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.