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Making ICT learning childsplay

Wednesday, 8 October 2008 — by

Maybe there’s a different approach to ICT (Information and Communication Technology) for schools that doesn’t revolve around a computer screen, but instead focuses on little fingers and the creativity of the child’s mind. That’s certainly what Durham University researchers are thinking…

“Our enthusiastic claims for the positive impact of this technology on learning are based on its ability to facilitate classroom dialogue and pupil collaboration. Central to SynergyNet is a new form of desk that contains a large built-in multi-touch surface. Multi-touch surfaces are similar to PDAs or tablet PCs in that they obviate the need for a mouse or keyboard by allowing the user to interact with a finger or stylus. Therefore, they potentially have considerable benefit for younger pupils who find using mice difficult.”

We continue to greatly underestimate the learning capacity of children. Our kids absorb and assimilate knowledge like tomorrow was going out of fashion. And because we underestimate their ability to learn, we under-deliver, failing to meet their veracious appetites for learning…

Many parents think learning starts & ends at school, when in fact, for their children, the learning off switch is firmly stuck in the upright position from the moment they wake up to the moment they close their eyes to sleep.

With that minor rant out of the way, let’s look at the touch-screen project Durham University are working on:

“Durham University researchers have received £1.5m in funding for a project that aims to replace classroom desks with interactive tables.

The researchers, together with manufacturers and education groups, are designing a software solution called SynergyNet that lets schools swap wooden classroom desks for touch sensitive interactive tables, akin to Microsoft’s Surface.”

Our current appreciation of touch-screen technology will, in time, dissolve into the ubiquity of common place acceptance. What once was cutting-edge innovation will become as ubiquitous as the door handle.

When a technology suddenly becomes accepted in such a way, we could consider it to be invisible technology, which is a good thing.

A lot seems to have been said about Microsoft Surface, but for me, the real innovation is their less well known TouchWall prototype:

“The one thing that I’m guessing TouchWall lacks is the levels (or degrees) of sensitivity with respect to touch sensitivity. Since there’s no direct surface detection, relying instead on a mesh of scattered infrared beams, that might be a trade-off.”

Touch-screen technology is for kids!

As is customary with me, there was a “What if?” moment:

“Aside from the obvious enhanced drawing capabilities, Microsoft do love their .Net and Visual Basic hooks & barbs. So what if Microsoft made their own physics engine, which could be extended by developers?

Now, imagine a large customer like Boeing, who, with their teams of engineers and designers, could extend the physics engine of TouchWall to incorporate their own proprietary know-how and engineering knowledge to share rough ideas in whiteboard fashion.”

And that’s exactly what the Durham University project boasts.

For children especially, this visual reinforcement of how stuff works in the real world will make learning that much more realistic. Their intuitive grasp of things falling when dropped, or bouncing apart when thrown against one another seems stupidly obvious to us adults, but for kids, it’s a new world of discovery.

Say for example you had a relatively large number, like 10, it might fall more quickly and have more weight (bouncing less) than the number 5. This overlap of paradigms could have an untold / unknown impact on their learning, which surely needs to be explored.

Back in March, I pulled together a collection of interactive technologies, covering sight, sound and touch. These are precisely the kind of things kids need more contact with, but are often only encounter in computer and video games.

But then again, video games aren’t quite as bad as some would have you believe. There’s potential in those pixels, certainly for some kids.

There are several contributing factors to why kids aren’t being served properly by school IT:

  1. The emphasis on computers for the sake of attempting to remain current, rather than as a way of emphasizing curricular activities.
  2. Relative expense of computers and computer software exhausting school budgets.
  3. In some cases, school IT seems to lag behind current IT and computing trends.

For their part, the One Laptop Per Child people have demonstrated that it’s possible to produce a computer that’s highly cost effective and simple to use.

Initially, the OLPC Project was against the idea of selling the XO laptop and concentrated on giving their products to kids in poorer nations, which I think made sense at the time. Since then, their thoughts on the matter have thawed. Education matters to all kids, not just the ones from poorer countries.

Encouraging local businesses to sponsor school IT projects is a sound way of providing the right kind of inward investment, so long as there’s a sound IT plan to build upon.

Technologies like those coming out of Durham University need to be nurtured and funded because they represent a quantum leap in computer technology and accessibility specifically for kids we’re unlikely to see anywhere else, outside of an R&D department somewhere in Silicon Valley, California…

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KeeKee → Sunday, 12 October 2008 @ 0:20 BDT

Public schools still have a long way to go but are making advances as quickly as money will allow. That’s the one thing that stops a lot of schools in our district from having the technology they need to keep the children competitive but through countless fund raisers and private donations along with grants from various companies, they are managing to get some of the needed equipment to help bring them up to speed. Great job in getting the word out. Keep up the good work.

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