Smarter Than the Average Desk

The Usability Lab, tucked away inside the offices of the Active Learning in Computing group at Durham University in the north of England, is a schoolchild’s dream. In one corner, a giant glass table with a tactile computer interface blinks to life, inviting pupils to move icons around with their fingers. Against a wall are two huge, white boxes that look like control panels from Star Trek, with screens showing still water resting on grey pebbles. To the delight of the children who have been lucky enough to test the system, touching the display sends ripples through the water.

“There’s been an explosion in technology-enhanced learning in the last 10 years as technology has become more affordable and widespread.” –Shaaron Ainsworth

: A schoolchild tries out an interactive multi-touch desk designed by researchers at the Active Learning in Computing group at Durham University.

Software engineer Andrew Hatch, a 31-year-old teaching fellow in the department, hopes to further extend these technologies by creating multi-touch desks, giving children the opportunity to work together in teams on interactive classroom projects. “I have a son who is 7 months old. The capacity of technology to give him and other children a social attitude to the world is what excites me,” he says, enthusiastically tapping more ripples onto the screen.

Hatch’s research combines his engineering skills with his passion for improving education, a passion all 20 members of Durham’s Active Learning in Computing group share. “There was a time when most schools had a single computer and wheeled it around to each classroom. Today, technology is part of their natural, breathing life,” says group director Elizabeth Burd, who joined the department 12 years ago as a researcher. “What I want to do is take all the best parts out of different styles of classrooms. There’s too much expectation on the teacher to deliver, and with more active skills, children learn better. Our approach is that knowledge is there to be found by students, not to be learned.”

According to the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, schools and colleges are investing heavily in technologies such as those being created at Durham, which may be driving an increase in opportunities for researchers. The field is highly interdisciplinary, requiring the expertise of not only scientists like Hatch but also education experts and psychologists.

Getting support

In the last 5 years, the United Kingdom has seen new technologies rapidly enter classrooms, feeding a new generation of children who grow up surrounded by technology–so-called digital natives. A 2003 U.K. government initiative is responsible for more than half of school classrooms now having interactive whiteboards in place of traditional chalkboards–more than 36,500 of them in total. Connected to a computer, the whiteboards allow teachers to call up information from the Internet, play videos, and set pictorial quizzes.

Two years after this initiative began, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) approved £315 million of funding for 74 Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs), of which Burd’s group is one. Another team that received funding was the Visual Learning Lab at the University of Nottingham in central England, which promotes the expression of ideas through graphics and video. And computer scientists are not the only ones leading such research. “CETLs are well distributed across the country and reach across all the main subject areas–in science, health, arts, and humanities–and many aspects of student learning,” says John Selby, director of education and participation at the HEFCE.

For example, geographers and engineers teamed up to create the Spatial Literacy in Teaching group at the University of Leicester, also in central England, which aims to improve students’ understanding of geography by introducing them to cutting-edge geospatial and navigational technologies. The Communication and Clinical Skills Centre at Queen Mary, University of London, has used its slice of the funding to create a mobile bus to help undergraduate medical students practice important skills such as performing eye examinations and interpreting x-rays.

But not all of these new ideas will make it into the classroom. “The challenge is that changing teaching and learning involves slow cultural processes,” says Seb Schmoller, chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology, which was founded in 1993 and now has more than 500 individual and at least 250 organizational members. “In a proportion of classrooms, the interactive whiteboard is having a transformative effect, but in others it’s not. For the classroom to change in a major way, the curriculum needs to change,” he adds.

Predicting the future of education

For a new device to become widely adopted by schools, designers must anticipate how technology will change at least a decade into the future. Hatch’s vision is informed by more than a decade of involvement with classroom technology. In 1997, as a 2nd-year undergraduate software engineering student at Durham University, he and a friend launched a company to help local schools network their computers for the first time. He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in software architecture and visualization, also at Durham, before becoming a teaching fellow.

The interactive desk he’s now helping to develop is futuristic at first glance but technologically simple. A small camera hidden behind the display panel watches every touch and maps it onto a two-dimensional graph. This information is processed by a separate desktop computer, which then feeds it into an appropriate software program and relays it back onto the giant screen using a standard overhead projector. Unlike the single-touch interfaces often found on laptop touch pads, this desk can respond to any number of contacts at the same time. “For us, the hardware isn’t much of a concern because it is widely available and getting cheaper,” explains Hatch, referring to gadgets such as the Apple iPhone, which is able to translate two fingertips pinching together and moving apart into smaller and bigger objects, respectively, on its small display.

With costs falling, Hatch’s ambition is to see this kind of technology in every classroom. “It’s all about social pedagogy–getting children to collaborate and work together so their learning is improved,” he says. He’s now at the start of a new 4-year project to develop a learning system around multi-touch desks. “One of the possibilities is that you could have competitions between tables. You could even have a virtual archaeological dig as a team, finding bones, and then learning about what they mean,” he explains.

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Hatch envisions classrooms where paper and pencils are unnecessary. A virtual keyboard, adjustable in size and language, could appear on the screen on command, with students also using pen-like styluses equipped with infrared LEDs.

The prospect of revolutionizing education is attracting more researchers into such disciplines. Career paths are many and varied. For example, Hatch comes from an engineering background while Burd, the group’s director, started out with an undergraduate degree in education.

“We’ve had a primary schoolteacher and a games developer take our Ph.D.,” says psychologist Shaaron Ainsworth, who works with the popular postgraduate program at the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Nottingham. Similar courses are available at the Open University, which is a distance-learning institution in Milton Keynes, and at the universities of Bristol, Sussex, and Bath. “There’s been an explosion in technology-enhanced learning in the last 10 years as technology has become more affordable and widespread. The number of students in our master’s program in [information and communication technology] and education has trebled since 2005,” Ainsworth explains.

Kevin Walker, a researcher at the London Knowledge Lab, which develops digital technologies for the classroom, adds that a growing number of jobs are available for graduates in school-teaching and in industry. “For technical developers, there are a lot of opportunities out there,” he says. Companies such as RM, which supplies software to U.K. schools, and Caspian Learning, which makes 3D learning games, hire scientists with interests in education.

As for the most important quality someone needs to succeed in such a career, according to Burd, it’s simple: “A passion to be able to interest others in technology.”

Photos, top to bottom: North News and Pictures, Angela Saini, Simon Ryder/UNP, Angela Saini.

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