annika Small said 'All the evidence shows that digital learning can have a profound impact on those who've had bad experiences of formal education. This scheme means new digital learning opportunities no longer have to stop where they're needed most.'

At the heart of the Open School in a Box is an appliance with the capability to host large volumes of educational material capable of being delivered by wi-fi to low cost consumer devices such as kindles, mobile phones and tablets.  Open School in a Box provides portable NEC course material and assignments, a reference library of over 10,000 e-books, a copy of Wikipedia project, and videos from sources such as the Khan Academy. The appliance uses very low power and can be driven from a 12V car battery or even from solar panels so it can go anywhere with little or no technical support, including those locations that are not on or have poor connection to the internet. 

This week in the first of a series of blogs, Roger Merritt, the project manager for Open School in a Box, tells us more about the project.

Roger Merritt, project manager for Open School in a Box
Roger Merritt, project manager for Open School in a Box

Who needs an Open School in a Box?
NEC wants to open up more opportunities to enable digitally excluded groups to gain confidence and qualifications in literacy and numeracy using a range of mobile devices. The Open School in a Box project can provide people who did not achieve GCSE English and Maths with a second chance. Some of the most digitally disadvantaged learners in the UK include:

  • learners in prisons, and young offender institutions
  • those working at sea in the navy or merchant ships
  • armed forces whilst serving abroad
  • pupils not attending mainstream school
  • those who live in remote areas where high speed broadband connectivity is absent or unreliable

There may also be schools and colleges in the UK that want to provide access to digital GCSE content but are concerned about e-security, and some employers may want to enable access to digital learning material for apprentices and other staff using their own mobile devices. We are looking forward to working with organisations that like NEC, want to ‘think out of the box’ to increase learning opportunities.

What is the project aiming to achieve?
The project will act as a proof of concept for technological innovation to add social, educational and economic value.

The development team are creating an enhanced digital curriculum for Open School in a Box, which will deliver structured course materials from NEC for current English and maths qualifications at Level 2, with links to an extensive library of Open Educational Resources (OERs) such as videos, e-books and other reference materials to suit a wide range of learner interests and abilities. Tutor support will be available offline from specialist NEC tutors if required, and local mentoring may also be a possibility.

The project team want to explore markets in the UK that could include prisons and young offenders’ institutions not connected to the public internet, and also schools and home-school groups that have poor internet connectivity or do not wish to open up the whole of the internet to their students. Delivery of learning programmes for those working at sea is a market that we currently address with the Marine Society, more flexible access to digital course materials on mobile devices could be of real benefit. The armed forces may well prove to have similar requirements for those serving overseas who may have long periods with little or no online access.

Open School in a Box can also enable group online or ‘flipped classroom’ learning with text, audio and video course materials being made accessible by a mobile wi-fi appliance in a range of settings. This model provides options for using downloaded content on any suitable mobile device for individual self-study programmes with support from an NEC tutor and/or a local tutor or mentor. Wi-fi is ubiquitous in almost every smart phone, tablet or laptop so Open School in a Box is therefore ideally suited for ‘Bring Your Own Device’ – BYOD projects targeted at GCSE provision.

A typical digital delivery system?

An alternative delivery system

How will the success of the Open School in a Box be measured?
The project team will collect, analyse and adjust developments based on usage metrics and user evaluation - both through the development phases and after launch. At this stage, we expect that a cohort of learners will be tracked through the model both with NEC tutor support and in partner institutions.  We are also looking forward to working with the team at the Nominet Trust to establish new measures of added value through their ‘triple helix’ approach to evaluation.

What about the technology behind the ‘Box’?
The 12 volt appliance contains a solid state hard drive with 250GB capacity and with no moving parts, overheating issues should be kept to a minimum and little or no technical support will be required. Boxes can have a wi fi broadcast distance of between 30 – 500 metres. The project will develop 4 boxes for testing in a variety of locations. As there is no direct internet access, the recently publicized concerns over wi-fi access through public ‘hot spots’ does not apply to Open School in a Box and we believe that this e-security will be an important feature for institutions working with us.

The Prototype

How does the project link to the work of NEC?
NEC is preparing to meet the challenge of putting all our courses online. Learners increasingly want to work in this way and use a variety of devices to access their course materials upload assignments and participate in learner forums. The sophisticated course design that is being developed and tested for Open School in a Box can act as a model for further NEC online courses. New features include tutor videos and podcasts from NEC lead tutors as well as carefully selected Open Educational Resources (OERs) that support course content and enable personalised learning approaches with support from our specialist tutors.

What are Open Educational Resources?
Open Educational resources are defined by the Higher Education Academy as ‘….digital materials that can be used, re-used and repurposed for teaching, learning, research and more, made freely available online through open licences...’ . The Open School in a Box project is exploring how OERs can be used alongside structured NEC course materials to provide interesting and fulfilling learner journeys through GCSE English Language and Maths Foundation courses

As we are one of the Nominet Trust’s social tech/social change projects for 2014 sponsored by the Founders Forum for Good, we are looking forward to working with our mentor, Nick Evans-Lombe of Getty Images to further explore the potential of OERs as part of the offer.

When will Open School in a Box be launched?
The phased development testing starts in April with a launch planned  in July ready for September enrolments on our selected GCSE courses.

How can I find out more?
This is the first in a series of blogs about the project, future topics will go into more detail about the technology behind the box, the use of OER’s and the course design. Of course, we’ll keep you updated on the progress of the user trials too! If you just can’t wait that long, and want to find out more, contact me at

Make sure you follow NEC on social networks too because we’ll post updates and other information here. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, where we’ll be using the hashtag #outsidethebox.

For more information about NEC’s work or to view our full range of flexible distance learning courses, visit our website or get in touch.