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

irons
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…..

nothing

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

 

Touchscreens for Huddle Rooms

An increasingly common feature of the modern workplace are huddle rooms.  The word sounds awkward, but the concept is useful as it denotes a space where a small group can come together informally to have a meeting; work out ideas, get some stuff done and then return to their desks.

Huddle rooms became necessary as more and more work areas in business were converted to open plan. Open Plan is great for maximising space and also having employees feeling involved in things (as opposed to shut into individual offices like battery hens). But the space in an open plan office is not conducive to a meeting, either you risk interrupting everybody else working, or conduct your business in the hushed tones you have to use when visiting the Sistine Chapel.

Huddle type spaces are even added by innovative architects and designers in areas such as motor way services. The image below shows some ‘sheds’ at the back where you can get some privacy and escape the bustle of the main room.

sheds
Gloucester Services

Huddle spaces are informal, and my view is that they should not be bookable like meeting rooms, but used as needed in a more ad hoc basis. This way they encourage spontaneity and your employees to act quickly on ideas and get them progressed.

So what technology do you put in a Huddle Room?

Video conferencing is important along with a display screen, but ideally you need an interactive surface for scribbling and sketching.  And the technology must be really easy to use, people should be able to sit down, do what they need to, save or capture it and move on.  Nobody has time for training on complicated tech, and even if they did, they’d forget it all when they actually wanted to have a meeting, and waste all of their time messing around with the kit rather than working.

The ProLine+ is a great choice of interactive touchscreen for a Huddle Room.  Here are the reasons for this:

proline+

1: Prowise Central: the onboard operating system for the screen.  It means the screen can be used without a PC. You get a browser, and a whiteboarding application.  You can save your work to the memory (to return to it later); email it or capture a full resolution copy of it by snapping the QR code with your phone or tablet.

2: Prowise Reflect: Want to get your computer display on the big screen but can’t be faffed with cables? The ProLine+ has Prowise Reflect for wireless sharing of screens, download the app to your device and share it easily with the group.

3: ProWrite Ink:  The ProLine+ touch is powered by Infared (tracking 20 points of touch), but it also has a very slick pen powered by (magic) electro-magnets.  This means you can write on the board just as you do on paper, the harder you press the thicker your line gets, and you can rest your hand on the screen as you write, as the pen cancels out the IR touch. You have to actually do this yourself to experience what a great experience it is.

4:  Full 7 year warranty.  If you do invest in this technology for your Huddle Rooms you will want to get a good return on investment. The ProLine+ is built to last with an industry beating 7 year full warranty. I won’t bore you with the costs and maths, but over the 7 years you could get this solution for around £480 per year.  You won’t be able to put a figure easily on the results of your employees collaborating but my guess is that even with a handful of meetings a month this cost will be coming back to your business ten fold.

5: Flexibility.  Huddle room design is still evolving and local space and the layout of your building will dictate how you set up your spaces. But why commit to fixing the screens on the wall when Prowise have built a custom mobile lift for the ProLine+ ?

This means the screen can be raised and lowered within the meeting, but the screen can also be wheeled to other parts of the room for other purposes. Having a large meeting? Wheel your 3 huddle screens into a single room and you have a huge presentation area.  Outgrow your office and have to move to a totally new one? Take the screens with you with no de/reinstall costs.

All_in_one_lift_met_ProLine2-1

If you would like a demonstration of the ProLine+ and how it can help you make a great Huddle room, then get in touch.
matthew.pearson@prowise.com

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’ 😉

 

 

 

The Classroom of the Past

Rumours abound that the Department for Education are going to be exhibiting at BETT.  After Michael Gove’s appearance last year, he has had a team working around the clock to develop his ‘classroom of the past’ concept space.  He strongly believes this space will settle once and for all the nonsense some vendors insist on peddling at the show when they come up with ‘Classroom of the Future’ type exhibits. Set to take the BETT show by storm, the ‘classroom of the past’ has many revolutionary design features not seen in classrooms since at least, erm , 1952.

Security is tight ahead of its launch, but this copy of the brochure was leaked via a Hotmail account earlier today.

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 20.23.52

iPads do not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent

“The iPad is just a neat tablet computer, it does not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent” was a tweet I sent yesterday and which I wanted to follow up with a more substantive post. Being an avid twitter kind-of person, I read quite a few tweets about the iPad in education and teachers eager to introduce these to their classrooms, and it was one of these which pushed me into the mini-rant you see encapsulated above.

This is in no way an anti-iPad posting (although I imagine some will interpret it as such), it is simply a request that as educators we assess the potential of the iPad in an objective manner and learn some lessons from great education technologies of the past which promised a great deal and delivered somewhat less.

First of all, let’s start by praising the iPad and Apple’s legendary focus on usability to create iOS (the operating system which powers the iPad and the iPhone). I grew up programming in basic (I’m looking at you Clive Sinclair), graduated to strange prompt based operating system and strange winking cursors at DOS prompts, before beholding the first colour computers (an RM Nimbus in my mum’s classroom) and then machines running Windows (but never forgetting those DOS skills, because Windows was always a huge pack of cards built on top of DOS), a breath of wind in the wrong direction and you were back to C:/ and a sense that the computer was having so much more fun than you were.

So basically old gits like me have grown up accustomed to having to cajole and curse (in equal measure) our computers to get them to do ‘stuff’. Computing was never meant to be easy, it was like hand-cranking a Ford Model T, it took lots of practice, it often did not work, and the likelihood of injury was high.  When you give an iPad to someone like me, it’s like smashcutting the cave painters of Lascaux into the centre of the Sistine Chapel; their mouths hanging open in wonder as they behold their humble tools transformed into a heady display of celestial beauty. I cannot believe how easy it is to do stuff on the iPad and how the Operating System seems to anticipate so much of what you want to do. The video at the top of this blog is my daughter who is able to unlock the iPad, start YouTube, go to history and choose her favourite videos. She is 2 and a half years old. And she’s never had a single iPad lesson in her life.

All of this usability (whether you are 2.5 or 42) makes the device very productive in a range of contexts, from taking notes in a meeting, to tweeting in front of the telly, to doing some basic video editing, to writing this blog (albeit with a grown-up keyboard bluetoothed to it). The iPad is shiny and sexy and desirable and it carries that heady promise through into the user experience and there is little wonder that some teachers have been seduced by it and speculated about the impact it could have in the classroom.

But of course the fetishisation of technologies which are new on the scene  is a recurrent theme in education technology.  When the first CD-ROMs came out (the ones which needed a ‘caddy’), there was much hype about how they could transform learning.  Suddenly a single Microsoft Encarta disc could bring an entire encyclopedia to your computer screen with multimedia (sound and pictures in old money) to boot.  Surely the kids would start learning now the theory went, what can hold them back, with these resources at their fingertips they’ll be surging ahead, what could possibly stop them? If you  wind back time to the advent of educational television you would see similar sentiments being expressed about this.  In fact you can take any new technology device and see that it will be hyped as heralding a learning revolution. The same was true of the hype around Interactive Whiteboards during their first wave of implementation in British schools.

Hype is not necessarily a bad thing though, it’s just that the temptation exists to fetishise a new technology as providing all the answers to the learning problems we face.  But once the honeymoon is over and the incredible promise is not delivered, we often turn away from that technology and seek the next big thing. But part of the hype is normally always justified, the technology does indeed have transformative potential, the trick is sticking with that particular technology and extracting maximum benefit from its residual potential. A case in point is the interactive whiteboard.  Originally hyped to a point where the technology could never cash the cheques which the advocates were writing, the IWB is now a device which is extremely useful in teaching, with the right training for the teacher and pedagogical vision of how to use it. And if you disagree with this and think the iPad is a credible replacement for the IWB, then I’ll come and do a teach-off with you, me on the IWB, you on the iPad!

So here’s the thing. If you put iPads into your classroom expecting them to be magical learning devices, then prepare for disappointment; there is no magical learning dust. The only magical device in a classroom is the teacher whose imagination can create new pedagogies and the students who can enter into these pedagogies and make them work. And if you think iPads are magical learning devices, also be prepared, after the bitter recriminations about why they did not work,  to be seduced by the next big shiny thing coming over the horizon.

Technologies do not create learning revolutions, pedagogies do. And developing pedagogies is difficult, painstaking work.  Pedagogy is not a silver slimline minimalist shiny device in a cool case, ‘designed in Cupertino’; it is rather a messy, headscratching, ‘one step forward, one step back’ kind of a process which you have to inhabit, live with and work through.  Create a transformational pedagogy for your classroom and you’ll be able to sprinkle magical learning dust on just about any technology you give to your students.

NB: I know that technically the iPad does not have any back vents, as it cools via a heat sink rather than direct air circulation. But the tweet which initiated this posting was kind of ‘off the cuff’ and technical accuracy was sacrificed for twitter brevity!

Reports of the death of the whiteboard are much exaggerated..

Is the whiteboard really dead?

It has become quite fashionable for pronouncements such as ‘the interactive whiteboard is dead’, or ‘IWBs are old technology’ or variants on that theme to be made recently. Blog postings are being written about how other technologies have supplanted the IWB as the classroom technology of choice for teachers. Those who have foretold the death of the interactive whiteboard are often keen to explain how other technologies are replacing it, such as iPads, netbooks or other devices which have caught the imagination of educators.

But the death of the whiteboard is greatly exaggerated for the following reasons:

1: Having an IWB in your classroom is about having a platform for content. Teachers need software to assemble content for lessons and increasingly this content is multimedia in nature with the need to integrate text, images, video, audio and flash type content.  The major IWB players provide teachers with that software and it is optimised for teaching.  Many teachers, particularly in secondary use PowerPoint, but this is not the same. PowerPoint has a different paradigm to a piece of software such as SMART’s NOTEBOOK, it forces you to design your content first and then present it.  It can lead to lessons where slide after slide of information is presented and the teacher does little manipulation of that content. Of course PowerPoint does not dictate this kind of paradigm, it is possible to use PowerPoint in very creative ways, although this is not something I have seen often in UK classrooms. It is precisely the manipulation of the content which is important when teaching. So take the IWB out of the classroom and you take the software out too, and if that means more teachers use PowerPoint because that’s the only thing suitable they have to hand for their slide stacks, then that’s not solving a problem, that’s making a bigger one, and creating a big hole in the teacher toolkit which will be expensive and complicated to fill later on.

2: IWB antagonists often cast this technology as forcing teachers into a ‘transmission based, teaching from the front pedagogy’. In fact one of my followers on twitter bemoaned the fact that the IWB was keeping pupils sitting on the carpet looking at the front too much. My comeback to that tweet was fairly easy to write, it’s not the board which is doing the “from the front teaching, it’s the teacher (DOH)”; don’t blame a technology for a teacher behaviour. Instead address the root cause of why a teacher allows a particular instructional practice to dominate and then find a way for the  technology to serve pedagogical practice rather than driving it.  Great teachers assemble their lessons using a variety of methods and techniques and they also vary how they organise the class, their time and the resources (both technological and human) available to them. They probably teach from the front for some of the time, and the IWB is an essential tool for those sections of the lesson. Without it there is no focus for the class, no sense of a shared space to create meaning and set tasks, nowhere for the class to come back at the end of a learning session and review what has been achieved, nowhere for the students to come and present to the rest of class. However great teachers do not allow from the front teaching to dominate; they set individual, pair and group work, skilfully orchestrating resources and using detailed knowledge of the class to create the conditions for learning without direct instruction from the teacher.  Perhaps in the early days of IWBs, teachers were so enamoured of what the technology could do that they overused them. As the saying goes, ‘to someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’. But to repeat my point, IWBs can never be held responsible for the pedagogy in a classroom, teachers have to answer for that.  After all, the police don’t prosecute cars for driving badly, they prosecute the drivers. We don’t applaud the piano at a concert, we applaud the pianist.

3: In the UK there has been a massive investment in IWB technology, and ripping this out and replacing it with something else is wasteful, prodigal even.  Schools should concentrate instead on getting the most out of the technology they already own. I have visited many schools and worked with lots of teachers during my time working with a major IWB manufacturer, and I have found only a handful who use the technology to its maximum capability. Unfortunately most only use 10% perhaps or  less of the features.  This is not normally the individual teacher’s fault, it was a systemic failure to address training and professional development when the boards were first going into UK classrooms. It is a mistake being repeated in some BSF and Academy projects where professional development for teachers drops off the bottom of the list.  But senior managers in schools need to grasp this issue. They need to make it their business to understand the technology which their teachers have to teach with, and then invest (both internally and externally) to maximise the usage of this technology. They need to find courses and providers which set the technology usage in an overall pedagogical context and set clear expectations of the kinds of teaching which they want to see in their school, and then fund the necessary investment to give teachers the tools to do this.

So to conclude, ripping out interactive whiteboards and giving every student in the class an iPad or netbook won’t fix education anymore than putting the IWB into the classroom 6-8 years ago was going to fix education. We need to start every conversation about teaching with how we develop and empower teachers to marry technology usage and appropriate pedagogy, and we don’t need conversations which focus on a particular piece of equipment in isolation, as if somehow the technology itself has a magic power to orchestrate teaching and learning. Technologies do not have this power. Only teachers have this power.  Let’s focus on pedagogy rather than technology.