SMART Table in my Classroom – My Conclusions

Since mid-April I have been working with a SMART Table in my classroom and as the term winds down I wanted to post some of my reflections about the experience so far and my conclusions to date.

I am writing this prior to any updates for firmware or for the Table Toolkit software, I am sure hope some of the issues I raise will be addressed.

At the moment the SMART Table is not worth the money you would invest in it. It is currently priced at US$7,999 which works out to be just short of £5000 here in England. Due to that high price tag it is an investment, but it falls well short of delivering value for money at the moment. There is an awful lot you could do with £5000 that would make a far greater impact on learning in schools.

In my opinion there are three things that contribute to this: poor content; poor creation software and a straight jacketed approach to multi-touch functionality.

The first two go hand in hand and I will deal with them together. To make content to use on the SMART Table a teacher would need to use the SMART Table Toolkit, but in it’s current version it is clunky and very, very time consuming.

One example is for an application called Hot Places, in which the children drag labels to different designated places on the screen.  I have to make a custom background in a 3rd party app, then each of the labels has to be generated individually – it took me 40 minutes to make one screen, with about 24 labels to work with. But we are not dealing with one child here interacting with those 24 questions, we have to remember to divide our task by the total number of users at the table. In this instance 4. So children would interact with on average 6 labels – working together they got this done in under 4 minutes!

The payoff for a teacher creating SMART Table resources is woeful at the moment – and when I say payoff I mean the balance between our own precious preparation time and the time the children are engaged with the learning.

But what quality of learning is there? I am sure that it will be defended on the grounds it is aimed at younger age groups, but there is still a need for deep learning at those age levels. The current set of applications are aimed at simple right/wrong matching style activities – only one lends itself to the deep understanding or application of skills and knowledge children need. So the content is poor and this is confounded by the poor software there is to create it. Add into the mix how long it takes a teacher to make it and it does not paint a rosy picture.

Those unfamiliar with my background with multi-touch technology in the classroom, may assume I am giving it a good knock here – but I believe in the medium, it definitely has something to offer the way children interact with media and digital resources, essentially the way they learn. This pilot is helping me and hopefully others understand more fully how that can be realised.

The third reason I mention is that the SMART Table seems a very straight jacketed environment, at odds even with the multi-touch way of working. The children intuitively engaged with the content available but there is no range of gestures across all of the applications. The process of opening one application and going through the steps to complete it closes off the environment in my opinion.

For years now I have watched creative people express themselves through multi-touch displays and applications that harness the open, fluid nature of the medium. The SMART Table misses a trick here, it seems to be boxing well below it’s weight – I referred to it recently as a Ferrari in a car park, unable to get out of first gear and really flex its multi-touch muscle. There seems to be too much residual SMART Notebook thinking and not enough innovative software design. Maybe the product has preceded the necessary thinking behind it all. This ties in with the fact that Durham University have a 4 year research project about this exact train of thought, what is multi-touch pedagogy going to look like?

The one shining ray of light that emerges from amidst this all is the Media application. I have posted videos of some of my children working with this program in the past. It remains the only application that offers teachers and children an open environment to learn, and couples it with a unique interface with media. When you use this application you actually feel like you are using something innovative, multi-touch, gestural driven. As a teacher there is the capacity to use rich content of your choice (video) and then layer on top questions that engage the children in a much deeper way.

You can currently upload 20 media objects, pictures or video and the user then manipulates them in a light box style application. I hope that the potential is recognised here and more is made of this in the future. A media app of this sort is not new, we were using it on the Philips Entertaible a few years ago – but the open activity stands out clearly from the others.

It is early days and there is still much to learn about this type of medium in the classroom – I hope that the device I signed for in April will not be the same as the one I give back later this year. In the sense that it has evolved in light of current practice and the content/software has along with it.

Content is king, after all it is what you do with these tools that counts the most – learning needs to be put back squarely in the centre of the table.

23 thoughts on “SMART Table in my Classroom – My Conclusions

  1. Thanks for the thoughts Tom. I am yet to have a proper play with one yet, I am off to Steljes in a fortnight to get my hands on a table to see exactly how it works.

    They look good at exhibitions, but the key factor will be the ease (or not) of content creation – it needs to be quick, slick and painless. Sounds like there’s room for improvement there.

    Be interesting to see how Smart respond to the initial trials of these things.

  2. You have described flaws that echo the fears I was harboring about not only the Smart Table but about IWB’s in particular.

    Most notable to me was this observation: “The current set of applications are aimed at simple right/wrong matching style activities – only one lends itself to the deep understanding or application of skills and knowledge children need. So the content is poor …”

    In my opinion, the danger in the use of IWBs in general is the difficulty in bringing project-based, exploratory constructivism into classroom lessons when using the hardware as an instructional delivery tool, activity, or as a game-playing device.

    Unless a teacher is creative and deliberately avoids the tendency, an IWB or Smart Table remains one-dimensional and keeps the focus on the front of the room, with the teacher as the main source of instruction and the device as the hook (“sage on the stage”). This focus is not always a bad thing and is actually useful in some parts of some lessons, but many IWB proponents want to make these devices the one and only focal point of the classroom — the demigod of instruction.

    The interactivity of IWBs and Smart Tables is definitely engaging and entertaining, and works well to excite students, but I don’t see critical thinking, global exploration, and collaborative activities becoming part of the devices’ repertoire yet.

    And what about equity of use? Are all students engaged when using IWBs or Smart Tables? Or are most resigned to be the audience while a few students at a time take turns?

    I’m betting creative educators will find ways to increase the collaborative use of IWBs and Smart Tables eventually, but I think we need to slow down our excitement and guard against the seduction of the “wow” factor. We need to remind ourselves that it’s not about the tool… it’s about the learning.

    It doesn’t sound like the Smart Table that you reviewed has put curriculum content or deep-level learning first. It has put the tool first and made the “wow” more important.

  3. This is exactly the type of feedback SMART need, Tom! Honest and to the point, but with pointers to guide development in future. Great stuff. 🙂

  4. Thanks, Tom, a very clear evaluation. I haven’t seen the Smarttable in action, but have been working with a different tabletop. It is being developed at Newcastle University, based on a Promethean board, so you can track three users.

    You mentioned ‘content is king’ so the main activity has been a thinking skills mystery, with many clue cards, which can be moved, scaled, rotated by the users and the software records this. The cards can be grouped and linked using ‘tape’ to join the ideas together. It seems to work well as an activity.

    At the recent RITWIT conference at Cambridge University, I was asked ‘why do you think the tabletop arrangement is better than the board on the wall?’ I replied you seem to get a more natural interaction between the pupils, talking across the table, making eye contact and a more familiar movement of objects across the table rather than reaching up to the board. What have your observations been about the pupil-to-pupil interaction?

    Many thanks again Tom for your thoughts. Maybe I’ll see you up at Durham Uni at their classroom with Doug too? Regards, Steve

  5. Tom

    Thanks for posting this review, although it is a pretty negative assessment of the technology, so indulge me while I put some thoughts together about the review.

    It’s interesting that you begin the review with value for money. OK, not interesting, more ‘disappointing’ (for reasons which are coming).

    I have no doubt that you could give lots of examples of how £5499 could make a real difference when invested in a classroom, but I could also give you lots of examples where schools have wasted much more money than this (mostly in software purchases and licences which are expensive and not used).

    At other sites that have been trialling the tables, such as Isobel Mair school in Scotland, teacher assessments of the technology have focused more on the quality of the talk between the students using the applications. Those teachers would not talk of a ‘woeful pay off’ when developing content for the table (or even using it in ‘out of the box’ mode), because they report the children as talking and interacting in ways which were not possible with other types of learning activity. Obviously this evidence is anecdotal at the moment and needs more thorough documentation, but if it turns out to be the case that the SMART table performs an unusual or even unique learning function, then perhaps cost would not be the starting point of the conversation.

    It is my contention that only a commercial company (with a very strong pedigree in education software and hardware development) could produce something like the SMART table. BECTa have not developed any hardware (and if they do, I’ll parade naked through the BETT show), and although I think the work at Durham University is interesting and will possibly provide a competitive environment for the development of this technology, I don’t think they will ever be able to commercialise their product. And by commercialise it, I mean get it to the point where schools can order one from a supplier, get it delivered/installed, and get it with a guarantee and after sales support. All things which the SMART table has at the moment. I agree that £5000 is a significant investment, but if we turn ourselves in the education equivalent of ‘Which?” reviewers, then what would you compare the SMARTtable too? It does still need a lot of development work (agree with you there) and a lot of its multi touch functionality is probably currently unused. But the engine for this is software and SMART will be providing many updates and upgrades to users (for no extra cost).

    This quotation from your review did intrigue me “For years now I have watched creative people express themselves through multi-touch displays and applications that harness the open, fluid nature of the medium.” It would be excellent to have an example of who these creative people are, what muti touch displays they are using and for what applications. If there is practice out there which SMART could draw on they would no doubt be grateful if you could supply some concrete examples.

    I agree with you very closely on one point, namely “Maybe the product has preceded the necessary thinking behind it all.” I agree with this because there is still much to be done with the conceptual design of devices like this and the pedagogical structure of the applications which run on them, but I think that it is impossible for any development team to get all of their thinking done at the design phase and then deliver a completely finished product, the design of complex products is just NOT LIKE THIS. The product has to get into the real world, have users give it a thorough testing, and then the development team can use that to drive future developments. Any first generation product will therefore be rapidly superceded by subsequent versions all of which rapidly address the first shortcomings.

    But thanks for the posting the review and getting the conversation going.

    Matthew Pearson
    Steljes Ltd

  6. It is certainly important to guard against some of the things you refer to in any sort of IWB school development.

    You mention that the “an IWB or Smart Table remains one-dimensional and keeps the focus on the front of the room” – I agree that this can happen with the IWB – but the SMART Table is not a whole class device – it only works with a group, up close.

    Interestingly the SMART Table in the way it works is collaborative and the children do eventually work together – however they can also get a little blinkered to those around them and complete things on their own. An interesting dynamic that needs looking into.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. I hope that SMART can engage in some sort of debate about the product as you know I am an advocate for its potential. Let’s hope some of that potential can be properly utilised soon.

  8. Thanks for your comment Steve – I would have to agree that the interaction between, student-digital media-student is a hugely intriguing dynamic in this form.

    I have seen small groups work brilliantly together to complete a task – have seen individuals take over – and then groups of four children all working separately without any engagement with each other. So it instigates a range of responses and comes back to the notion of what content is driving that interaction. Why do the children need to interact? For what purpose? Is there a shared goal?

  9. Tom – an interesting evaluation – and one that I find chimes with my own immediate feedback to Microsoft after a brief test of Surface in January. And you have an equally interesting response from Matthew at Steljes.

    It is clear that this a technology with educational potential but for which hardware development is running way ahead of the software support. Demo materials in the main have that feel of geeky inspiration – whizzy but limited almost to pointlessness. However perhaps we should pause and reflect on the routes forward…?

    Both Microsoft and Steljes, though perhaps rather discreetly, have recognised this position and have indicated that they believe that the great ideas will only come when the devices are out there in the hands of learners and educators. Both appear to be actively trying strategies to achieve this end – though there are many who may take exception to the routes being taken. God forbid that many are purchased ij short order by those enthusastic heads who like buying the latest gizmo without putting any plan in place for sensible use and development.

    We could draw comparisons with development of the iPhone or Android. Interesting ardware frequently precedes by some time the quality software it needs. But once the technology is in the hands of creative minds things happen that wouldn’t if it stays with the lab geeks.

    In an ideal world of course there would at least be some form of HyperCard-Table that allowed creative educators to undertake rapid development in a community of practice. No doubt SMART feels that their Notebook-based software can evolve into a suitable environment and comes with a familiar starting point? Others may wish for something more flexible and creative, though we should recognice that this would require a massive investment on the part of a relatively small company. It is harder however to excuse Microsoft’s failure to offer such a rapid development tool.

    But let’s keep our fingers crossed that we don’t have another Govt Minister who gets excited by seeing one in use and a massive rollout then follows (though ironically at least that would be one way of raising enough funding and ineterst in getting some decent software development!)

    Thanks again for starting the debate….

    Tony Parkin

  10. Hi Matthew – thanks for the comment and for taking the time to add some thoughts about my post.

    The reason I begin with value for money is because that is crucially important. These are being sold, schools are paying the £5499 for a SMART Table, so the product surely has to deliver value for money. You have to agree we are not discussing a laboratory prototype? These are in schools across the world and so need to deliver the impact on learning you are paying for. After all there are not many schools that can afford to invest in a concept, a promise of future impact on learning. In my opinion, in it’s current form, there are too many hurdles in the way of a teacher to make that impact.

    I don’t agree with you in regard to the unique interactions stemming from the SMART Table. However it is important to note that Isobel Mair is a completely different school to my own and so I cannot begin to make that comparison. But in my own experience only the Media app (and in some respects the Finger count app) instigate anything unique in terms of children’s interactions. It is no surprise that these two apps do not have an analogue alternative, they are unique in their structure and so reveal unique dynamics between children. I would love to spend time carefully exploring how the Finger application effects different types of children or types of groups – a very revealing and often overlooked activity.

    You only need to do a #multitouch search on Twitter to quickly find the ways people are using this form for creative, expressive work.

    I understand that first generation products must find their way, and no doubt my own pilot is part of that process. It is awkward however that schools are buying them and I am still piloting it. I hope you are right and that the “subsequent versions all of which rapidly address the first shortcomings.”

    Another hope is that SMART and Steljes continue to listen to those with SMART Tables in their classrooms and take heed of our experiences.

  11. Tom – an open and frank review of the product and I can only echo your comments regarding the functionality of the software. I can see benefits from having content on the table and accessible to the children, I have witnessed children from all primary ages engaging positively with the touch screen. However creating content is a laborious task which I have managed, largely due to my technological competence. For the table to have far reaching effects throughout the school the less computer literate staff members should be able to create and edit content using a simple interface.
    There is value in the product, the jury is out on ‘value for money’ nevertheless there needs to be some recognition of the feedback from Smart table users, and some positive dialogue to move this forward.

  12. Thanks Matt – technical competency is an important issue regarding accessibility for all teachers using the Table. You and I share a level that still meant we found it time consuming to make content, so we can but assume it would take longer for others.

    I hope SMART do indeed make full use of this sort of debate and the level of feedback we have already been sharing.

  13. Hi Tom,
    I’ve been following your use of the SMART table in your classroom since I began following you on Twitter. Your posts on it have always been thoughtful and descriptive with many examples of classroom use; so good they are that they had me considering the possibility of convincing my head teacher of a possible purchase in the future.
    Your previous posts have never been negative neither is this. Your experience of using the SMART Table in a classroom situation will be viewed by many as a clear indicator if the price for such a tool is money well spent. As is, it seems to be not quite there yet. I also hope SMART take your post and its comments into consideration for future development of this product.

  14. Some interesting responses here. With IWBs there was this assumption that teachers would spend hours developing all their own resources for them and training was delivered accordingly. In actual fact I know very few teachers who spend much time at all creating flipcharts, instead they trawl the web and borrow and adapt existing stuff. I suspect the same thing will happen with the Table: until software companies start putting together some interesting apps and content for these devices they will remain very much “proof of concept” tools.

    Criticism of your comment about the “woeful payoff” shows how far removed the author is from the classroom. Teachers have a very limited amount of time available for prep and simply cannot justify hours of work to produce a learning activity that will last moments.

  15. Hi Tom,

    What a great thorough review. Thanks for that. I wonder, however, whether we must take a step back and accept that this technology is still in its infancy but that it nevertheless has great potential. Yes, it has glaring limitations too at the moment, but it does give us all a glimpse into what the future holds.

    Your feedback is honest and I hope Smartboard sees it as the constructive criticism it is. I, for one, hope that Smartboard don’t shelve this project and continue investing in research into the fantastic possibilities it has to offer.

    Oh yes, the price…. ridiculous. But I’m sure it’ll come down.

  16. An important post, thanks, TOM. Now, if SMART is thinking, they’ll put you together with a developer and work up some apps that allow the valuable part (using children’s creativity) to come out. Then they’ll send you and your family to Denver next year for ISTE 2010 to demo the much-needed improvements.

  17. Looks like you’ve stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest Tom!

    My own school has been mentioned in the reply above, but I’m not sure how fair it is to make comparisons between our two situations. As well as completely different pupil and class profiles (my class is probably the same size as one of your groups, for example), the way the SMART Table is being utilised is completely different as well; at your school you have the Table in your class all the time available to the same pupils, whereas in our school the Table is in a communal room and groups of pupils are timetabled onto it at specific times during the week. Whilst I can see pros and cons to both methods, I don’t think it makes for a valid comparison to hold them up to each other, rather the two approaches complement each other in so far as the pilot study goes.

    Similarly, with regards to the cost/benefit issue I feel that as a partner in a pilot scheme we expect to be encountering problems or challenges from day 1 – that is the whole point of the pilot is it not? To identify and hopefully address such issues. A customer who has invested a significant financial outlay in a Table will have an entirely different perspective, and is entirely entitled to do so! But I digress – on to the SMART Table itself.

    Before I start, I would like to re-iterate and echo your belief in the potential that multi-touch devices have for effective teaching and learning in the class. I have seen enough from the SMART Table even at this pilot stage to convince me that multi-touch has a big future in the classroom. And SMART should find themselves in the driving seat; they have been pretty quick out of the blocks, and as we have both discussed previously the Table is a good quality, solid piece of kit.

    Sadly, that on its own will not be enough to make this project a success. I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that whether the SMART Table stands or falls will depend almost entirely on the software and applications that are developed for it, and at the moment the scope is limited. Unlike other SMART content creation software, the Activity Toolkit is ‘clunky’ to use and makes simple tasks laborious – for example, certain file extensions being accepted and others not can put an extra step in what is already a lengthy picture upload process. Whilst I have many thoughts about how content creation using the Toolkit could be improved, I will save them for a blog post or for the GoogleDoc, except for what seems to me to be the most glaring. SMART already has an incredibly successful and remarkably intuitive creation tool at their disposal, one that many teachers are very familiar and comfortable with. The ability to drag and drop objects from notebook software to table software and back should be seamless, or in fact the ability to have Notebook open inside the Activity Toolkit to help with content creation.

    On a brighter note, it is good to see that SMART have their ear to the ground. The Toolkit has been updated already, and not only has new content been created, but new applications too. The really good news is that these have seemed to be a result of feedback that they have been given about using the Table – the Hot Areas activity seems to be an attempt to ‘work around’ issues that had been highlighted with Hot Spots, and whilst not a perfect solution, it certainly seems to add versatility. If they can continue to respond to the feedback they receive in such a manner it bodes well for the Table.

    The final area I wished to address at the moment is regarding the development of applications for the Table. Again, I believe as you do, that an increased range and versatility of Applications is central to the Table’s sustainability. For the Table to be commercially viable, it will need to ‘hit the ground running’ from the software point of view when it arrives in schools, and whilst at the moment it does not, I also know from my own experience and from ‘virtual’ conversations I have had with you that the ideas are there for some fantastic applications, but not necessarily the technical expertise or tools to put these together. Similarly, there are some multitouch applications already out there – for example, the ‘water’ application that Durham have would be fantastic for some of our pupils, and some of the projects on the NUI Group could be equally useful – if I only had the expertise, equipment, tool sand time to get them running on the Table. And where better to judge whether an application is providing a worthwhile teaching/learning experience than in the classroom? With our pupils especially activities need to address cause & effect, hand-eye co-ordination, fine & gross motor skills – utilising the Table could add a collaborative or even competitive aspect to such activities. So whilst I would be keen to get the developers on the case and let us test drive their creations in class, surely I’m not the only person who thinks it would be a worthwhile exercise to put the teachers who have been working with the SMART Table together with some of SMART’s finest to generate some exciting and effective table content? That would be playing to strengths.

  18. Totally agree with you both – whilst both myself and one of my colleagues who has a very strong ICT remit have downloaded the Toolkit and created resources, for some of the other staff at school this could be a bridge too far. Food for thought, definitely.

  19. Hi Tom – I’m Tanya Brusse, Senior Product Manager for the SMART Table and I have been following your experience with the Table with your upper junior students and listening to the feedback. Your feedback, while challenging, is very much the kind of thing we need and solicit to help us improve our products, and better meet the educational opportunities of multi-touch interaction.

    While the matter of value for money with any technology is subjective and a debate in itself, it is worth noting that pioneering any new technology is an expensive business for both the manufacturer and the early adopters. This is one of the reasons why SMART has provided a number of early beta program units to leading practitioners to help guide the kind of development you only get once a product has left the lab and is in use in the real world. SMART is committed to listening to feedback from our customers and over the last decade we have been on a journey with educators to understand and optimise the application of technology to the improvement of learning outcomes.

    Your comments about the Toolkit have been fed back to the team working on this product and I recognise the point about the payoff for the teacher. SMART saw similar concerns in the early days of the interactive whiteboard and then, as now, worked to both stimulate 3rd party content development and make it as easy as possible for teachers to create and share resources. To date, over 100 organisations have downloaded the SMART Table software developers kit, which is free of charge for non-commercial development and we are also working directly with a number of publishers and software developers for multi-touch enabled content and applications. Further, soon you will see content developed by teachers using the Table available for sharing through I know that future versions of the SMART Table Toolkit will increasingly offer more flexibility and greater productivity largely in part to feedback from persons such as you, beta program participants and others.

    I recognise that the SMART Table needs to have a range of applications for different age ranges and levels of learning. At the moment a number of the applications address knowledge and recall which are very useful and imperative in Foundation and Key Stage 1 classrooms, and the teachers at this level have provided us very positive feedback thus far on this as well as the discussion and collaboration they are witnessing amongst these early learners. Two of our newest applications – Hot Spaces and Addition Plus – were the direct result of these teachers asking specifically for the functionality that they deliver. However, we do want to stretch this learning and apply applications that provide a learning environment which target comprehension, application, analysis and evaluation, and take advantage of the rich interface multi-touch provides. We are already designing activities that will achieve this and, as time goes on, there will be a wide range of deeper applications developed both by SMART and third parties that address different learning styles and levels of learning.

    Tom, I know as a teacher that your time is precious and appreciate the efforts that yourself and others have put into integrating the Table into your classroom and articulating feedback. Let me assure you that we are listening and by doing so, continue to deliver on our commitment to enhance teaching and learning by providing technology for the classroom.

  20. Thanks to all of you- really interesting posts and will help me in my project I am soon to be starting with one of these tables with a Deaf School in London. Really glad to see Smart are listening and responding too!
    I used one when working at the Embed Conference & Exhibition in Malta in May – we had groups of children at the exhibition and they were able to walk up to it and explore. They very quickly picked up how to use it, and it was lovely to see how the collaboration happened instinctively. I didn’t speak any Maltese, and although the younger ones understoood some English, the intruction I was able to give was minimal. But yet it was one of the most popular items there, there were children around it all the time for the 3 days, really interacting with it and with each other. So I think it does have huge potential as a group activity (most primary classrooms work in groups especially the younger ones) or in small classes in Special Schools.

    Hopefully they will make the software a bit more like smart notebook – very very important that activities are quick and easy to make for teachers, but encouraging to hear that there will be downloadable material from the website.

    Sharon also made very valid points about making sure everyone is engaged with IWBs and the Table – teachers do need far more training on how to “teach” and how to get children to “learn” with these technologies and not just on how to create activities – yes its important – but it so important for them have input about using them to promote all those other skills and whole class/group discussion and how it really is ok to turn off that projector sometimes! But that’s a subject for another blog in another place….

    So thanks to all of you, I found this by accident (as you do) and will be now following with interest on Twitter and Tweeting our experiences with the Table in September (yes Danny that was me that said that….)


  21. Tanya Brusse’s response is very encouraging: I firmly believe that the only way platforms such as this will be successful is opening them up to developers to develop apps for them. Attempting to keep it all in house will only result in frustration and a failure to exploit its obvious potential.

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