Innovative Practice - Education's 'holodeck'

A 'Star Trek'-style learning lab can help to take cross-curricular topics to another dimension

Michael Shaw

The background

Its makers describe it as education's answer to Star Trek's "holodeck", a room that can make visitors feel as though they are in a different place or time. The 4Di (four-dimensional interaction) learning laboratory surrounds pupils with a pair of curved walls and has a total of 14 screens forming what is believed to be the world's largest multi-touch interactive display.

For a lesson on the rainforest, pupils are surrounded by computer-generated trees and the noises of the jungle, with wildlife that responds when they touch it on the screens. It has proven to be an immersive way to teach primary children concepts including adaptation, life cycles and food chains.

The system has been developed by Playware Studios Asia and was first installed in Canberra Primary in Singapore two years ago. The school, which opened in 2000, has swiftly gained a reputation for using innovative educational technology and was chosen to trial the device after becoming one of the five schools picked by the country's education ministry for an initiative called FutureSchools@Singapore.

The project

Up to 45 pupils at Canberra Primary are able to use the 4Di at the same time. As well as touching the screen, they can also interact with their environment using a pair of Microsoft Surface stations - effectively touch-sensitive tables - and small portable devices such as mobile phones and netbooks.

The rainforest simulation has not only helped the school to teach its 11-year-olds science, but has also been integrated into the English curriculum. Reports by the pupils on the rainforest have then been assessed on language and structure for English, and on content for science.

Kevin Patt, vice-principal, says that the school strongly believes in "play as pedagogy", using games, role-play and drama to excite pupils about different topics. "The 4Di lab provides the dynamic element where pupils can, by their interactions and decisions, add to the richness of the experience," he says. "They can adopt roles within the scenario and groups of pupils can be given tasks where they have to work together to accomplish them."

When a group of pupils and teachers visited the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, they were able to share what they had seen with their colleagues and classmates when they returned by creating a 4Di experience about it.

Pupils can guide avatars of themselves on screen to visit the different nations' pavilions at the exhibition and play games to learn more about the countries.

Tips from the scheme

Being an early adopter of a technology can lead to excitement and enthusiasm among staff.

"One key challenge is to ensure there is adequate and appropriate professional development for teachers to use emergent technologies in a way that is meaningful and pedagogically sound," the school says.

Evidence that it works

Academic test results at Canberra Primary have remained stable since the device was introduced, rather than showing noticeable improvements. However, the school says it was more interested in how the lab has helped with "21st-century skills". A study carried out at Canberra in 2011 found that the 4Di was well received by pupils, with 95 per cent indicating that it has helped to develop collaborative skills by giving them opportunities to learn how to work with friends. Meanwhile, 91 per cent felt they learned better with 4Di compared with usual classroom lessons.


Approach: The 4Di laboratory

Started: 2010

Created by: Playware Studios Asia, as part of the FutureSchools@Singapore project by the Singapore Ministry of Education and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.



Name: Canberra Primary School

Location: Sembawang, Singapore

Pupils: 1,800

Type: State primary, co-ed intake.

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Michael Shaw

I'm the director of TES Pro and former deputy editor of the TES magazine. I joined the publication as a news reporter back in 2002, and have worked in a variety of journalistic roles including editing its comment and news pages. In 2013 I set up the app version of the magazine, TES Reader, and the free TES Jobs app Michael Shaw

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