To boldly go where no pupils have gone before

Classroom of the future
Smartphones use multi-touch technology to allow individual users to perform operations by interacting with separate parts of their screens simultaneously. We wanted to employ multi-touch technologies to enable multiple users to simultaneously interact with larger surfaces, thus allowing them to more effectively collaborate.
Professor Liz Burd
The researchers behind the design of so-called ‘Star Trek classrooms’ have discovered that multi-touch, multi-user desks can boost pupils’ skills in mathematics. The inter-disciplinary team from Durham University, whose findings have been published in the journal Learning and Instruction, found evidence to suggest that children who used smart desks to complete mathematical exercises benefited more than those who completed their tasks on paper.

During the course of a three-year project known as SynergyNet, the researchers have worked with more than 400 pupils, predominantly aged between eight and 10. The team’s latest results show that collaborative learning, such as that facilitated by touchscreen desks, increases learners’ mathematical fluency and flexibility. Moreover, the researchers are confident that the technology that they have developed could also be used to improve learning across other subject areas.

To find out more about what have been dubbed ‘classrooms of the future’, I spoke to the project’s lead researcher Professor Liz Burd from Durham University’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences. I began by asking about some of the special features that have been integrated into these high-tech learning environments.

"In terms of hardware, multi-touch surfaces comprise the desks of the pupils and their teacher," Professor Burd explained. "These surfaces can be used in conjunction with the classroom’s multi-touch whiteboard. We have worked closely with furniture providers to produce desks that are sufficiently robust for use within schools. For instance, we had to ensure that the desks were a suitable height and that they included appropriate safety glass. From a software perspective, we have written an application that is compatible with both our smart desks and with other multi-touch surfaces.

"If you have a touchscreen smartphone, you’re probably familiar with multi-touch technology," she continued. "It is this type of technology, for example, that enables you to perform a ‘pinch’ gesture in order to zoom. The principle that lies behind the SynergyNet classroom, however, is slightly different. Smartphones use multi-touch technology to allow individual users to perform operations by interacting with separate parts of their screens simultaneously. We wanted to employ multi-touch technologies to enable multiple users to simultaneously interact with larger surfaces, thus allowing them to more effectively collaborate. A group of children might wish to use a computer to collaborate, but there is only a single navigational input – the mouse. However, with a smart desk, four pupils can perform different tasks independently and simultaneously. Children do not have to take turns to engage with tasks."

The researchers found that 45 per cent of pupils increased the quantity of unique mathematical expressions that they created after using NumberNet – the element of SynergyNet used to teach numeracy. In contrast, only 16 per cent of children who completed paper-based activities succeeded in achieving the same result. I asked Professor Burd why the ability to more effectively collaborate is so beneficial within the context of mathematical learning.

"There have been quite a lot of studies based around this question, and this is at least partly why we secured funding in the first place," she answered. "Evidence demonstrates that collaborative methods of teaching enable pupils to develop higher levels of understanding. The fact that the schoolchildren are completing their work in a collaborative manner means that they frequently have to discuss their outcomes with others. In turn, they are able to learn from the work of their classmates. With SynergyNet, we have capitalised on this knowledge by creating an environment in which this type of learning can be facilitated in new and interesting ways. In addition to allowing collaboration to take place on a single smart desk, our software allows all of a classroom’s surfaces to be networked so that the content of one desk can be transferred onto others, including the teacher’s console. The teacher, therefore, can promote peer review by swapping the work of different groups and asking pupils to evaluate the work of others. Of course, as they are doing this, the pupils are developing new ideas; they are enhancing their individual learning by reflecting on their own positioning in relation to others."

"In terms of mathematics, we found that pupils were able to look at the strategies of their classmates and work out how they had been employed," continued Professor Burd. "The children were then able to adopt these strategies themselves. In this situation, we are seeing the transfer of knowledge across the classroom, not only from teacher to student, but also from student to student."

Of course, if multi-touch surface areas are to become a common feature within the classrooms of the future, they must facilitate learning across subjects other than numeracy. Whilst the researchers’ latest findings are specifically related to mathematics, they believe that ‘Star Trek classrooms’ could assist teaching within additional disciplines.

"We have developed a number of other applications," Professor Burd explained. "For example, we have devised a mystery-based learning exercise; a bit like a ‘whodunit’. The pupils are given particular clues in order to work out logic within dialogue. In groups, the children sort these clues into different areas according to prominence, and increase the sizes of the clues in relation to their relevance. Because the children are evaluating these clues as a group, they are able to problem solve in a new way. Using this tool, we have explored mathematical, descriptive and diagrammatic elements of such problems."

Whilst ‘Star Trek classrooms’ have been in development for some time, they are still comparatively new in terms of the typical teaching technologies used today. At present, there exist significant obstacles related to training and cost. To conclude our conversation, therefore, I asked how long it will be before multi-touch surfaces become commonplace within British classrooms.

"We have had a number of meetings with Promethean Planet – the company in the UK that produces interactive whiteboards," replied Professor Burd. "Indeed, some of the technology that has allowed us to showcase our software was made by this company. Essentially, Promethean Planet is certainly interested in following the path that we have been exploring, and I would guess that within approximately three years, this type of technology will be both usable and affordable within the typical classroom environment.

"Think about the uptake of smartphones," she continued. "The SynergyNet project was awarded to us on the day that the iPhone received its UK release. We began working on our smart desks before anybody had even heard of an iPad. Think about what has happened over the last five years. People no longer want to buy phones without touchscreen surfaces. Hardware providers have taken notice; they have essentially changed the nature of technological interaction. Some people are beginning to pronounce that the mouse is dead. As a consequence, companies are reflecting consumers’ expectations across a wide range of technologies. In turn, kids are not stupid. They know when they are being asked to work with old technologies and they become disengaged. I am sure that pupils themselves will play a key role in driving this change. After all, they are both deserved and stern customers when it comes to their educational experiences."

It seems that we probably won’t have to wait until the 22nd Century for ‘Star Trek classrooms’. Indeed, UK pupils could be using multi-touch smart desks before the end of this decade. It’s learning, Jim, but not as we know it.

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