Monday, 16 January 2012

Barking and Dagenham Guide to Interactive Teaching Technologies

100" Supernova screen at the new George Carey C of E Primary School

For many years, Barking and Dagenham has been at the forefront of developments in interactive teaching technologies designed for use with the whole class. It was the first local authority to deploy new and innovative technologies such as the visualiser and the wireless slate on a large scale into UK classrooms, and the first to adopt a new generation of large display screens for general purpose classrooms. The right technology has always been selected on the basis of supporting and enhancing effective pedagogy. Other technologies, however popular they may be elsewhere, have been rejected if they are not fit for purpose. This approach has led to recent school building projects being equipped with state-of-the-art-technologies unlike any to be seen around the world and which deliver un-paralleled value for money when compared to more commonly deployed traditional alternatives.

A brief history of whole class teaching technology

The invention of the Blackboard in the early 1800s revolutionised teaching in that for the first time a teacher was able to write or draw something that the whole class could see at the same time. There were limitations though, such as the chalk dust and the fact that while writing on the board teachers had to stand in front of it so that visibility was obscured for some of the class at all times, and the teachers had to face away from the class while writing on the board. However, these drawbacks were far outweighed by the benefits, and there were no practical alternatives for whole class teaching.

The whiteboard and dry wipe marker of the 20th Century did little to address the drawbacks, other than the elimination of chalk dust and better clarity, and this technology still persists today
There was little debate about the pedagogy, because teachers had no choice but to use the only whole class teaching technology available to them. Turning your back on the class and obscuring what you want children to look at was just something you had to deal with.

During the 1960s, another technology appeared on the scene which did overcome the drawbacks of the blackboards and whiteboards. This was the Overhead Projector, or OHP. This device enabled teachers to face the class while they wrote on acetate sheets, and at the same time project on to a large screen positioned where everyone in the class could see it. Not only that, but the acetate sheets could be prepared in advance and re-used time and again.

Pedagogically speaking, the device was a breakthrough but either through reason of cost or because of teachers’ suspicion of new technology, the device never replaced the blackboard or whiteboard in many classrooms.

In Barking and Dagenham, as part of a major programme of investment in Mathematics teaching during the 1990s, most primary school classrooms were equipped with Overhead Projectors but the devices needed to be positioned towards the middle of the room where power cables had to reach from wall sockets, and screens had to be pulled down over existing wall furniture. Perhaps because of this, they were rarely used outside of the Maths and English lessons that were accompanied by acetate sheet resources.

The widespread introduction of the Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) during the first decade of the 21st century remains one of the most perplexing adoptions of new technology in education for use with a whole class, in that it re-introduced most of the drawbacks of blackboards and whiteboards that had been eliminated by the OHP. In some ways, it made these worse, as teachers would tend to spend even more time in front of what they wanted children to look at while they interacted with the software using the touch-sensitive surface. Unlike the OHP screen which was large enough for everyone to see, and positioned high enough up to give un-interrupted sight lines, the IWB had to be smaller and positioned low enough down so that teachers could reach the top of the display. One of the arguments used in support of the IWB was that ‘it mirrored the way teachers taught with ordinary blackboards and whiteboards’. This argument completely overlooked all of the limitations and disadvantages of this approach.

In Barking and Dagenham, having just introduced new forward-facing technology in the form of the OHP into primary classrooms, the IWB was, pedagogically speaking, a significantly retrograde step. It was a classic situation of expecting pedagogy to adapt to technology, instead of what should happen, that the technology is developed and adapted to suit effective pedagogy. There was no doubt that the ability to display an image from a computer to the whole class was an enormous benefit, and there was also no doubt that the new generation of interactive software offered exciting and innovative ways to teach and learn difficult concepts. The problem was the misconception that this new software in some way depended on (or even ran on) the IWB, rather than the computer connected to a ceiling mounted projector. 

The IWB combined the function of a display screen with that of an input device and as such was un-fit for each of these purposes. The display screen was too small and too low down, and in order to use the touch sensitive surface you had to stand in front of it. What was needed was a way of interacting with the software from anywhere in the classroom, with the computer image being projected onto a much bigger and better positioned display screen. The obvious choice was a simple graphics tablet, of the kind used by computer draughtspeople and computer artists, that used an A5 sized board connected to the computer and a pen-like stylus. However, at that time, all such devices were physically connected to the computer with a cable. Barking and Dagenham therefore lobbied the technology industry for a wireless version that could be used anywhere in the classroom. As a result, the first wireless slate in the world made its UK debut in the Borough, and although a product developed for an entirely different market (collaborative technical drawing) the slate was an exact pedagogical match for effective whole class teaching.

Early deployment of the wireless slate showed that it didn’t matter where in the classroom the person was who controlled the software. As the picture shows, pupils were able to concentrate on the display, not on the child using the slate. The slate could be rapidly passed around the classroom enabling many more pupils to take a turn in helping to move the lesson forward than would be possible if they had to make their way individually to the front. Furthermore, pupils could write and draw with a pen at the same scale they would do on paper, and be able to reach to the top of a large screen positioned high up on the classroom wall.
The early wireless slates had drawbacks of their own, symptomatic of leading edge technology. They were sometimes unresponsive, and there were often difficulties in maintaining a wireless connection with the PC. However, over time these difficulties have been overcome and the latest generation of wireless slates are reliable and easy to use. A new ‘intelligent’ version is now available, the ‘Mobi View’, which acts as a true mobile interactive whiteboard, in that is has its own touch sensitive display screen, about the size of an iPhone screen, where all of the whiteboard software tools can be selected, and where lesson resources such as web sites, videos, pictures and documents can be launched from anywhere in the classroom. There is also a touch-screen keyboard like those in most smartphones for entering text into any application on the screen.

It should be remembered that the traditional static interactive whiteboards do not run software. They are ‘dumb’ devices. The software programs, such as SMART’s Notebook, Promethean’s Active Studio, RM’s Easyteach, and eInstruction’s Workspace, all run on the computer, and can all be used with a mobile input device instead. Most suppliers will promote the static IWB over a much cheaper and more effective mobile device, purely I suspect because of the higher profit that entails, although always claiming some pedagogical credibility.

Having separated out the two functions of display and input, we can now use the best of breed for both - the ‘Mobi View’ on the one hand, and the best possible display screen on the other. Traditionally, in order to show images with high contrast, and videos, teachers have found themselves drawing the blinds and switching off the lights. This has been to achieve acceptable colours and a high contrast, leading to children spending hours in dim and gloomy surroundings. The problem has been addressed in the past by spending more money on more powerful projectors, with much higher on-going sustainability costs. In Barking and Dagenham, uniquely in the UK, the problem has been addressed by looking at new and innovative display screen materials which allow vibrant high contrast images unaffected by high ambient light levels, so that lessons can take place with all the lights on and most of the blinds drawn back.

These new screens can be used with normal medium-power projectors, and when used in conjunction with a mobile interactive whiteboard the solution is about £1000 less to install than a traditional static IWB with ultra short-throw projector (to reduce the shadow thrown by the user). Apart from the cost saving, there are major pedagogical advantages of a large display and mobile interactivity.

Using technology to solve problems

In most areas of life, technology is developed and applied to address existing problems and to make either business or home life easier or more effective, or to enable us to do things not previously possible. It is a sad fact that in education, technology solutions developed for other sectors, are promoted for use in schools, regardless of their fitness for purpose. Rather than offering solutions to problems that teachers and learners have identified, they often create a whole new set of problems, and teachers are blamed if they don’t adapt quickly enough to using technology that has little to offer effective pedagogy.

There are many problems that teachers have come up against. These include showing something small to the whole class at the same time, demonstrating a precise technique (such as a brush stroke, a stitch, soldering), or annotating real objects. Similarly, the problems faced by learners might include modelling their practice to the rest of the class or sharing their work with their peers.

The visualiser provides a solution to these problems, and many more besides. In some ways it is like an up to date and  digital version of the OHP, in that it is used in the same way, although now connected to a modern ceiling mounted projector, and a computer. It is an example of a pedagogically sound forward facing technology. It enables you to display real objects (such as flowers, rock samples, crystals, circuits or small pictures from books or magazines that would otherwise have been photocopied for everyone to see and discuss at the same time). Objects placed on the visualiser and the image displayed within a Window on the computer, can then be annotated using the ‘Mobi View’ from anywhere in the classroom, and the resulting image and annotations saved on the network for future study or made available to pupils via the school’s Learning Platform.

The teacher shown using the visualiser in the picture is positioned so that he can maintain eye contact with the class. The ideal position of the Visualiser is therefore away from the wall, much like the position needed for the old OHPs. It was for this reason that teachers in Barking and Dagenham designed a purpose-built mobile teacher workstation and developed the concept of the ‘umbilical cord’ which connected the workstation to a convenient panel on the wall.

The workstation has lockable wheels, a secure cupboard with racks for the computer, DVD player and amplifier, pull-out trays for keyboard and mouse, and sufficient depth for a flat-bed visualiser and monitor. In addition, there are extra sockets on the top providing power, network and USB for easy access. All the cable management is inside the workstation, and there is a secure access panel for technical staff. Once in the optimal working position, the wheels can be locked, and heavy duty safety mats can be placed over the umbilical cord.

The Barking and Dagenham Interactive Technology Solution

This is the very latest state-of-the-art solution for interactive whole class teaching (although just as applicable to smaller groups), and although the individual components are widely used across the world,  it is in Barking and Dagenham that they have been assembled together in this way. For example, the mobile interactive whiteboards are gaining considerable market share compared to the more traditional static versions, but are yet to be used elsewhere with the new high contrast screens.

The components of the solutions are:
Computer, keyboard and mouse
22” widescreen desktop monitor
Mobile Interactive Whiteboard
100” diagonal Supernova projection screen
Ceiling mounted, conventional throw, projector
DVD player
Wall mounted speakers
Teacher Workstation

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