Multitouch mayhem – finding our way around a SMART Table
Oct 1st, 2009 by H-Blog

This is a post to give some idea about what I was thinking of saying during my presentation at #TMSLF09, if I had been lucky enough to be chosen.

A year ago, I sat watching a presentation being given by Tom Barrett at TeachMeetSLF08 on the Philips Entertaible, a multitouch device being used in Tom’s school. I remember using my phone to text to the backchannel in the room – “Where do I get my hands on one of those tables?”. I saw them as a very intuitive and powerful tool for teaching and learning, and could see a number of possible ways to utilise the technology.

I was intrigued enough to go and do a bit of digging on the internet, and was fascinated to find there was a real community out there looking at multitouch, particularly at the NUI Group. I also stumbled across the work being done at Durham University by the SynergyNet project – another one that Tom became involved in – and was particularly impressed with the Water Application, which convinced me even further about the potential of these devices in the ASN setting. Around the same time, I found my DHT watching a video for the Microsoft Surface, and became involved in discussions about how such devices could be used in the school in the future.

Someone at SMART must have been listening.

The news came through around March that we had been selected as one of the schools in the UK to pilot the SMART Table, a multitouch device from the people behind the SMART Board. As it turned out, Tom’s school had been selected too. To say I was excited would be something of an understatement. The table arrived, and we were soon all playing on it merrily. You can read my initial thoughts on the Table here and my description of creating my first activity here.

Things have moved on a bit since then, in a number of ways. Firstly, both myself and my partner-in-crime have become a bit more adept at creating content using the toolkit. Secondly, as we get our heads round the activities themselves, we are finding better, more imaginative ways to use them. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Toolkit and Table software have both been updated, and user feedback seems to have been involved in shaping the changes to the software, which is always excellent news.

The project is, however, still a pilot, and as such there are a number of limitations. Previewing the activities you are creating  on a computer rather than the Table itself is now possible, but remains buggy. Perhaps a Table emulator (ideally running within the Toolkit) rather than tweaking the Table software to run without a Table would be a solution to this issue.

Secondly, the toolkit itself is somewhat ‘clunky’ to use. Now, having thought about this for a while I have decided that we have to blame SMART Notebook for this issue, and I’ll tell you why. Notebook is just so versatile, user-friendly and intuitive to use that it makes other applications look bad. With the Table Activity Toolkit being another SMART product, I keep expecting it to be as good as Notebook. What I have forgotten, of course, is that we are currently on Notebook 10, whilst we are only on Table Toolkit 1, or maybe 1.5. The good people at SMART – who have already been tweaking the toolkit, mere months after its release – have had years to get Notebook right, bit by bit, responding to detailed user feedback. Table Toolkit has not yet had that luxury, although it is already trying: if you look at the new activity created “Hot Spaces” it directly addresses many of the issues I raised in my “Hot Spotting” blog post. Given time, I am sure the Toolkit will become as quick and easy to use as Notebook itself.

This would help address the third issue, one raised previously by Tom Barrett when he said that the balance between the time spent by the teacher creating an activity and the pupils using an activity was not quite right. Whilst in our school this isn’t as much of an issue –  the same activities may be used over and over again by the same pupils with a great deal of engagement, making our ‘payoff’ much higher – I can understand that with older, mainstream classes this may not necessarily be the case. Additionally, the number of pupils that may make up a group in Tom’s class would probably be the same amount that would make up a class in our school, and whilst obviously there are good reasons for this, I can certainly recognise and sympathise with Tom’s point. An improved user interface for the Toolkit, one that enabled content to be produced more efficiently, would go a long way to ‘improving the payoff’. Ideally, the Toolkit could be integrated into or linked with Notebook in much the same way as the Senteo/Smart Response software is. This could build on an already familiar and very effective platform.

Finally we come to the issue that I believe is going to determine the success or otherwise of the SMART Table – content. Whilst the number of different activities you can do on the Table has already increased, and the range of resources using these activities continues to grow (see here for SMART’s Table Activity download page), at the moment there just aren’t enough things to do with the Table, and the things that there are to do can often seem very similar. In simple terms, the hardware is currently ahead of the software – a bit like the first iPhones, waiting for the app developers to catch up with the hardware. Whilst this situation is completely natural and understandable, it doesn’t half get frustrating! I have a number of ideas floating about that could make for fantastic Table activities, and just don’t have the ICT/coding capability to do anything about them. For example, a version of Durham’s Water Application would be fantastic, and could be used on a number of levels if created properly; from simple cause & effect through to a virtual ripple tank. Some kind of reactive music & colour application would be great too – with different touches causing different sounds and colours to appear –  and my very first thought of a finger-football application would be amazing for gross/fine motor skills as well as co-operation and teamwork. And there are many more brilliant ideas out there covering a wide variety of subjects, not all of them requiring a great deal of work – myself and Tom had a lengthy Twitter conversation about how the Finger Addition application could be easily adapted to provide a range of activities from the same basic platform. Similarly, the ‘Puzzle’ application could be a veritable goldmine of content, were it customisable (create new shapes, add pictures) and included in the Toolkit. Perhaps putting some educators into a room with some code writers is the way to go on this issue.

I think it is clear that the SMART Table definitely has a place in the classroom. It excites and engages pupils, and just screams out to be touched. Overall, our pupils just love it, as I think was clear to anyone who saw the demonstrating at the Scottish Learning Festival. It has the potential to be a fantastic addition to the repertoire of tools that teachers and pupils have at their disposal, and I look forward to continuing on that journey with SMART.

SLF09 Post 1 – Presenting on the SMART Table
Sep 27th, 2009 by H-Blog

Well, the maelstrom that was last week has now passed, and I have had a wee bit of time to reflect on the Scottish Learning Festival 2009. Don’t think I’m up to writing a massive blog post about the whole thing, so I thought I’d do it in wee chunks, and decided to start with the thing that had been worrying me most – the school’s SMART Table presentation which was on the SMART stand about lunchtime both Wednesday and Thursday.

We had brought 4 children in each day, and had created a new set of Table activities for the event to give them a bit of a surprise. These new activities were themed round Pirates, as that is the current class topic. On arrival at the SECC both days, our pupils went on tour trying to blag as much free stuff as they possibly could – and did pretty well – before heading to the SMART Stand.

Thanks to John Johnston for allowing me to use the photo from his Flickr stream

Thanks to John Johston for allowing me to use this picture from his Flickr feed

Once there,we moved to where the Table was. Given that the stand had been designed to facilitate SMART Board presentations, the location of the Table on the stand made it a bit tricky to present on – an issue I’m sure will be addressed before next year. The pupils soldiered on nonetheless as did the audience (which I noticed included Margaret Vass and Cassie Law from Falkirk, as well as my own Head Teacher). I ended up going round explaining what was going on to those watching and answering questions. Whilst the children did well, and the people who I spoke to seemed to enjoy it, we felt that it lacked a bit bit of impact, and asked if we would be able to move the Table to the presentation area at the top of the stand. Sadly due to cabling issues that wasn’t possible, so we figured we would come up with something else.

The something else was dropped on me about 5 minutes before we started our Thursday talk; I was to gather people in the presentation area and give them a bit of an introduction before inviting them down to the Table itself. I was miked up and amplified, and a good crowd were gathered for the start of our talk, with others joining later – including John Johnston who took some photos and Tom Barrett one of the other British teachers who has had a SMART Table in their classroom. After giving an intro and bringing the audience down to the Table (where the pupils were once again getting on with things magnificently!) I remained miked up and was able to give a ‘play-by-play commentary’ of the activities on the table.
Overall this format worked better than the Tuesday format, and is definitely something I would look at again for the future.

After we presented, I was able to chat to both John Johnston and Tom Barrett, both of whom gave us very positive feedback about the presentation. Tom and I also discussed the very different experience that the Table offers to different classes (such as his and mine).

Overall I think it went OK, but there’s a rumour that we might be presenting  it at BETT , so we would need to make sure we got everything sorted. Wish us luck!

Introducing our Smart Table
Apr 21st, 2009 by H-Blog

Well, today I finally got my hands on the school’s latest bit of kit – the Smart Table. One of 3 in the UK pilot scheme, and the only one in Scotland, it’s an exciting project to be involved in. Having been out of class since lunch, I was going quietly demented as the Table was locked away in a meeting room which had a meeting going on in it! Fortunately, the room was vacated pretty swiftly afterwards and I was taken in by one of the IT support staff to help get the table up and running before Anne Forrest from Steljes arrived. 

Bump in Road #1 – turning it on

Having read about Tom Barrett’s problems with power cables and keys, I was relieved to see that our Table was plugged in, had its keys and had previously been booted up. My relief did not last long, however, as despite promising signs and noises, the screen on the Table did not start to display. The computer was obviously working, and the touches were being registered – we could hear the sound effects of our interactions with the Table even though we couldn’t see them – but nothing could be seen on the Table surface. We tried all we could think of to no avail. Salvation came in the form of a small remote control stuck magnetically to the inside of the cabinet which is for ’emergency’ use. Not quite sure what they had in mind, but it sorted us out and the Table was up and running in all its glory.

First Impressions

My very first impression was that the Table is a durable bit of kit. Designed to be portable, and small enough to fit through regular doorways, it has clearly been designed with a working school in mind and is solid. I don’t know if I would fancy moving it too far on my own; in fact I think our full-size rear-projected Smart Boards are easier to move than the Table (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). The other thing that struck me was that the Table is just screaming out for you to touch it. It’s so inviting and appealing – you just can’t help yourself. So that’s what we did, and got down to test driving some of the activities included with the Table. These are built round the current standard applications:

  • Multiple Choice:  Students answer questions by dragging their answer to a central image
  • HotSpots:  Students identify parts of a diagram by dragging labels to the correct spot
  • Paint:  Students select colors and effects and then paint with their fingers
  • Media:  Students drag or resize photos and videos
  • Addition:  Students work together to solve math problems
  • Puzzle:  Students work together to solve a tangram or jigsaw puzzle

Whilst the appeal of some of the applications is obvious – when Anne Forrest arrived, we never even saw her, so busy were we working out simple addition and subtraction using our fingers to supply the answer to the table – without additional content the Table is going to be of limited appeal for our pupils. The supplied Smart Table Toolkit allows you to customize these applications, meaning you can create your own versions of the 6 activities. Having downloaded some additional activities from this page on the Smart website we set about trying to add this content to the default packages. Being our first time, this took us a wee bit of time to work out. The activities are ‘synchronised’ to the table one at a time, and when you exit synchronisation mode and open up the Table Activities, whichever activity has been most recently synchronised is the one that boots up. Once we had established this, things got a bit easier, and when we worked out that once an activity has been synchronised to the Table once it is kept in the Activity Archive things got even easier still.

Bump in Road #2 – Gizmo never liked bright light…

As with the Mogwai, our table has a serious aversion to bright light. Having established this yesterday, we had been working in a dim room with the table, which obviously has implications for classroom use. Feeling slightly gallus after our content success and spurred on by Anne we opened the blinds. At first things continued apace as we introduced one of our students to the Table but then disaster struck – the sun came out! Even though the table wasn’t in direct sunlight the brightness seriously impaired the Table’s ability to track touches. With the blinds half drawn again, the problem was resolved.

So that was that, for today anyway.

As a pilot project we are being encouraged to give feedback about our experiences to improve the user-friendliness of the Table. Whilst I was thinking some sort of document sharing (perhaps Google Docs?) might allow the 3 pilot schools to contribute to one document (and perhaps offer solutions to each others problems), for the instant feedback from anyone who uses the table, it’s probably going to be paper and pen (or possibly a digital voice recorder?) beside the Table itself. We were also hopeful that given the current shortage of resources (it is a pilot scheme after all) we might find some space to share ‘beta’ resources amongst the pilot schools before subjecting them to the glare of public scrutiny. Another hope is that the Table SDK (Software Development Kit) – which has been designed to allow the integration of C++, C#. Visual Basic and Java with the Smart Table’s DViT platform – may give us the facility to ‘port’ some of the fabulous opensource applications written in these languages onto the Table. Tech-wise it’s beyond me, but I might know a man who is up to the job!!!

Our initial thoughts regarding the Activity Toolkit mirrored those of Tom Barrett;  that it needs a preview feature to enable the teacher/designer of the activity to give it some kind of a test run without having to get it up and running on the table. This is because you may have the toolkit on a lot of computers, but you’re only going to have one table which you might not be able to access there and then. Additionally, the process of plugging in, synchronising, running the activity, plugging back in to enter teacher mode and then resynchronsing to the default apps could be streamlined (or we might just have been too dumb to work out the shortcuts). 

I have been given the afternoon on Thursday to work with some of my pupils on the Table, and am going to try and create a set of activities to tie into our PE SQA work before then. I’m pretty sure I won’t be tearing it up like Judi Dench in “Quantum of Solace”, but I’ll let you know how I get on anyway, and will try and see if I can get some photos/video up somewhere.

Finally, on a slightly different note, I found this very, very interesting piece of information on the Smart Development Network site

Multitouch capability
The SMART Board SDK also provides multitouch capability, which enables your application to receive several touch events simultaneously. Multitouch works only with interactive products that feature DViT (Digital Vision Touch) technology, such as Rear Projection SMART Board interactive whiteboards and the Sympodium interactive pen display (model DT770).

So the possibility would seem to exist of multitouch capability for some current Smart Board users in the very near future. Exciting thought.

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