Chris Drage, amazed by the advances in display technology, reflects on some breakthroughs at BETT 2013
Ernie FaulkenberryErnie Faulkenberry demonstrates 'Cool Street'set-up to Promethean's Mark Robionson and Chris DrageFour groups sit around an interactive table, each creating a new business. Once live, these 'companies' are part of a dynamic, real-time simulation – and other groups, brokers for example, can each play their roles whether they are using interactive whiteboards, PCs or tablets.

The demonstration of the Cool Street business simulation app on the Promethean stand at the BETT 2013 show (see video below) was a cutting-edge example of the rich, interactive classroom activities now possible with the integration of display technology for learning environments, and, of course, the advent of Windows 8. (Update: app launched at ISTE2013.)

Busily engaging the BETT visitors, two of Promethean US developers, Gerry Hill and Ernie Faulkenberry, explained how it worked, as it worked. Students determined the parameters used to set up the businesses and the changes required to profitably sustain them. These are flexible and dynamic, allowing them to determine the level of investment in, for example, premises, staff, marketing and suchlike (simple sliders set the levels). The effect on business performance and outcomes can be seen on-screen as tickertapes show fluctuating fortunes as shares are traded in a lively market. The key adjectives here have to be “engagement” and “excitement”. (Update: the CoolStreet app has been launched at ISTE2013 in San Antonio, Texas, and is available at the Windows 8 app store.)

Experiencing this after a demonstration of NearPod, which synchronises iPads for teachers and students to share activities and ‘content’ (via a projector too), highlighted the powerful opportunities and combinations now available for schools. The challenge lies in keeping up.

'The rate of change won't slow – we need to learn to live with it'

It’s likely that the rate of change won’t slow, and that we need to learn to live with it. So the first thing we should do is to stop lurching from one “orthodoxy” to another. While the national whiteboard scheme helped many schools, the driving down of prices to the exclusion of CPD had some adverse effects. It certainly accounted for many schools underusing – misusing too – their whiteboard technology.

However, just because one well-meant push towards a new classroom orthodoxy had some negative side-effects, that’s no reason to denigrate teachers – kids too – who continue to do great work with their whiteboards. Some see the way forward as iPads linking to big screens via AppleTV, and there has been good work done in this area (check out Essa Academy) while others wait for an AppleTV for the rest of us.

However, why move from one format to another when you can now integrate a range of technologies together in ways that suit your aims, rather than tailor your aims to the technology? That’s what was so exciting about the Promethean preview. The students’ work can be done on devices that suit them and their teacher. If they want to collaborate around a table that’s fine, as is working in groups sharing tablets or screens. And individual use of tablet, laptop or PC is always an option too. As long as they have sufficient funds, schools are getting spoiled for choice.

We should not confuse personalisation with private screens for every child in his or her private bubble. Collaboration and learning are virtually synonymous. So we should avoid isolating children to private screens. And the interactive whiteboard or large flatscreen should never be 'the teacher's screen'; it should always be 'our screen'.  

Teachers need to make personal devices like tablets work with the IWB or shared screen. Giving them materials on an iPad or similar discrete device can just be electronically recreating the paper-worksheet experience of yesteryear. Wasn't a paper-based worksheet a 'personal' experience?  Apart from materials being animated and interactive, there is not a lot new. And 1:1 computer access makes sense mainly for pupil ‘entitlement’ to ICT rather than a pedagogic choice that can raise standards.

When you get children learning collaboratively, they have to engage in a totally different and meaningful way, especially when problem solving scenarios are involved. Ultimately there has to be a balance between content delivery, the skills of learning collaboratively and the demands of curriculum, assessment, and examinations. Moving data around between devices to where it is needed is far more efficient for the teacher and motivating for the pupils. This is where Windows 8 appears to score heavily – it provides the means to do just that.

SMART drops projector for its new flat-screen table

SMART Table 442iThe new SMART Table 442iSMART Technologies have been in the interactive table market now for three years and at Bett 2013 the company was showing off its new Smart Table 442i collaborative learning centre. The new Smart Table is certainly an improvement on the original model, with simultaneous multi-touch capability, a high-definition display with no shadows and virtually no glare (no in-built projector either – this is flat-screen technology). Its rugged design now rests on a sturdy pedestal and offers a scratch and spill-proof surface. It is a more responsive device and one to which you can connect headphones or USB devices.

Wheelchair users will have no problems using this new SMART Table and it offers total integration with the company's other products, including the SMART Notebook. It also offers built-in sound and Wi-Fi. In excess of 1,500 ready-made activity packs from the SMART Exchange website ensure that a new SMART Table offers huge possibilities for collaborative learning. Teachers can also import ready-made lessons and 3-D multimedia content, or do as I saw one 10-year-old do – create their own engaging lesson content using SMART Thought, due as a download.

The SMART Table now enables up to eight pupils to interact simultaneously and actively collaborate to achieve shared learning goals. It offers a choice between either total agreement of participants or, a majority decision, as a means of progressing in a particular activity – a necessary component of any collaborative activity.  At a cost of £4,875, the SMART Table 442i is not a resource many schools will simply go out and buy!. However, if they do they will find it easier to set up than ever: SMART Technologies claims that it can be out of the box and in use within 30 minutes, and with its optional castors it can be pushed easily through the standard doorway thus enabling shared usage between classes.

At BETT, SMART was also showing off its first fully integrated, touch-enabled, interactive projector. The LightRaise 60wi projector, with the latest version of SMART Notebook, gives schools a means of delivering interactive content on a previously non-interactive board. With touch- and pen-enabled interaction, pupils can simultaneously interact and collaborate with a finger or a digital pen. Designed primarily for wall installation, the projector can produce screen sizes up to 254-cm in widescreen format, making it flexible enough to fit into nearly any classroom or collaborative space. Similarly, being ultra short-throw, the LightRaise 60wi projector eliminates most shadow and layer providing a decent crisp, sharp image.

SMART Notebook software also continues to evolve: SMART Notebook Web is, as the name suggests, a web-based version of the standard Notebook software, and can be used on any mobile device with an Internet connection. By offering many of the Notebook features, it complements the full desktop version of Notebook by providing transitions between whole-class instruction to individual and small-group learning and allows students and educators to collaborate and personalise learning. Similarly, SMART users should watch out on SMART Exchange for the ‘XC’ add-on for the Notebook software which promises to enable students to contribute to class discussions by sending text and images from their mobile devices to a SMART Notebook page for the whole class to see and explore.

Promethean steps up display and tablet integration

Promethean ActivTablePromethean ActivTable: 'a dynamic learning environment'Research is increasingly showing us that using both interactive whiteboards and personal devices such as tablets or PCs in the classroom provides more value than using either on their own because it enhances the ability to shift easily between whole-class, small-group and individual learning. No one company is leading the way on this more than Promethean. The company was keen to show how well it can now integrate the ActivBoard, ActivTable and the new 7-inch ActivTablets through Windows 8.  

At £4,999, the ActivTable (see "Promethean brings learning to the table at BETT") has to be so much more than an interactive table system; it helps create a dynamic learning environment that builds important 21st Century skills of collaboration, communication and critical thinking.  

A new 'content modifier' for the ActivTable has been released, giving teachers the ability to customise activities for their classrooms. The table interface has also been updated to reduce set-up time, simplify management functions and increase learning productivity. Promethean Planet continues to provide a cloud-based shop window for literally thousands of free activities and a forum for the exchange of ideas.

During the show, the ActivTable was shown running Windows 8 to demonstrate how the touch-centric operating platform improves gesture-based activities, such as pinching, sizing and sharing, and makes the table run more efficiently with shorter transition times between activities. Undoubtedly though, the star item was Cool Street – a business/economics simulation with the ActivBoard delivering stock market updates, the ActivTable enabling ‘brokers’ to react and touch tablets providing individuals with the means to react and respond with their own decisions regarding their individual businesses. As all the data is saved, a teacher can really challenge the class by looking at their results and encouraging the students to improve on their performance or results. It proved fast-moving, exciting and totally engaging. When learning gets this good it sticks!   

Other developments include the Content Wizard software which enables teachers to take existing activities and modify them according to their students’ needs. A full development kit is available for developers and advanced teachers. Again, the ActivTable can be set up for any number of users up to six and for real-time consensus, or for a majority decision to enable continuation. Actively Engage is a virtual version of the ActiveInspire response system: it's an app for any Apple mobile iOS device or as a web client on any other mobile device. It also provides a vehicle for both formative and summative assessment. As classroom technology develops, Promethean is very keen to point out that it is very aware of the many different devices available in schools and that Promethean software is as device-agnostic as possible. It all forms part of Promethean’s desire to create the “connected classroom” where the devices become a means to an end, not ends in themselves, and the teacher can teach and interact with the students from anywhere in the classroom.  

Innovative mobile interactivity continues to develop

Need to take your interactive space with you? The pocket-sized, Luidia eBeam Edge is a portable whiteboard system that captures any whiteboard surface or even a wall up to 240x120cm for less than half the price of an equivalent sized fixed board. Of course you will still need a projector, preferably an ultra-short throw one to negate the shadow effect. The eBeam Edge allows you transform any flat surface into an interactive whiteboard space with all the functionality of a traditional fixed-size interactive whiteboard and that includes tabletops and floor spaces. In these cases a ceiling or desk-mounted projector is required. What’s more, the (less portable) eBeam Engage can double that to a whopping 4-metre ‘board’ and has built-in speakers, microphone and wireless keyboard. What is particularly interesting about eBeam Engage is that it divides that 4m area into two, separate interactive regions so you can be viewing content on one side while annotating or creating on the other.

As it measures less than 20cm and weighs less than 115g, installing the eBeam Edge takes minutes and requires no special tools. Integrated receiver magnets make attaching to a metallic board simple, but Luidia includes a stainless steel mounting plate for installation on non-magnetic surfaces. Thus the eBeam Edge or Engage can be placed along any physical edge of a board. The three-button stylus with left and right click and instant access to the eBeam floating, circular toolbar is surprisingly accurate too!

The ability to carry your eBeam interactive whiteboard anywhere in any simple carrier or bag could be a very important feature for some schools. Compared with the significant expense of a dedicated whiteboard, it's reasonable value, and the flexibility of being able to use it with multiple whiteboards and host systems makes it very useful indeed.

Philips Brilliance 221BPhilips Brilliance 221BOf course flat-screen monitors are already competing with interactive whiteboards, and a good place to see what is coming was the Samsung stand at BETT. But don't forget plain old computer monitors too. They get cheaper, more sustainable and more functional with each generation. My colleague Merlin John was checking out screens at BETT for personal use with a PC/Mac Mini and was taken with products from Philips and AOC. From Philips' Brilliance range, the 21.5-inch 221B3LPC is a high-quality, ergonomic, 'green' (no mercury) LCD screen with LED backlight and low power consumption and an adjustable sensor that picks up user movement, so if there isn’t any the monitor just goes to sleep. For around £150 it's very good value (there's even a two-port USB hub).

AOC MyPlay 12757FmAOC MyPlay 12757FmAs is the AOC MyPlay 12757FM 27-inch which, for a big screen (certainly big enough for most of us), manages to maximise 1920x1080 resolution for around £50 more. And it also uses HDL technology to allow you to connect Android devices to see their content in a larger, clearer format (while charging them too). It's so, so much easier on the eyes working with a larger monitor.

Windows 8, however, has brought touch capability throughout the PC world, from Windows phones to the gamers' Xboxes, and now people need to work out where and how they want to deploy touchscreens. We're already hearing people ask "Why on earth would I want to touch my PC screen?" You don't need a long memory to remember that sort of question being asked about mobile phones when smartphones first made an appearance. It's still relatively early days for schools to work this out – and suppliers were oretty slow to respond for BETT 2013 – although touch has been a common feature of SEN and inclusion technologies for many a year.

Perhaps the following real-life example epitomises the essence of the ‘connected classroom’: the topic is ‘how to write a blog’ and before the lesson the teacher has prepared a blogging template. After the initial discussion the template is pushed out to the students' individual devices and they start work. As the teacher walks around the room she is watching what is happening and talking to individuals about their work.

She sees that one student has made a significant contribution and asks the student to share his touch tablet screen on the interactive whiteboard. At this point the teacher engages the whole class in editing this particular version of the blog and discusses its impact. Importantly, the teacher is able to send any annotations made on the interactive whiteboard back to individual students. The overall focus is on the ability to create, share, collaborate and discuss each individual’s contribution in building the final blog – a situation that previously could only happen in the network room running management software like Net Support or Net Op.

In the modern classroom the movement of digital content between the interactive whiteboard, interactive table and the touch tablet is far more seamless, natural and easy to achieve. Above all, the school’s existing investment in resources, content and training is not lost but simply built on.

In the classroom there is never one dominant mode: what the child actually does is important and that’s personalisation, a reflection on that happens on the interactive whiteboard while collaboration with others can happen at the interactive table. In the 21st-century where much of our media is digital, it is important not to focus simply on the device whether it be a touch tablet or an interactive whiteboard, but concentrate on the learning activity and how it distributes across all of the devices. With Windows 8 and the variety of interactive touch devices that are now available to us, the technology for such integration in the classroom is becoming more straightforward.

The devices simply become clients where data coming from the server is interpreted by groups or individuals according to their roles and needs. Multi-user, multi-touch technology can increase teaching and learning productivity and, in the right hands, creates a fully immersive and engaging educational experience.

Philips Brilliance 221B3LPC
AOC MyPlay 12757FM 

Promethean at Bett 2013: Day Two from Promethean on Vimeo. The full Promethean video from BETT 2013

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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