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The power of marginal gains

Education expert, Professor Stephen Heppell, discusses how the tiny details can combine to make a big impact on learning in the classroom.

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Unified AV in the classroom

Navigating classroom technology: A Unified approach

Both in and out of school today, children are consistently engaged via interactive digital displays in every aspect of their lives. As increasingly tactile and visual learners, students in the classroom are expecting to be engaged and challenged as they would in the outside world. Nearly all research indicates that yes, interactive technology will improve learning outcomes – but it’s not a silver bullet. This new paradigm of engagement is also very dependent on teachers understanding how this happens and evolving their practice accordingly.

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Tony Church presents his insight into interactive displays in schools

Inside view on interactive technologies in the classroom

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve experienced significant changes in the use of different levels of technologies, implemented throughout schools to ultimately enhance everyday teaching in the classroom and assist with back office administrative functions, writes CEO of IG3 Education, Tony Church.

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

Tony Church 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.

Creativity in the classroom – practice makes perfect

Ask any author and they will tell you this: ideas are the most important part of creation and they take a long time. How do you get ideas? How much time do you spend coming up with ideas before you start writing?

First try this test. Say just one word to students in your class: Writing.

Immediately ask them what picture comes into their mind. Chances are it will be of a person at a keyboard or writing at a desk with a pen, or a visual of a pen on paper. Not many students will visualise the first and most vital step in creating a piece of writing – brainstorming and creating ideas.

Boys studying at school.
Creativity isn’t restricted to a few gifted individuals. It’s something that can be developed in any student.

The importance of brainstorming

There is a misconception that ‘creativity’ is reserved for the special few, the gifted, the ones who invoke the muse by wearing a special hat and retreating to the silence of a special place. As a result, brainstorming – the generation of original ideas – is often not taught explicitly in classrooms.

According to Jackie French, ‘anyone who can daydream can create a story’. Furthermore, creativity can in fact be practiced just like any other skill; ask any author, the more you write, the more easily the ideas flow. However, the generation of ideas needs one important element – time.

‘Ideas are like small plants sprouting in the compost of experience; it takes time and patience to find out if they turn into trees.’ (Shaun Tan)

Compare that to the pressure students are put under in a NAPLAN writing task. Students are asked to write a narrative or persuasive piece in 45 minutes with just fve minutes of planning time. This model has led to the narrowing of planning time in normal classrooms, despite the fact that it is definitely not best practice.

The gifted and strong writers, who intuitively or have been explicitly taught to brainstorm and plan, are heavily penalised in this scenario. Authors are too. Take a look at author Jen McVeity’s response to this year’s NAPLAN writing tasks, the marks she received and her insights into the process of completing these tasks.

Ways of generating ideas

Fortunately, generating original and thought provoking ideas can vastly improve with training and practise. Research shows there are three common ways students, adults and authors generate ideas:

Brainstorming

Brainstorming refers to the process of quickly recording thoughts, imagery and ideas. It is important not to sensor ideas, nor be concerned with spelling, neat handwriting or grammar. Ideas can be recorded all over the page, in bullet lists or even in the margins.

Mind mapping or clustering

Like brainstorming, techniques such as clustering and mind mapping allow ideas to be recorded without censor and this enhances creativity. Both techniques focus on a central word (usually something that embodies a theme, topic, motif, etc.), which you then work out from by associating other words, thoughts and ideas to that central word. These are very useful techniques for visual learners. There are very elaborate and decorative examples of graphic organisers online such as the array of templates in the ‘Resources gallery’ on the Global Education website.

Question-Asking 

The ‘what if…?’ approach. What if the main character lost a ring? What if the best friend lied? Why did the brother want to hide? Script writers use this approach a lot to generate new ideas. Aristotle did too.

Training in any of these strategies will enhance students’ creativity and originality, although students may find they have a preference for a particular approach. The more visual learners will prefer mind maps, the more linear would go with bullet point ideas.

It is important to note that there is no ‘right’ way to generate original ideas; authors use multiple strategies:

‘The best place to start is with the characters…my best characters are part real world crossed with something unexpected…like the loud and obnoxious goldfish…often stolen from parts of my own character or that of someone I know…I am confident that once I have the character the rest will flow. Then sometimes it happens exactly the opposite way around. Idea first and then the character emerges.’ (Terry Denton)

‘Stupid thoughts and absurd ideas that pop into your head are not necessarily so stupid or absurd. If something’s not quite right, try adding tentacles.’ (Shaun Tan)

The important thing is that all of these strategies tap into the free flowing ‘alpha’ mode of thinking which is the basis for idea generation. A common term for this is ‘creative flow’.

Putting this into practice

Imagine walking into a classroom and giving students a topic:Gold

Let them work in groups as a collaborative lesson. This also works as a strong scaffolding tool.

In five minutes, challenge students to brainstorm ten different ways to approach the topic. For example:

  • A wedding ring found on the beach
  • A sickly child living during the gold rush
  • A gold nugget discovered on school excursion
  • Gold sunsets, sands and memories from a holiday
  • Wedding proposal where everything went horribly wrong…

The first ideas students come up with are usually not the most creative. They will be the ‘easy’ ideas, the ideas everyone else will think of too. It is only when they push through and get into creative flow that the original ideas will emerge.

At the end of five minutes, students take their ten ideas and share them with another group. In doing so they realise how many ideas can be generated by brainstorming one topic in groups. Repeat with another group to further reinforce this. Repeat this activity with different topics every morning for a week. Soon students will realise that ideas are easy to generate.

That’s all! Don’t get students to write the story. Don’t make it hard work. Let students practise idea generation in its own right and enjoy the creativity and freedom of thinking this brings.

Try out the sample lesson on Planning for Success™ (see link below) and see how creative your students can be when you give them time to think and brainstorm.

Brainstorming is a form of imaginative research

It is commonly accepted that students can be allowed time to carry out research for informative and persuasive writing tasks, but the same time is often not allowed for imaginative research – the generation of ideas from scratch.

Ultimately, however, if we want more than ‘cookie cutter’ ideas, or the revamp of the latest TV show, we must allow students time for reflection, deep thinking and creative flow.

When we respect the time creating original ideas takes, we see a much greater richness in writing as a reward.

To access the sample lesson on Planning for Success™ go to: www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/lessonplans/.

For more lesson plans become a member of Seven Steps Online: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.

Jen McVeity is the creator of the Seven Steps to Writing Success (www.sevenstepswriting.com) and the author of over 20 books for children.

Boys answer questions

Helping FSC bring sustainability into the classroom

In collaboration with Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) Australia, Tork® Professional Hygiene has sponsored the launch of a new program for primary schools to assist in teaching the next generation about sustainability.

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