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Interactive technologies in the classroom: An insider’s view

 

 

It all started with computer labs in schools, providing students, and even some teachers, access to computers for the first time in their lives. Today, computers and the use of technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives, with pre-school learners being exposed to technology even before they master the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.

The introduction of the interactive whiteboard in the classroom has since resulted in an era in which the use of technology was literally moved to the front and centre of the learning environment, with many teachers and educators grasping the opportunity to enhance teaching by effectively using it as an interactive, real-time projection device resulting in higher levels of student participation and concentration.

A concept that was and is unfortunately overlooked is that the technology (hardware) is, ultimately, merely a means to an end. External school funding projects allowed schools to implement interactive whiteboard solutions in many classrooms and, due to the focus placed on the acquisition of the tangible items, the concepts of simply being a means to an end was overlooked by many. This resulted in a significant number of interactive whiteboards either being used as projection surfaces only, or not used at all.

Apart from the lack of basic and ongoing professional development, the technology have been regarded as finicky and problematic, with constant re-calibration required, external light sources impacting viewing quality, incorrect software drivers, and more, due to some of the following reasons:

1. Poor service from unqualified installers
2. Insufficient brightness on projectors used
3. Incorrect matching of technologies, for example using a 4:3 aspect ratio projector on 16:9 whiteboards
4. Lack of training and support, both internally and externally
5. Lack of relevant content and access to resources

In addition, with the workload on teachers to deliver the curriculum to their classes over a limited period of time, it is not surprising that many have even given up on the technology, as they simply don’t have the time to waste on technical issues.

The single biggest ‘game changer’ in the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) in the classroom was probably the introduction of tablets – more specifically iPads – which, to a certain extent, coincided with a mass take-up and subscription to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and more, into the classroom.

Re-adjusting Settings on Interactive Displays

It is important to recognise the link between the use of technology in everyday social life, across virtually all socio-economic backgrounds, and the use of technology in the classroom.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, teachers have become more confident with the use of technology, with tablets, smart phones and computers now being used as tools to access information and to stay connected to others, whether it be at a social level or work related level. Secondly, students now have access to these technologies from an early age. Simple touch technologies, including a basic feature such as gesturing (which are used on handheld devices such as tablets and smart phones), is one of the reasons why interactive LED panels have been so successful in classrooms, with even pre-schoolers being able to use the technology without training or instruction.

Most of the current range interactive panels don’t require drivers for either Mac or Windows and they auto-calibrate, allowing teachers to simply ‘plug and play’. These interactive panels are ultimately large, external screens connected to a computer, allowing the educator to operate and control any program installed on that computer via the interactive panel, using either their finger or stylus, rather than a mouse or track-pad. On-screen keyboards also allow for typing, and character recognition is also becoming ubiquitous in many operating systems.

Total cost of ownership for interactive panels is also significantly lower when compared to conventional interactive whiteboards with projector solutions, with the expected lifespan on an A-Grade LED panel ranging between 30,000 to 50,000-plus hours. To put this in context; if a panel is used for an average of six hours per school day, you’re looking at a lifespan in excess of 25 years. Obviously we’ll see newer and different technologies in years to come, but the point being made is you should not have on-going expenses, such as bulb and filter replacements during the life and use of these panels.

Features for the Future of Education

As time passes, it is expected that more emphasis will be placed on developing connecting devices to the panels, currently and for the foreseeable future, through HDMI ports. This will allow more effective wireless streaming and interaction to the panels from teacher and student devices, irrespective of the platform they’re using.

As an example of this trend in expanding connectivity, there is an interactive LED connectivity solution currently available that allows up to 64 devices to be simultaneously connected, thereby allowing any of the device screens to be displayed on the panel and even wirelessly controlled from the screen. Teachers are able to interact with students without having to go to the students’ desks, therefore keeping all students included and focused on the lesson.

Such technology also allows educators to display up to four device screens via the panel simultaneously, which is ideal for a cooperative group setup, such as four groups of students doing a math quiz on four different devices, or presenting their group projects simultaneously.

Another important consideration for interactive panels is their size, and selecting the correct size for your classroom is critical. Interactive LED panels are widescreen devices – generally with an aspect ratio of 16:9 – whereas the majority of interactive whiteboards installed at schools are 4:3. The width of a 65-inch panel is very similar to the width of an 85-inch interactive whiteboard and, in addition, the clarity of a full-HD LED panel is significantly better that that of projectors.

Compare/Contrast

Wireless connectivity is fast becoming the most desired feature on interactive classroom solutions, but it’s also an area where some people are often disappointed with the responsiveness and lag that can be an issue.

Problems with connectivity are often caused by already over-saturated WiFi networks. Alternatively, they may simply be the result of inadequate WiFi connections built into some panels.

Alternatively to a wireless connection, some users may consider connecting and displaying an iPad screen directly to the display. However, this will allow display-only functionality and you will not be able to control the iPad through the screen. The main reason for this is that the interactivity on panels is driven through USB, and therefore the control of devices from the panel is limited to compatible devices with USB ports, as you effectively create a wireless USB bridge from the device to the panel.

Ultimately, the decision for many educators will come down to an understanding of the differences between the new generation of interactive LEDs, when compared with standard LED TVs, which are used as projection surfaces only.

This is an area that requires careful consideration, and I’ve summarised some of the major differences below. Anyone considering the next generation of displays for use in classrooms should take extra precautions in understanding these pointers and accounting for them against their school’s needs and budgetary expectations.

1. LED TVs do not have anti-glare screens, which makes viewing in many classrooms problematic due to reflection caused by external light sources
2. LED TVs purchased from mass retailers are not generally commercial-grade panels, therefore not intended for extended hours of use and only intended for use in-home. It would be wise to carefully read the warranty disclaimer on any TV
3. Interactive LED panels, or at least the more mainstream brands, are designed for use within the classroom, and are therefore more robust and durable
4. Interactive LED panels enhance classroom teaching and their interactive capabilities ensures more engagement with the class
5. Interactive LED panels provides greater flexibility due to their connectivity and built-in operating systems

Important factors to consider when considering Interactive LED Panels include the following:

Budget – Over the last 12 months the most popular size for classrooms has been 65”

Size – Current popular sizes available are 55”, 65”, 70”, 75”, 84” and 98”

Warranty – Onsite service or back-to-base? This is an important consideration as freight costs are high

Mounting options – Fixed-wall mount, fixed-wall mount on swivel bracket or height-adjustable wall mount, manual or automated?

Mobility – Mobile with manual height adjustability, mobile with automated height adjustability, mobile with automated height adjustability and automated tilting (interactive table), fixed height mobile and a laptop arm or bracket?

Built-in PC or use own laptops/notebooks

Operating platform – Built-in systems like Android allow usage of the panel’s basic features without having to have a PC connected. Basic features include writing, connecting to the internet, storing and opening files including MP4, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, Word Documents, and more

Connectivity – Wireless connectivity or connectivity via ethernet cable

Glare and scratch resistance – Look for anti-glare and anti-friction toughened (MOHS 7) glass

LED quality – A-grade panels will have no dead or light pixels

Support – This may include relevant content pre-installed, training manuals and clear levels of additional support outlined

Future firmware support – Note: the reason most panels don’t require drivers for Mac and Windows computers is that the drivers are included in the operating systems. Future updates to operating systems are therefore not necessarily covered and will therefore require an update to the firmware on the touch overlay to ensure proper operability

Author – Tony Church

Tony began working in IT in 1986 and started focusing on ICT in Education in 1994. Between 1994 and 2006 he was the Divisional Director Education for Mustek Ltd in South Africa, where he was directly involved in the planning and rollout of computer systems, software solutions and training in more than 1,800 schools on the African continent, with the majority thereof being in South Africa.

He was the project manager for the development of the Inter-ED software, a multi-lingual (11 Official Languages) software solution for foundation-phase learners focusing on Literacy, Numeracy and Life Skills which provided learners, irrespective of their language and socio-economic background, the opportunity of being taught in their mother tongue during the foundation phase. This product and project was awarded the Proudly South African Award in 2005 and received a Silver Award from the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999 under the Best Innovation category.

In January 2006, Tony relocated to Australia and joined Eduss (today called IG3 Education Ltd), a small, Gold Coast company focusing on Maths, English and Phonics solutions in Australia. Today, the IG3 Education Ltd group has a national presence and a turnover in excess of $45 million and IG3 Education products, including EduTouch hardware solution and a vast range of Education Software Solutions, have been installed in over 75 per cent of Australian schools. Software solutions available include The Language Market, Learning A-Z, Readme, Kurzweil, Eduss Maths & English, and more.