Testing digital technology in a classroom demands a great deal of time and is not always feasible. It is therefore essential to find the best design with as few classroom trials as possible.

Multi-screen environments are now becoming part of everyday life, even in schools. As part of the general thrust to bring digital technology into education, extending a tablet device into an interactive tabletop for use by several students around the table would not only optimise the use of computer space, it would also help to engender a collaborative learning environment. A recent paper on the subject* shows how researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Northumbria in the UK conducted a real-world investigation to try to improve the design of such interactive digital tabletops for long periods of use in real classroom situations, especially in order to enable full teacher involvement. One of the priorities they have flagged is the need to optimise the way key information on class learning and progress is visualised.

Improving smart table design

The paper states that, first and foremost, better digital tabletop design should increase both teacher awareness and student participation. This means that smart tables should have the “ability to show simple visualisation of some key performance indicators” during the class, says the study. This information should be displayed publicly on a screen for everyone to see, as would be the case with a traditional blackboard or whiteboard, and should be sufficiently straightforward for everyone to understand. In addition, the tabletop layout “should clearly reflect not only the current state of work, but also the history of progress,” advise the researchers, as this “increases the teachers’ awareness of the (pupils’) progress through the task and not just the current state.” In the same vein, teachers need to be able to identify the students interacting with the table and see how well they are doing. However, in the main, existing multitouch technologies do not enable specific user-identification and what is more: “most work on tabletops and learning ignores this limitation completely,” the study points out.

Testing theory in real-life conditions

The researchers used the academic work of Pierre Dillenbourg on ‘orchestration in virtual learning environments’° to guide both the design and the analysis of the study. ‘Orchestration’ refers to “the real time management by a teacher of multiple learning activities within a multi-constrained environment”, where the ‘multi-constrained environment’ refers to the individual, group, or class, and the multiple activities denote digital or physical information. Among the orchestration factors, the researchers focused on four distinct themes from among fifteen identified as directly relating to the design of the technology for the classroom: awareness, linearity/flexibility, leadership & control, and cross-plane integration – i.e. the ability to move between the individual, group, and classroom planes. For each theme, comments from teachers and students were taken into account in the design recommendations. The researchers studied two mixed-ability classes in one school for a period of six weeks and later this year they are planning to carry out further research in another school, with various classes of differing levels, and – as for this study – with teachers of differing levels of experience.

*Tables in the Wild: Lessons Learned from a Large-Scale Multi-Tabletop Deployment, by Ahmed Kharrufa, Madeline Balaam, Phil Heslop, David Leat, Paul Dolan, and Patrick Olivier

°Dillenbourg, P. & Jermann, P: Technology for Classroom Orchestration, in: M. S. Khine (Eds) New Science of Learning: Cognition, Computers and Collaboration in Education (525-552). Springer, Dordrecht, 2010

By Pauline Trassard