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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!

Smart Table Activity Toolkit – Hot Spotting!
Apr 29th, 2009 by H-Blog

So on Thursday I had a crack at constructing my first Smart Table activities using the Smart Table Toolkit, which comes included with the Table (you can download it from here). Obviously, things never run too smoothly, so because the verson of Windows run in the school was not compatible with the Toolkit (you need XP or Vista to be able to install it) I had to take in my laptop, which of course is non-networkable in school. This meant a lot of memory stick back-and-forth action  between a school desktop sans Toolkit but with server access and my laptop with the Toolkit but without the server access!!!

Loading up the toolkit, you are presented with the home screen, as seen below:

 

 

The Toolkit Home Page

The Toolkit Home Page

 

 

Whilst I created a number of activities, all based on our PE activities, for just now I am going to concentrate on the Hot Spots activity.

For what it’s worth, I think the Hot Spots tool has great potential; in fact, it is an approach I have been hoping would be incorporated into SMART Notebook for a while now. Essentially, what it does is allow you to designate a ‘correct’ position for an object, the pupil’s task being to find the correct position for the object. Since using Jigworks, I have been thinking that such a tool would have great potential in Notebook and could be utilised in a number of different ways, and despite its limitations, the SMART Table version has only increased my belief.

Using a downloadable Shapes activity from the Smart site as an example, here is how you build the activity:

1 – Create your background

2 – Create labels for the objects in their ‘start’ positions

 

Starting Positions

Starting Positions

 

 

 

3 – Select ‘Finshing Position’ and drag the labels to their correct positions. When the activity is run, ‘hot spots’ will appear on the background image, and you drag the labels to them. If the correct label is dragged to the correct hotspot it will lock into place and change colour.

 

 

Finishing Positions

Finishing Positions

 

 

Creating the Hot Spots activity was fairly straightforward, once a problem with file types had been sorted (my version of the Toolkit would not recognise jpegs so I had to convert to gifs, although a colleague says they can use jpegs with no problems). The activity is a useful and rewarding one, and the pupils find it an easy task to pick up with minimal guidance and will offer each other assistance.

So why do I mention ‘limitations’? Simply put, most of them are concerned with editability.

1 – While Notebook pages can be exported as images and then brought into the Toolkit, the ability to drag and drop or cut and paste from Notebook would be an excellent additon. 

2 – Being able to select the exact point for a Hot Spot, and perhaps the position the label would ‘drop into’ would allow for a bit more precision when creating an activity.

3 – Being able to create ‘batches’ of Hot Spots would allow for some versatility in activities created. For example, a picture could have a number of objects on it and you had to label them ‘animal’ ‘vegetable’ or ‘mineral’ – the stup just now would not allow for such an activity to be created.

4 – From what I can gather, the ability to fix labels and have pictures dragged to Hot Spots is not available, which again would open up a range of activities.

5 – Being able to insert a number of pictures to create a background (without having to create a background in imaging software/Notebook first) would be a great advantage.

6 – For some of our pupils, matching pictures, sounds or colours might be more appropriate than using words. Improved editability in this regards would be most welcome.

7 – In a similar vein, allowing the choice of an outline for each object to be dropped ‘into’ would allow for the same activity to be tailored to pupils at differeing levels of ability.

 

I’m sure I had a number of other thoughts about this activity, but I’m dashed if I can remember any of them just now. And although it may seem like loads of moaning, I must re-iterate that my suggestions are mostly to do with improving editability and versatility and that I remain convinced by the value of the activity itself. Indeed, I am hopeful that SMART will see fit to incorporate it into Notebook as well as Table software.

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