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Coming soon to the big screen

Nicola Yeeles examines imaginative touchscreen teaching from across the education sector

Posted by Hannah Oakman | August 25, 2016 | Technology

You only have to set foot inside a university, school or college to see that screens now blink out from the wall of every classroom. The latest kit is touch-sensitive, interactive and high resolution. Such technology has advanced massively in recent years and is now more able than ever to facilitate student-centred teaching and lively teacher presentations.

It’s obvious that using ICT to support the teacher’s aims can help make the learning experience multi-dimensional. Stephen Hawke, assistant head and ICT coordinator at Grafton Primary School, in Dagenham, gives literacy as an example: “The early years team use the screens, iPads and other resources such as recording devices to help children thoroughly explore words so that they really know them inside out.

“Ultimately, technology helps the children to access and engage on a more sensory level, which makes it more enjoyable and it helps information to penetrate.”

Use of such displays for teaching also makes actually seeing images, diagrams and text that much easier for pupils. This is crucial for complex concepts with detailed content, like scientific diagrams. In the Science and Technology labs at independent day school The Glasgow Academy, interactive flat panel displays allow teachers to show content with absolute clarity on-screen. For drama productions, too, their new 84” ActivPanel provides flexible and creative backdrops – giving the budding producers and actors a quick and easy way to efficiently change scenes. 

We’re only really starting to scratch the surface when it comes to the teaching and learning potential of interactive screens, which makes it a really exciting time to be in the classroom

But more being simply display devices, the latest systems have some major enhancements in functionality, which in turn create a whole new dimension for teaching and learning. Janice Prandstatter, teaching and learning consultant at Promethean, who supply screens and other tech solutions to education providers, said: “Take BYOD [Bring Your Own Device policies] for example. Some interactive screens can create a secure wireless hotspot which supports up to five devices. In doing so, the teacher has much greater flexibility to launch a collaborative session.”

This is particularly beneficial for schools in rural areas – where wi-fi strength can be challenging. Why limit children to getting online in a single, connected room? By generating a local hotspot from the panel, pupils’ devices can be linked up without having to bolster the network, which would incur further investment.

Prandstatter added: “With the latest interactive screens teachers can simply ‘mirror’ content from the front of the class direct to students’ hand-held devices – and then back again if appropriate.” 

The ability to have pupils working on different devices allows the teacher to monitor individual progress and differentiate tasks. The educator can also make adjustments to the look of an activity for individuals, for example, using specialist software to alter the background colour for children with dyslexia. 

As today’s digital natives move through the education system, there’s no doubt that they have expectations that their providers will offer and teach with technology. Nevertheless, the Jisc Digital Student projects have shown that some providers lack basic provision like Wi-Fi access and accessible printers. Such basic priorities remain top asks for students, especially in the further education and skills sectors. 

One of Jisc’s key recommendations is that students are engaged in discussions about what technology they require. Newcastle University’s new Marjorie Robinson Library Rooms were designed over two years of consultation with students and staff. The result of this now sees the upper level offering a quiet study space, with ‘living rooms’ where students can study in relaxed surroundings. The lower level has been designed to facilitate collaborative study and group projects, including a ‘chatterbox’ room for Skype calls and video conferencing. In terms of screen provision, the study facilities needed to have a large one that would be able to display content from various devices such as laptops or tablets, as well as the in-built PC, to support people working in small collaborative groups. 

Independent use of touchscreens is one of their key advantages. There’s often no need for a hovering helpdesk: the technology is generally intuitive, although users will need to familiarise themselves with the icons. Moreover, users need not be expert typists, making the technology a real boon for those with learning or physical needs and young children; this may explain their attraction for primary schools. However, if damaged, the screen may not retain its sensitivity to precise movements of a finger, and scratches can make them hard to see, so education institutions need to be aware of the need to protect them. Although they can be adapted for many uses across an education provider, from small group collaboration to digital signage, their placement out of direct sunlight is helpful for viewing. Some education providers, put off by the cost and location of larger screens, are investing in hand-held tablets which give maximum flexibility for on and off-site use, for example on field trips or in the lab.

Across education there has been a distinct shift towards interactive flat panel displays (IFPDs) over the traditional interactive whiteboards (IWBs). Back at The Glasgow Academy ICT Manager Stephen Fowkes said: “We looked carefully at total cost of ownership and ongoing maintenance. 

The IFPDs came out more favourably as there is no need to replace projector lamps and the lifespan of the LED light is likely to outlive the hardware. The brightness and viewing angles of IFPDs were also much better than with IWBs, so it seemed an obvious choice to make.”

Some interactive screens can create a secure wireless hotspot which supports up to five devices

This illustrates how displays can bring a space to life, and certainly, they needn’t be the ‘icing on the cake’ of a perfect classroom. At Newcastle University, a large teaching area required visual equipment to facilitate large group teaching sessions, but due to the shape and size of the room it was not possible to use a single projection. Instead they installed a number of large ones. Paul Briganti, senior AV technician, explained: “The placement of the screens would give the students a suitable view no matter where they sit in the room.” The focal point of a classroom therefore need not be the teacher standing beside a whiteboard; the learning can take place in any direction.

So could screen-enabled learning spaces replace the traditional front-facing classroom or lecture theatre altogether? The answer is yes, at the University of Melbourne in Australia, among others, where staff wanted a more communicative teaching methodology for their first-year chemistry undergraduates. An old lecture theatre was demolished and redesigned into an interactive teaching space over four levels. This resulted in a completely new look and feel to the teaching area. Each zone of the room gives students access to group computers, points for their laptops and a large screen that they can drive, or which can be driven by their teacher. As a result, classes can include group work and peer explanations to build the undergraduates’ confidence in describing what they are learning. The University says that the use of computerised systems in the Learning Lab has had a dramatic impact on student interest and engagement during their chemistry classes. As Prandstatter, said: “We’re only really starting to scratch the surface when it comes to the teaching and learning potential of interactive screens, which makes it a really exciting time to be in the classroom.” 

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