SynergyNet: integrating multi-touch software in classrooms for collaborative learning
The Durham University SynergyNet project will investigate a technology-driven interactive classroom for schools that is intended to improve the way students can collaborate in group activities. It is a £1.5 million research project funded for four years by the EPSRC/ESRC funding councils through the Teaching and Learning Research Programme’s Technology Enhanced Learning programme . The work is a collaboration between three of Durham University’s Departments: Computer Science, Education and Psychology. Part of this research will involve the development of software to operate the new multi-touch technology. All software that is developed as part of this project will be open source and so will be free to schools.
The technology behind this new vision of the classroom is based on a technology just released on the market called multi-touch. Central to SynergyNet is a new form of desk that contains a large built-in multi-touch surface.
Multi-touch surfaces are similar to PDAs, interactive whiteboards (IWBs) or tablet PCs in that they remove the need for a mouse or keyboard by allowing the user to interact directly with a finger or stylus. However, unlike these technologies, multi-touch surfaces can detect simultaneous contacts by fingers or pens. Therefore, two or more pupils can operate the desk at the same time. So a single multi-touch desk could act as a set of individual digital work spaces and/or a single large computer workspace allowing pupils both to work on their own or to cooperate on a task. Our research has shown that increased opportunities for students’ involvement in the classroom are likely to improve attendance, attention and engagement in learning.
One of our concerns leading to the proposal to investigate the integration of multi-touch in learners’ desks is that the use of IWBs is more often associated with teacher-led classroom approaches. We believe that there are many practical reasons for this, including issues such as that:
the height of board may need to be different for pupils and for teachers;
older pupils are often less keen to leave their seats and move to the front of the class;
individual pupils involvement in whole-class teaching can reduce lesson pace and reduce overall engagement.
We believe that to make a real change in pedagogy it is necessary that, whenever new software is developed, careful consideration must be made about its operational use within the classroom. All our work will therefore be carefully driven by feedback from the those involved, so both teachers and pupils will be important participants within this research.
Our vision for the classroom is that all students will have direct access to this technology at all times. Multi-touch hardware will become the technology that is embedded within learners’ desks. This means that all classroom-based activities can be supported, as needed, by technology and students can move easily between class and group activities and individual tasks. It will also bring increased opportunity for competitive activities between groups i.e. between desks, where electronic feedback could be presented on each desk to mark the progress of the student groups.
For the teacher also this technology will offer a new way of working. We envisage that in time interactive whiteboards will also offer this technology. So a teacher will be able to demonstrate how to use a desk from their presentation board. One additional feature that will be available to teachers would be the ability to monitor what is going on at each desk from a ‘teacher console’ by displaying small representations of each desk (rather like photographic images). This will enable a teacher the opportunity to monitor, at a glance, the progress of each group. A further opportunity provided by SynergyNet’s digital workspaces is for teachers to replay group actions and, thereby enabling teachers to review their teaching and adopt reflective practices or be involved in collaborative coaching.
However, the integration of multi-touch within a classroom involves a change from single (i.e. one mouse or keyboard) to simultaneous input and so it necessitates a complete redesign of the user interface of this new form of computer and this work is still very much in its infancy. The funds for this research are to develop software and a small number of applications to demonstrate and evaluate the true potential of this hardware within the classroom. The project will involve working with teachers and children of all ages to evaluate both the usability and the robustness of the developed solution within the classroom.
Progress so far has concentrated on the development an infrastructure to run the multi-touch applications and of a set of software building blocks to enable the learning content to be easily and quickly developed. A small range teaching materials are now available and these are now being run on the new multi-touch desks to investigate the impact of the technology on children’s learning.
For further information about the educational dimensions of the project please see the SynergyNet website. More information about the project can also be found on the leaflet prepared by the Technology Enhanced Learning Research Group (see 'Resources' below).
Professor Steven Higgins: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Professor Joe Elliott: email email@example.com
- SynergyNet Leaflet prepared by Technology Enhanced Learning Research Group (last modified: 7 May 2009)