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ICT - All hands on deck

Interactive touch-screen devices such as Smart Tables make for fun, collaborative activities. Meabh Ritchie reports on how primary pupils are getting a feel for technology

Interactive touch-screen devices such as Smart Tables make for fun, collaborative activities. Meabh Ritchie reports on how primary pupils are getting a feel for technology

John* is one of those pupils; the one who just won't work in pairs and refuses to co-operate with his classmates. His teacher can spend all day trying to coax a positive response, but her efforts usually fall on deaf ears.

So when it was the seven-year-old's turn with the Smart Table - a desk on wheels with an interactive touch-screen surface - his teacher and TA couldn't believe their eyes.

After completing a few of the maths questions, John was on his feet, running to ask his classmates to come and help.

Problems in the addition application need to be answered by making the correct number of pressure points on the table. If the answer to the maths question is more than 10, children need to find more fingers, and John realised the whole activity would stop if he didn't get other people involved.

The effect of the interactive Smart Table on primary pupils' collaboration alone was enough to convince David Cregan, vice-principal of St Matthew Academy in Lewisham, London, of its worth.

"It means that one kid can't dominate because they need someone else's help," he says. "And then they'll think: 'Right, how many other people do I need?' and start dividing their answer by ten. After a while when they have run out of people and need more to answer, they will nip out into the corridor and pull someone else in."

The Smart Table is just one of the more interactive pieces of kit that has been developed for schools in recent years. Last year's BETT showcased the huge advances in touch-screen technology, most significantly the advance in multi-touch and multi-gesture surfaces, and the cost of these devices is becoming more affordable.

As a pilot school for Smart Technologies, the education technology company, St Matthew tests its latest products and Mr Cregan has become a firm advocate of the touch-screen equipment after seeing it in action. Budget permitting, he wants to introduce a Smart Table, multi-touch whiteboards and eventually multi-touch computer screens to share between classes at St Matthew.

Interactive whiteboards, which allow pupils and teachers to move content around the screen, were first made available in 1991 and have since become a common feature in many classrooms. But the next generation of whiteboards, which allow multi-user writing and multi-touch gesture encourage hands-on learning and allow pupils to work independently of the teacher. Teachers could bring Google Earth up on the screen, for example, and pupils can manipulate the screen to find what they need.

This is what Mr Cregan calls the "interactive sandpit" effect. "There is no point in a teacher going: 'I think you should play with the sand like this'. When the pupils were playing with the table - for example, they come up with their own ways of doing it," he says.

"One of the things we try to do as teachers is to stand back and get the kids to do it themselves. We can just ask a TA (teaching assistant) to watch over them and work with other children."

One of the problems with using standard whiteboards or computers with young children is that pupils find the current technology difficult to cope with. It becomes a barrier to learning, rather than a facilitator, and leaves teachers often frustrated at using something that is supposed to make their job easier.

It was his own experience teaching IT to reception class four years ago that first sparked Mr Cregan's interest in multi-touch screen devices.

"The kids constantly wanted to touch the screen," says Mr Cregan. "They don't get the connection between what the hand does and what happens on the screen - they just look at their hand if they are using a mouse. You will spend a year teaching them the motor skills of using a mouse, when what you actually want to do is teach them addition or literacy."

Teachers have also noticed that as more consumers opt for touch-screen smart phones, young children's first experience of technology is intuitive and touch-based.

Jamie McGachy, an education technician who works across a number of schools including St Matthew Academy, says that the standard whiteboards and computers actually get in the way of learning for young children.

"You are almost holding them back sometimes. What you find now is that young children will walk up to the whiteboard and put their hands on the screen, not realising that it won't react," he says. "Even with a whiteboard that is single touch, you have to teach them that they can't use both hands, or more than one person."

Seeing the ease with which young children use the multi-touch Smart Table, teachers at St Matthew have embraced the technology. The academy has so far had them on loan and will soon be trialling multi-touch whiteboards, but the response to multi-touch screens has already been so positive that Mr Cregan is keen to buy equipment for the school.

At first, teachers tended to use interactive whiteboards as a PowerPoint presentation - essentially still the "chalk and talk" school of thought. But after training from technicians such as Mr McGachy, they began to see its potential. The same has been true for the Smart Table, "and the teachers liked the way that the kids wanted to learn and wanted to interact", says Mr Cregan.

The other advantage for teachers has been the time saved. Once teachers have loaded lesson plans, pictures and videos on to the Smart Table and multi-touch whiteboards, they are there for good. All feedback and instruction is given to children directly and by each other, so teachers can focus on the learning outcomes rather than showing pupils how to use it, saving them time.

The advanced technology at St Matthew not only makes learning easier and children more engaged, but pupils appreciate that their teachers have invested in them, says Mr Cregan.

The academy opened only four years ago as an amalgamation of St Joseph's Academy, which had been in special measures for years, and Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Lewisham. Shaking off the reputation of the previous secondary school has been difficult and the cutting-edge technology coupled with a brand new building has helped.

However, Mr Cregan is realistic about the benefits of technology, and won't be buying in shed-loads of iPads purely because it is the most recent technology.

"I don't think that technology is the be all and end all - it won't work if you don't have a relationship with the kids."

But if the relationships between staff and pupils are already there, the next generation of multi-touch screen technology will help young pupils to learn intuitively through technology, at a faster pace and in collaboration with their peers.

*Name has been changed

Touch screen technology

SmartBoard 800 series whiteboard, approx #163;1,500 http:bit.lydVnBLD

Promethean's ActivPro 500 series, from #163;1,5000 to #163;4,000 http:bit.lye8fL5f

Sahara Interactive LCD Monitor, from #163;1,500 to #163;5,000 http:bit.lyflineG

Smart Interactive Learning Table, approx #163;4,000 to #163;5,000 http:bit.lyaKTIhn

Hitachi StarBoard FX TRIO Multi-touch Interactive Whiteboard, approx #163;1,000 http:bit.lygPFriG.

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