Desk of the Future Helps Kids Learn Better in School (with Video)

Health & Wellness on 11.26.12
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Image: SynergyNet, Multi-touch in Education

Do you remember young spock learning in a full-immersion multi-media isolation pod in the movie Star Trek (2009)? Did it make you wonder how classrooms will look in our future?

Researchers on the SynergyNet project at Durham University are studying the future of classroom technology: for now it looks like giant networked, interactive iPads sure to keep the attention of the next generation. You can see the SynergyNet system in action in the video: students collaborate around a multi-touch, interactive table big enough to easily accomodate 4 to 6 students sharing ideas. The desks are networked so that teachers can send data from one group of students to another student desk, so the kids can build on each others' ideas, or to the big screen at the front of the room for a moderated discussion.

Don't My Kids Spend Enough Time with Electronics Already?

Video: SynergyNet on YouTube

The technology engages childrens' attention and the teamwork helps ensure they are not isolated by immersion in electronic devices (after all, we want to raise socially competent young humans, not Vulcans). Lead researcher, Professor Liz Burd, describes the results observed:

We found our tables encouraged students to collaborate more effectively. We were delighted to observe groups of students enhancing others’ understanding of mathematical concepts. Such collaboration just did not happen when students used paper-based approaches.

Keeping teachers' skills updated on how to manage and interact with students using the multi-touch desk of the future appears to be a challege -- but, of course, that challenge exists with paper and pencils as well. The cost of installing and maintaining the technology will certainly limit the speed of adoption, but the researchers note that even over the several years they have been working to develop the desks of the future, they have seen costs sink and reliability improve.

As more schools adopt technologies like the iPad for in-class learning, and even homeschoolers confront the iPad question, the multi-touch desk may be exactly what we need to get kids out of electronic isolation and into social learning supported by the computing advances that make the iPad so popular.

Better Learning Through Technology

It is hard to argue with good results. A three-year study involving over 400 students in the 8-10 year range indicates that students using the desks of the future outperform the students in traditional classrooms in both ability and flexibility with mathematics:

The team found that 45% of students who used NumberNet increased in the number of unique mathematical expressions they created after using NumberNet, compared to 16% of students in the traditional paper-based activity.

Moreover, the study shows that kids using the new learning tools can apply their knowledge with greater flexibility. This is one of the great hurdles in applying mathematical methods: students can learn many different mathematical "tools" simply by repeatedly practicing them. But when confronted with a real-life problem, a professional must open that toolbox, and know which tool to choose for solving the problem at hand. Using flexibility in the application of learned math skills demonstrates mastery of the concepts.

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