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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 2: TeachMeet – is there a time to break the the rules?
Sep 27th, 2009 by H-Blog

This is a post which I was saving for later, because it seemed to make sense to talk about the Scottish Learning Festival and TeachMeet before doing any kind of analysis. However, as we all know, best laid plans gang aft a-gley; in this instance because I went to read this post on John Connell’s blog, which directed me to read this other post first. As it turns out, I felt a need to comment on the first post, and the responses from Neil Winton and Ewan McIntosh, but instead of a short response to a blog post, I found myself writing and writing, and wandering further and further from the original point. So much so, that not only did I decide to turn it into a blog post in its own right, but I also still haven’t managed to read the post I went to read in the first place! (I’ll get to it later!!!). Who knew I had so much to say???

For those of you who might not know about TeachMeet, here’s a quick explanation for you by Tim and Moby as premiered at TMSLF09 (the TeachMeet fringe event of the Scottish Learning Festival this year).


Tim and Moby explain about TeachMeet

Now, it’s fair to say that I am a huge TeachMeet fan – and evangelist too – and have been since my first one at the Glasgow Science Centre. They are an amazing thing to witness; events put together and attended by enthusiastic and committed members of the education community, and I have learned so much from each and every one I have attended. It’s easy to see why TeachMeet continues to expand. The format is really something – short, snappy presentations mean that even if the presentation that’s on has absolutely zero relevance for you, something else will be along in about 6 and a half minutes, and you can talk to the person next to you while you’re waiting anyway. Learning conversations, round tables, breakouts, distance presentations – all help to mix it up a bit and of course the ‘intervals’ are good too.

While this all might seem easy and obvious to come up with, it clearly wasn’t. The innovation and imagination to come up with the TeachMeet model is something we should all be very grateful to its architects for. It is an unconference – meant to be subversive and a bit ramshackle as Ewan points out in his comment on John’s post. Something that is a bit different to the conferences or talks that we are all sent along to on a fairly regular basis. All in all, TeachMeet creates a very special atmosphere or spirit amongst those attending (and even some of those who aren’t).

And it is this spirit, surely, that is TeachMeet’s strength. Whilst rules have been put in place to create the event and indeed this atmosphere, clearly an evolution has now occurred. Is there a point at which the rules stop being part of the solution and start becoming part of the problem?

I watched the other night as 2 different presentations ran close to their allotted 7 minutes. Both presentations had clearly struck a chord with the audience and had everyone engaged. They weren’t going to last 15 minutes, or even 10, but both needed perhaps 7 and a half or 8 minutes to come to their natural, elegant and effective conclusions. So, decision time: do we allow these brilliant presentations to over run slightly, or do we cut them off in an abrupt manner citing the Jobsworth Mantra (“Them’s the rules……”)?

My own feeling would be that we can be flexible, and afford them that little bit of extra time – it is, after all, our time we are giving – and indeed this seemed to be the prevalent attitude on the night. However, I know that there are those who think that a rule is there to be enforced. Is this what the original organisers of TeachMeet intended? Somehow I doubt it (although I am willing to hear that I am wrong on that issue).

On top of all that, at the moment, we (inadvertently?) put up a number of barriers to participation for the non-tech-savvy classroom practitioner. Apart from the fact that the TeachMeet blurb – and indeed the logo – have a strong focus on technology, there is the way we market and administrate the event itself to consider. How do you know when the next TeachMeet is coming up? Check the wiki? Keep an eye on Twitter? Read blogs? And if you want to go? Easy – sign up on the wiki. All this when there are still teachers – and good teachers at that – who through no fault of their own may struggle to access an e-mail.

A related Twitter conversation has been going on recently regarding the subject matter of TeachMeet presentations. The model has proven successful so far, but are we currently ‘preaching to the choir’ by focussing on technology? We have asked how we can widen the TeachMeet audience, and perhaps opening up the subject matter is a way to go? A sustainable ‘family’ of TeachMeets after all, do not need to have the same people attending. We have seen a number of distinct TeachMeets evolve already: TeachMeet ASN, TeachMeet Physics, TeachMeet Student Edition and even TeachMeet Mac!   Surely a mix of Primary TeachMeets, Subject-based TeachMeets (I have heard rumours of a Techie TeachMeet for months, and I would also have thought Geography would have been right in there….) and local authority based TeachMeets such as that suggested by some teachers in Falkirk would be a good and sustainable way to move forward. Add in the ‘spinoff’ events like LeadMeet, GregMeet and even BeerMeet, and that adds up to a pretty healthy  and varied scene.

So, is it time to relax the rules a bit? Throw things open to a bit more innovation and adaptation, in the TeachMeet tradition? Perhaps if we do this, the TeachMeet alternative that John talks about may just show up itself. But to do this, the enthusiasts and forward thinkers need to know that it’s ok to try things out and to make mistakes, and that by doing so they are not going to annoy, upset or even offend others in the education community, particularly those who came up with the original concept and those who have helped build it into what it is today. After all, we don’t want TeachMeet to turn into the precious crockery that’s never used and just for looking at.

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