Do you need an interactive touch screen? (part 2)

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In the previous blog I looked at the reasons why you might need an interactive touch screen. These were about how you are presenting to your teaching group and the kind of teaching actions you want to support. I reached the conclusion that if  you need to present to the entire group then you definitely need a display screen.

But does that display screen need to be interactive? Do you have to be able to manipulate content on the screen or can you just get away with using your computer when showing content to your group? This is an important secondary question, so let’s look at it in a little more detail.

My answer to it is rooted not in technology but in human nature, and in particular the instinctive ways we respond to people around us and what they are doing.  I’ve not been a teacher for many a year, but I have done many many presentations and led hundreds of training sessions so I know a lot about talking to a group of people and the curious dynamics involved in trying to keep their attention and get your message across. One thing I know for sure is that keeping their attention is not easy. People can get distracted if you wander off your message. Even worse, if you say something which is exciting to them they may spontaneously start discussing this with the person next to them, seemingly oblivious to the social expectation that you stay quiet in a ‘one to many’ presentation unless the speaker explicitly asks for your input. So you will lose the group if you are too boring (obviously), but you may equally lose the group if you are too interesting….

Teachers are, in my experience, the absolute all time, undisputed, worst ever for this.  Give a group of teachers just a sniff of a gap in your presentation and they’ll start talking, and then getting them to stop is a Herculean task.

One thing that really helps with sustaiing a groups’ attention is being able to command the room by standing in front of them, using your position in the room and your physical presence as a proxy for your authority.  Put simply  you can command more of the room stood up than sat down. You may hazard a go at sitting on the table if a session is going well, but it is a rare presenter who is confident enough to sit on the normal seats during their presentation, because once that height advantage is lost, the attention of the room is much harder to hold.

Touch screens are a vital tool in the teachers’s armoury as they allow you to manipulate your content and interact with your slide stack or spreadsheet or whatever you are doing whilst stood up. If the screen was a display only device you would have to duck back to where your PC or laptop is, and the minute you go back to that, even if just to type a URL in, you’ve probably lost the room. Your audience may not be deliberately looking for an opportunity to seize the momentum from you,  but something deep and primal in the brain kicks in once the presenter is no longer in the magical zone at the front of the group.

So a touch screen helps you command the attention of the group.  As the group can also see every move you make on the screen, every button you press and so on, there is a sense of it being a shared space and this contributes to the efforts you are making to bring the room along with you through consent, rather than by coercion.

Touch screens are more expensive than displays, but if you are a budget holder ask yourself how much extra you want to spend to help your teachers do their job well.

Work out the additional cost of an interactive screen over a display screen and then divide that by the lifetime of the device. You then have the amount of money you are willing to spend to give teachers’ that help. Or the amount of money you want to save in order to make their already tough jobs tougher still.

 

(Image: Tarek Ali Taha (Own work)

[CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you need an interactive touch screen? (part 1)

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This chap is confident that teaching from the front is a jolly good thing….

I work for a company that manufactures touchscreens. It’s an amazing company and it makes extremely cool technology and I love my job.  It’s a bit of sales, a bit of training, a bit of business development, a bit of technical support and other bits besides.

So why write a blog with a title like this? Because if you ask a school the big existential question: ‘Do you need an interactive touch screen?’ and they say “no”, then that is pretty much the end of the conversation, particularly if they have some good reasons to back this up.  Doesn’t matter how cool your swag is, if a school doesn’t want it, then you’re out of the game.

So why complicate things with this question; surely all schools and all classrooms need interactive touch screens?

The reason for posing the question is twofold.

Firstly quite a few of my formative years were spent doing research into ed-tech and one thing you learn doing research is to question everything. So asking big questions like ‘do you really need an interactive touch screen?’ is a powerful thing to ask in the edtech research space, because it challenges orthodox thinking and forces you to think again about the fundamentals of what ed-tech is meant to achieve. If the answer is ‘we need interactive touch screens because our interactive whiteboards are all old and breaking down’ then more thought is probably needed.

Secondly, on occasions a prospective school or college will ask the question of themselves:  ‘Do we actually need interactive touch screens’.  They do represent a cost, and like any cost it needs justifying. A budget will always outstrip the amount of things it could be spent on, so every purchase is competing with every other, tough decision need to be made.

Answering the question

My instinct when faced with a big question like: ‘Do you need interactive touch screens?’ is to interrogate the teaching strategy of the school or college. What kinds of teaching do you want to see happening? How are teachers to spend the precious time they have with students and which kind of behaviours and practices do you want to promote and which ones do you want to discourage or even proscribe? Once you have an answer for that you can get closer to an honest answer to the question. Now the question of the teachingf strategy is one for Senior Leadership Team (SLT), or at least it should be.  The SLT should work to set the teaching strategy of the school and then put in place the correct support so teaching staff can implement this strategy. An SLT which does not spend a good proportion of its time thinking about teaching and learning and how to improve it, is not doing its job.

Does your teaching strategy include talking to the whole group?

I think it would be very rare for any school or college to have a teaching strategy which did not involve the teacher talking to the whole group, for at least some part of a lesson1.  This is so basic an assertion that I doubt it gets explicitly covered in teaching strategies, it’s simply a given that the teacher will stand at the front and talk to the class as a whole, at the start of the lesson and once again at the end. So once thjis decision has been made you can ask the question: ‘When the teacher is doing that, how do you want to support them?’ Of course, ut is possible to talk to a group without any audio visual aids. a lot of the most popular TED talks happen on a blank stage with nothing but the speaker and a spotlight. But often teachers need something on the screen, it may be they are setting up group work and need the instructions, or are explaining a concept and need the formulae up  there, or teaching a historical idea and have images and illustration which help.

Once you have decided that it is desirable for a teacher to spend at least some of the lesson addressing the entire class it becomes a necessity to have a screen to display a computer image at a size that all of the participants can see.

So we have got some of the way there.You have at least decided that to support your pedagogic strategy you need a display screen.

In the next blog post, we’ll take a look at whether it needs to be interactive or not.

Footnote

1: It is very easy to imagine a situation where a teacher did not ever address all of the class together. If the classroom is a ‘flipped one’, then the whole class instruction would be created by the teacher and then delivered to the students to access outside of lesson time. So the teacher could make a 10 minute video on the structure of the periodic table, and use a learning environment to deliver this to the students who all watch it individually in their own time.  The classroom time is then devoted to them working through a group or individual activity the teacher sets with the teacher visiting each group or individual and supporting them according to their need. I know of no school where this happens though.

 

You have learned nothing…..

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BETT 2018 is almost upon us, and in the frenzy of activity before the show I got asked to write a couple of hundred words on some key questions for one of the numerous pre-show articless.  One of the questions was very predictable and along the lines of ‘what to look out for at this year’s BETT show’. My first answer was…

Why not visit the show, walk about (in comfortable shoes) and decide for yourself?

…but I had to delete that and write something more more sensible.

The second question was striking:

What has been the biggest lesson schools have learned about technology (in the past 10 years)?

This got me thinking hard, and once again my first answer was honest and also had to be deleted because the answer was:

‘Nothing,           not a bean,           nowt’.

Before you stop reading and label me a cynical nihilist, let me explain why that was my gut reaction to the question.

UK schools have invested a great deal in educational technology in the last 10 years. If I had time I would  see if I could get an estimate of the figure or check if any research had been done, but we all know it’s a big stack of cash. The reason for my answer is because I think many schools still spend money on technology because they think that technology is the answer and it will have a transformative effect on the schoo in and of itself. And when it doesn’t happen they blame the technology and then look for the next ‘new thing’.

The trouble is that it won’t, and technology transforms nothing unless the school works really hard to understand what it wants to achieve and creates an overarching strategy where technology is a part of that strategy.  Now if you are a school leader or from a school which has worked hard to create that strategy and then used your ed-tech spend in order to realise that vision, you will no doubt be annoyed with me now for the unnecessarily combative tone of this post and it’s exaggerated attention seeking title.

Sorry

But many schools still buy technology without giving enough thought to how they are going to use it, how it will affect the existing pedagogic practices of the school and how they need to control the implementation of the technology to achieve the desired outcome.

If I was in charge of the entire thing (UK education, and the ed tech suppliers and the international market for ed tech which I know is a little unlikely), I would order a BETT sabbatical. For a single year I would cancel the show.  But all of the teachers, school leaders and others would have to use the time they would have spent at the show sitting down and thinking very hard about how they want to transform their school, and then working out what technology (if any) will help that and what would hinder it. For instance if you felt your students were too passive, to reliant on teacher input, then design a strategy to make teaching more challenging with more open ended lessons where students take control. Then go and find hardware and software which could best support that.

Incidentally if this did come to pass, then the first question about ‘what to look out for at this year’s BETT’ would be redundant, because schools would only be looking out for what could help them with their strategy. They wouldn’t care about the latest kit, the coolest new shiny things or the bleeding edge, they’d just find what they needed and ignore the rest.

Looking forward to seeing you all at BETT again this year; let’s learn nothing again 😉

 

Image Attribution:

tin can telephone nothing by T s Beall and many others is licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

Making Sense of Touch Screens

In November I found a new position working at Prowise. Prowise is a manufacturer of interactive touch screens and my job is to help spread the word about just how good Prowise Touch Screens are and the possibilities they create.

When I joined Prowise in many ways I felt like I was coming home; a strange emotion for someone starting at a company but I’d spent so long in the IWB industry that I realised that this is where I do my best work and am happiest. I’d first got up close and personal to an IWB when I won a research contract to evaluate the Whiteboard rollout at St Thomas Aquins School in Edinburgh. A few years later I was tempted into a commercial role and left the hallowed halls of academia.  Joining Prowise and starting at a company that innovates ruthlessly and won’t take second-best in any circumstance is very exhilarating – and just a bit scary.

One of the tasks I set myself over the break, was some in-depth research on the touch screen market, and all the other companies who make touch screens and market them to education.  I’m stupidly nosey which means I love to know what products and services the competition are offering.

This research took quite a chunk of the Christmas break, and I approached it by visiting the websites of all of the main players in the market and really spending time getting to know their solutions and what they thought was good about their kit.  I also spent some time pretending to be a teacher, member of SLT or IT Manager who was trying to make sense of the touch screen market.

  1. Would the websites help me make decision?
  2. Would I be faced with endless technical jargon and other rubbish?
  3. Would I know what to buy and why to buy it?

I knew what I would find before I even started the task; and the results surprised me not one bit.

So here are my conclusions:

1: The market is complicated and opaque.  Making sense of each company’s offering is difficult.  It is easy to get bamboozled by technical jargon, and if that isn’t bad enough, you have to also wade through endless marketing guff distilled into trite phrases such as: ‘breaking down the barriers to communication‘; ‘setting the classroom free‘; ‘touching your better self‘ and so on.  (These are all invented examples of course, but you get the idea!)

2: Most manufacturers have too many product lines which confuses people even more.  Choice is having meaningful decisions to make, rather than being faced with a huge list of “blah, blah blah”.  Often touch screens are divided into ‘corporate’ and ‘education’ models.  Too many times this is the identical touch screen, just bundled with different software. Often you pay more for the corporate model which means you are shelling out hard-earned cash for some second rate software which in other circumstances the manufacturer couldn’t give away for free. I’m no business guru, but my feeling is that post-2008 companies are equally as careful with how they spend their money as schools, so why rip them off? Some manufacturer’s models differ by just a single number e.g. EF-455B and EF455B2 but are quite different (HD versus 4K for instance).

3: Software is a huge problem.  Software is needed to get the most out of any touch screen solution, I knew that even as a young and foolish researcher in a windswept Edinburgh in 2003, but so many manufacturers do not let you trial their software, so you have to wait until you are a customer or get a demo. This is not good; if the software is as good as you think it is, then let people try it out for themselves. If you are going to charge extra for software then this is a perfectly logical business model, but you need to let people browsing your website know this sooner rather than later. They will be putting together a budget for the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for this stuff!!

4:  People will easily get confused about whether the boards come with a mainboard or not. The trend is for manufacturers to add a basic Android computer or similar mini-PC-thingy to a screen so that you can switch it on and get access to features such as whiteboarding or even browsing without the need to connect a PC. Whether the screen had a mainboard or not and what it could do was clear on only a handful of manufacturer’s websites.  This is not a minor thing, being able to use the screen without a PC could be crucial for what you need the screen for.

I ended up with a 35 page document of my findings.  But the 4 points above are a fair distillation of what I found.  Maybe I approached the exercise in too cynical a frame of mind? Perhaps I’m just an old ed-tech lag hankering after days of simplicity which are long gone?

And Prowise? Where does Prowise fit into this….

Let’s look back at the 4 points:

1: Complex and Opaque
Prowise put the most important information on a single web page so you can compare the boards easily.  If you want more technical information to feed your inner geek we can give that to you until your eyes roll back in your head, but when you are looking for the salient points you get them. Simple

2: Complex Product Lines
Prowise have just 2 product lines, EntryLine and Proline+
The product line names explain what the products are. All screens are 4k. EntryLine screen sizes are:  65, 75, 86, Proline+  are: 65 and 75. Simple.

3: Inacccessible software
Prowise boards come with Prowise Presenter software.  This is cloud-based whiteboarding software and we offer a free account to everyone, whether the school has a Prowise Screen or not.  You can click the button at the top right of the Prowise.com site to create your free account. This is full access to all features of Presenter, nothing locked or disabled.  So you can try our software out to see if it works for you on any screen. Simple.

4. Mainboard or not?
Prowise boards (EntryLine and Proline+) come with Prowise Central pre-loaded, this is a mainboard running Android. This means you can start the screen with no PC and get whiteboarding.  Want to save your stuff?  Save it to the mainboard memory or take a snapshot of a QR code with your phone and it transfer there immediately.  Need to check something out online? A browser is included.  Want to change source because you finally decided to plug your laptop in? Just select the source from the OnScreen menu and off you go.  Launch Prowise Central by placing your 5 fingers on the screen. Do what you need to do, then dismiss it. Simple.

It. Is. That. Simple.

If want to see what Prowise can do for your school then we’ll come and do a demo for you.
Just don’t expect us to ‘touch your better self’ 😉

 

 

 

Whiteboard hardware battles, what do they mean?

Merlin John’s website has a review by Chris Drage of the new Promethean 500 Pro Series Interactive Whiteboard.

Now the review is thorough and does a good job of evaluating the technical capabilities of Promethean’s new offering. Although the reasons Promethean decided to call it the ‘pro’ board are somewhat puzzling, unless of course they are going to rebadge their existing boards as amateur, which seems unlikely.

So the review is a sound piece of work. The reason I have decided to write this is that once again the education community is in danger of missing the point when it comes to Interactive Whiteboards. The point was missed first time around when the boards were seen as a vehicle to present flash (often literally) pre-prepared content from publishers rather than as part of a toolkit which a teacher could use to create a learning space. Currently the IWB manufacturers are moving further into the multi-touch and multi-user world with the new 800 series by SMART offering multi touch gestures and 2 users working simultaneously within the software (with either touch or pens).  This indicates a potential arms race as all of the manufacturers work to add as many touch points as they can to their boards to entice buyers and outdo the competition.  But the real pedagogical issue at stake here is definitely not about the number of users or touches, it’s about what you do with the users or touches, in education terms, once you have them.

Promethean are currently celebrating their 4 touch points, but I’ve not seen much in the review or in the promotional literature which makes a proper evidence based case for why having 4 students interacting on the board is going to make a substantial difference to learning outcomes.  Let’s start with the question of what they students will be doing; just what activity are they pursuing? It is true that any experienced Activinspire user worth their salt could create some drag and drop games or magic paper type activities and having more than one student being able to work on these at any one time does present some limited advantages over single touch boards.  But if you can find me a teacher who is going to use this feature regularly (say once a day minimum) and purposely set out to design activities to take advantage of this functionality, then I would be extremely surprised. No correction, I’d not be surprised I’d just not believe you and honestly, I don’t think teachers will use these features. They may be more likely to use them in Primary but I don’t see many secondary lessons designed so 4 students are at the front interacting with the board.  What do the rest of the group do during this time, they can’t watch the students working on the board because a line of kids blocks out the image, so just how does the teacher create a pedagogical design to exploit this function and balance it with teaching the rest of the group. By way of explanation of this point, find me a teacher who can currently use the Promethean or SMART software to even 60% of its full potential and I’m quite surprised, expecting them to use this technology to its full is not realistic so once again we have the potential for a gimmick which looks great at BETT, enticing in the sales literature, and is of zero use in the classroom.

Interactive Whiteboards as a category of technology have been coming in for quite a bit of criticism lately, and were described by one speaker at the NAACE conference in March as ‘an outdated technology’ as if they really are due for the scrap heap (once all the relevant WEEE directives have been settled of course). But contrary to what I have written above I believe that an Interactive Whiteboard is essential for any teacher, for reasons which do not live in the hardware itself (hence hardware advancements are not that important), but are all to do with the software. The major manufacturers have worked hard on their software, perceiving correctly that amongst discerning users this is what can give them the edge on the competition. And the result are software platforms which are very well suited to the kinds of work which teachers do (because only good suggestions from teachers made it into the features of the software). In particular the software allows for the rapid and easy aggregation of data and multimedia from various sources so a lesson does not need to be completely prepared in advance and delivered without deviation from the script as so often happens when PowerPoint is used in classrooms.  Good whiteboard software allows teachers to extemporise, even wing it a bit, pick up on interesting avenues and explore them, drag resources from the net in real time, and crucially create a shared meaning on the board as some parts of the lesson are created in front of the class.  Take the board away and you take the software away and the teacher then falls back on the woefully inadequate features of PowerPoint and their whole approach to lesson planning is strait jacketed by a software designed for business presentations rather than teaching.

So advances in hardware are not exactly unwelcome and there is bound to be further innovation, but the new shiny hardware is no way as important as it seems. Until more teachers use the software and the boards fully, then extra functionality is wasted.  Think of a racing driver driving regularly at the limits of his or her car who is then handed a improved car with better suspension, better brakes and a slightly more powerful engine. They will immediately record better laptimes and soon push that new model to its limits. But put that car in the hands of someone who drives only occasionally and they would not exploit its full power because of their lack of mastery of any previous models. Unfortunately with whiteboards in the UK, many teachers are Sunday drivers or never get their cars out of the garage..  True advancements in IWB usage will come from CPD to get teachers exploiting the technology to its full potential.