Public Release:  Smart desks make sci-fi a reality in the classroom

Durham University

Schools are set for a Star Trek make-over thanks to the development of the world's first interactive classroom by experts at Durham University.

Researchers at the Technology-Enhanced Learning Research Group (TEL) are designing new learning environments using interactive multi-touch desks that look and act like a large version of an Apple iPhone.

Example: Click here to see how the new desks work: http://smart.dur.ac.uk/index.php?n=Main.MultitouchPage

The team observed how students and teachers interact in classes and how Information Communications technology (ICT) could improve collaboration. They then set about designing an interactive classroom solution called 'SynergyNet' to reflect TEL's aims of achieving active student engagement and learning by sharing, problem-solving and creating.

The team has linked up with manufacturers to design software, and desks that recognize multiple touches on the desktop, using vision systems that can see infrared light.

SynergyNet will integrate ICT into the fabric of the classroom. The new desk with a 'multi-touch' surface will be the central component; the desks will be networked and linked to a main smartboard offering new opportunities for teaching and collaboration.

Several students will be able to work together at a desk as the desks allow simultaneous screen contact by multiple users using fingers or pens. Durham researchers want to create a 'natural way' for students to use computers in class. The system encourages collaboration between students and teachers, and a move away from teacher-centric learning.

The government's ICT vision aims to: 'transform teaching, learning and help to improve outcomes through shared ideas, more exciting lessons... and to engage 'hard to reach' learners, with special needs support, more motivating ways of learning, and more choice about how and where to learn.'

Dr. Liz Burd, Director of Active Learning in Computing at Durham University says: "Our vision is that every desk in school in 10 years time will be interactive. IT in schools is an exciting prospect - our system is very similar to the type of interface shown as a vision of the future in the TV series Star Trek!

"We can now by-pass the 'move-to-use' whiteboard. The new desk can be both a screen and a keyboard, it can act like a multi-touch whiteboard and several students can use it at once. It offers fantastic scope for more participative teaching and learning.

"The system will also boost equal access in school. In IT, we have found that males have been the dominant actors - interactive classrooms will encourage more females to take part in lessons. It will also enable more disabled students to participate in lessons and allow more personalized learning."

A single work-desk can operate as a set of individual work spaces and/or a large screen allowing students to cooperate on a task. The software will be used to link everything together in a fully interactive classroom system of desks and smartboards.

Teachers will be able to instantly display examples of good work by students on the main smart-board; tasks could also be set for each individual desk. Numeracy tasks could include exercises where pupils have to split a restaurant bill by sliding visual representations of money into a group space.

After testing the system with students of all ages, the software will be available to schools for free as open source code.

TEL in Computing is the largest funded research study to look at multi-touch interactive systems for education. £1.5 million has been awarded to Durham researchers who will design the system and software, and test it with students from primary and secondary schools, and university students over the next 4 years.

Dr. Andrew Hatch from Durham's Technology-Enhanced Learning Research Group adds: "It changes the move-to-use principle; instead the computer becomes part of the desk. It's a practical change that will provide a creative interface for life-long learning for all students!"

The Computing Department at Durham University leads TEL and England's only Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) in Computer Science, called Active Learning in Computing (ALiC). This centre seeks to facilitate a shift towards far higher levels of active student engagement, where knowledge is obtained by sharing, problem-solving and creating, rather than by passive listening. Providing novel facilities and encouraging new ways of working will be a central focus.

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The Active Learning in Computing research is funded by the EPSRC - Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; the ESRC - Economic and social research council, and the TLRP - Teaching and learning research programme.

MEDIA INFORMATION:

Filming opportunities available at Durham University on: Wednesday 17th September: 0730-0900 national broadcast; 0900-1030 for regional TV, radio and agencies.

A class of 18 school-children, average age seven years old, will be available for TV; interviews with the class and head teacher are possible.

INTERVIEWS:

Dr Liz Burd is available from 9am-5pm BST Tuesday 16th September and Wednesday 17th September. Tel: +44(0)191 334 1719 or (0191) 334 4297; mobile 0791 877 3503. Email liz.burd@durham.ac.uk

Note: The university telephone systems are currently being serviced.

Or contact Carl Stiansen at Durham University Media Relations Office +44 (0) 191 33 46077 or 0191 334 6075. Mobile: 07508 003 770 Email: c.r.stiansen@durham.ac.uk

PICTURES: Agency pictures available. A jpeg headshot of Dr. Burd and jpeg of the multi-touch desk are available from the University Media Relations Office.

VIDEO DEMO downloadable from: http://smart.dur.ac.uk/sn.avi

Details of research:

SynergyNet; Supporting Collaborative learning in an immersive Environment, PL: Dr. Elizabeth Burd, CETL and Department of Computer science. Copies are available from the Media Office on Tel +44 (0) 191 334 6075; email media.relations@durham.ac.uk

USEFUL WEB LINKS:

Elizabeth Burd, CETL and Department of Computing:
http://www.dur.ac.uk/computer.science/staff_listing/?id=107

The Durham University Techno café:
http://www.dur.ac.uk/computer.science/undergraduate/technocafe/

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