Can large multi-touch screen desks be integrated into the classroom to enhance children’s learning?

The SynergyNet project are developing hardware and software that aim to find out. Testing and development of the networked tables is well under way as well as state of the art data capture techniques to record the and assist the development process.

It is hoped that the touch screen tables will allow greater collaboration in groups and across the whole class and save time and expense on traditional methods.

About the project

  • The SynergyNet project has funding of £1.25m and is led by Professor Liz Burd at the University of Durham
  • The project runs from October 2009 to September 2012
  • It includes experts in pedagogy, psychology, human-computer interaction and ICT in classrooms

SynergyNet in a tweet: Large multi-touch screen desks integrated into classrooms facilitating innovative and simultaneous group work

A visit to Synergynet

A warm July morning sees a class of 11 year olds from an East Durham primary school descend on the normally peaceful Technology Enhanced Learning lab at Durham University. They have come to road test the latest prototype of the SynergyNet project’s classroom of networked multi-touch desks, believed by the team to be the only one of its kind in the world at the moment.

Prior to the children’s arrival the lab is a hive of activity, with hardware, software and furniture being fine-tuned as every detail of the complex setup is attended to from last-minute code debugging to arranging chairs. Social and computer scientists, data capture experts and programmers are all cogs in the whirring mechanism.

The makeshift classroom contains four of the multi-touch desks (once described as giant iphones) each seating four children (although future models could seat six) as well as a ‘teacher portal’ or master console set in a lectern, which coordinates the other desks. The ceiling is covered with cameras to record the children’s activities. The on-screen action is also captured and Teaching Fellow Phyo Kwaw is developing new software which he hopes will enable captured video and screen data to be coded and organised for analysis more easily than currently available tools. The open source software should be available on the TEL programme website by autumn 2010.

The children arrive with teacher Andrew Joyce-Gibbons, a key member of the team, in the process of doing a PhD on the project’s pedagogical aspects. He explains that the children are only the second class in the world to play with the system and jokes that the researchers will kill him if the £7,000 desks are damaged. In fact the desks are remarkably durable – theoretically strong enough for a child to walk across.

Indeed, if implemented in classrooms they will need to function as regular tables for standard primary school activities.

Teaching Fellow Andrew Hatch guides the children through some initial exercises in how to touch the screens – resizing, rotating and sorting pictures and practising techniques for controlling items on the tabletop.

Joyce-Gibbons leads a set of lessons including history, maths and geography as the team monitor the activity and iron out glitches on the fly. As Joyce-Gibbons points out, classroom management techniques will also need to be evolved to match the new technology. After three hours of thorough testing problems are solved, new insights are drawn and questions are raised.

Researcher Emma Mercier coordinates interviews with the children, assessing their experiences as part of the project’s pedagogical work. This mixture of technology and pedagogy is central to the ethos of the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) programme – of which SynergyNet is one of 8 projects.

As the children eventually head back to their less hi-tech regular classrooms, the team feel that the test has gone well overall and that the system is becoming more robust as the work continues. The general impression is of an extremely complex, multi-faceted project being run by a highly-gifted team and of a classroom of the future slowly being developed by dedicated pioneers.

To download this report as a printer-friendly PDF, click here.

Whats next for Synergynet and TEL?

Further Information

Project team
Project website
University of Durham
Project poster

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