Thursday, 18 October 2007

Why do so many teachers stand in front of what they want pupils to look at?

During my first week of teaching back in 1980 in a fairly challenging school in Tower Hamlets I was faced with writing or drawing on a blackboard (one of the roller types) anything I wanted the whole class to see. I was very conscious of my own school days in the 60s and 70s when I struggled to concentrate on what was on the board as the teachers continually stood in front of it, however expert and light footed they were in dancing from side to side.

At the end of that first week I found some technology which would address the problem - an Over Head Projector (OHP). This fundamentally changed the way I was able to interact with the class. I was able to keep facing the class the whole time, maintaining eye contact. I wasn't obscuring the screen by dancing around back and forth all the time. I could ensure that all pupils had uninterrupted sight lines at all times. I used an acetate roll which provided virtually limitless writing space, and what's more when I had to teach the same topic again to a different class I was able to use the same material instead of having to write or draw the same things all over again.

So has modern digital technology improved things still further? In my view, the interactive whiteboard has moved things backwards - literally. Teachers who were using OHPs successfully within a secure pedagogy now are expected to once more start turning their backs on the class, pirouetting from side to side, and using nimble contortions to avoid obscuring too much for too many for too long. Official reports and other publications from the likes of Becta are littered with photographs of teachers proudly displaying the output from a computer on their faces and their clothes. Actually, sometimes it is possible to make out some of the text if they are clean shaven but hardly the best viewing surface for maximum visibility.

Becta health and safety guidelines (issued on behalf of the Government) make it very clear that anyone at the front of the class should never look directly out into the room, in the direction of the projector beam. Even if not looking directly at the light from the bulb there are concerns about the effect on people's peripheral vision. So not only does this particular form of technology take us back to the days of my first week in teaching in terms of interrupting lines of site to the content, but is even worse in that teachers shouldn't turn to look at the class before moving well away from the screen.

So back to my question which forms the title for this post. Why do teachers stand in front of what they want pupils to look at? Before interactive whiteboards I'd always assumed it was because they couldn't afford OHPs. But that can't be right, can it? Interactive whiteboards are much more expensive than OHPs. There must be another reason. Maybe they think that it doesn't matter to have uninterrupted sight lines. Perhaps they should ask the pupils. Would they like family members to continually perform the same antics in front of the TV screen while trying to watch EastEnders. I think not.

I'm not getting at teachers here - they are the victims as much as the pupils. But how would I have reacted to being given an Interactive Whiteboard because some local authority adviser had persuaded the headteacher that 'every class should have one'? Well, I would have used it as a very expensive projection screen. I would have loved all the interactive software that came with it, but of course that runs on the computer, not the Whiteboard. I would have still done all the interesting interactive things using the software, but with a cheap graphics tablet, keyboard or mouse. And where would I be in the classroom when doing this? Well, somewhere which meant that everyone could see what I was doing on the screen.

I am reminded of the Cadbury's Smash advert whenever I pick up a Becta booklet and see another picture of teacher's face decorated with a web site! Those of you of a similar generation will know what I mean.


Sunday, 30 September 2007

What future for the projector?

There was a time not so long ago when we dreamed of being able to afford a projector in a classroom so that everyone in the class could see what was being displayed by the computer.

I remember when we bought our first projector for the ICT training room at the Westbury Centre - a phenomenal £4500 which represented much more in today's money. Now a much more powerful and sophisticated version costs just £500.

However, in spite of the technological developments over the intervening years, we still need to sit in a darkened room to get a decent image. That is why active panels (LCD or Plasma) are so attractive because they don't require the lights to be dimmed and the blinds drawn. At the moment though they are too expensive and too small. There is little possibility in the next few years of screens the size we have come to expect when using projectors being either possible or affordable as active panels.

Up to now when we have had the opportunity to build new schools or classrooms we have had to design to overcome the limitations of projectors by cutting down on the natural light hitting the display wall - and actually cutting down on light altogether, so that the displayed image is as clear as possible. It seems problematical to continue to do this, especially for the Building Schools for the Future programme, when the new classrooms are expected to last up to 30 years. During this timescale it is highly likely that we will be able to afford large active panels of some kind. Maybe even LED technology with a high enough reslution which doesn't mind bright sunlight on it.

At last there appears to be a solution to this problem. It doesn't involve making the projectors even brighter and it will allow designers to make the windows bigger. The answer lies in the projection screen - a hitherto neglected component of the interactive whole class teaching kit.

There are not one, but three competing technologies, all designed to allow high contrast and bright images in well lit rooms. They all work by having a surface that absorbs light coming from the top and the sides, while reflecting light from the projector. This gives an image as bright as you would normally only get when the lights are off and the blinds are drawn.

Two of these new products are flexible and one uses a 4mm glass panel behind the surface and therefore only suitable for fixed screens.

We are currently evaluating these new screen technolgies and they look very promising indeed. I'll give an update on this in a future post.