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


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 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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 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’ 😉




Scaring the C++P out of KS1 teachers….

So it’s July and now we have sight of the new Computing part of the National Curriculum. On taking office, Michael Gove was determined to impose rigour on a curriculum he had argued had become flaccid and unchallenging during the new Labour years and very soon he had his sights

on the ICT curriculum. There was much evidence that work for students, particularly in Key Stage 3 when they went to Secondary school was not challenging, and at worst little more than a continual rehash of Microsoft Office skills. Of course that caricature has power as anecdotal evidence and it was not the case that ICT had become moribund in all schools. But during my time as a researcher going into schools I did see some pretty boring ICT lessons and talked to students who felt they did much more creative things with computing outside the school curriculum. So Gove sucked ICT into the maelstrom of his National Curriculum reforms, and the term ICT was ditched in favour of the more rigorous term ‘computing;. During the planning of the curriculum many bodies (including the British Computer Society and Mirandanet) gave evidence as to what should be in the new curriculum, and a concensus of such emerged that there should be more emphasis on programming and coding. So the conceptual workout provided by figuring out how to write computer programs was to replace endless dicking around with fancy fonts and Word Art. Which is probably no bad thing.

But reading the curriculum today I was struck by how the concept of rigour had rather taken hold of the thing too much, in fact it seems to have created some rather questionable ideas about what can be taught appropriately at certain ages. I reserve my comments here solely to the KS1 curriculum, with a reminder that these are children between the ages of 5 and 7.

Here is the first part of the curriculum

Key stage 1
Pupils should be taught to:

  •  understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions 

actually, let’s just take those first 4 words ‘understand what algorithms are’ and look in a little more detail about what is being asked of young children and their teachers here. If you set off to find a hard and fast definition of what an algorithm is, you will soon realise that a straight forward unequivocal definition is not easy to find.  Computer scientists and mathematicians will argue about exactly what constitutes an algorithm and even a cursory search through literature in the material will soon have you enmeshed deep in the conceptual difficulties of computation, Turing Machines and Hilbert’s ‘decision problem’. At its most basic an Algorithm is a series of steps through which a problem can be solved (in this case by a digital computer). But an algorithm is not necessarily the same as a computer program.

Firstly you can write computer programs which solve nothing and therefore are not algorithms.  Showing my age here, my first computer program (in BASIC) was the 80s classic

10 PRINT “hello world”

20 GOTO 10

This made  a very pretty pattern on the screen and delighted teenage boys, and it is clearly a computer program (when you type RUN it did something). But it’s not an algorithm because it doesn’t solve a problem, and even worse it’s non-terminating, the program will run for ever until you hit the ESC key and saved the computer from its hellish loop. An algorithm has a clear set of steps and a procedure for termination (just like a good drinker, it knows when it’s had enough and stops)  At the other end of the scale from my jejune tinkering with the Commodore PET in 1983, it is the case that more complex computer programs may have thousands of algorithms contained within them. Most often these are nested like Russian dolls with the output of one algorithm feeding into the input of another in myriad patterns of dizzying complexity (to us humans at least). The next time your computer screen freezes, you can be sure that somewhere in the bowels of your computer two or more algorithms have had a falling out and the consequences of this are slowing your game of angry birds to an agonising crawl.

The conceptual complexities of algorithms are fascinating but is it not too much to expect KS1 teachers to grasp these when they have to be generalists, teaching every subject in the curriculum?  This is not meant as patronising towards these teachers, in fact I have nothing but admiration for their skills and I know enough about schools to realise I would probably last about 15 minutes in charge of a KS1 class.  The question remains why the curriculum obsesses about teaching this notion of an algorithm to such young children and what they think will be gained from doing this.  I imagine that this first part of the curriculum will scare the C++P out of many Ks1 teachers who will either ignore it completely (in which case the curriculum is poorly framed  as it is asking something which cannot be done), or they may come up with a notion of what an algorithm which is not correct and therefore risk confusing children unnecessarily.  I searched in vain for any government support documents or extra guidance to help explain this concept of the algorithm to teachers who will be delivering this curriculum from 2014 and could find none. That is perhaps not unsurprising for a DfE which under Gove’s custody has become extremely good at dictating terms to schools, but not so good at supporting them.

Just to be clear, I think that teaching older children (from KS2 onwards) about algorithms and computer programming is a great idea, but I see little evidence that the new curriculum takes account of what children at KS1 are able to learn (in a way which is genuinely) and what their teachers are able to teach them concerning the complexities of computing science.

I think it would  have been better to have framed the KS1 curriculum to have some programming in (as it does), and omitted the notion of algorithms at this stage to avoid unnecessary complexity (coincidentally a trait of a good programmer is to do this too).  This would be something along the lines of ‘Pupils should be taught to understand that computers run programs which consist of a series of precise instructions’. For me this sounds more realistic, more achievable at KS1 and avoids the unnecessary fetishisation of the concept of the algorithm.

But if you think differently, please go ahead and leave a comment.