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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.

Online video games

Research: Online games boost student scores

A study from RMIT University reveals teenagers who regularly play video games online tend to receive higher school grades.

This contrasts with another finding: those visiting Facebook or chat-based websites every day are more likely to realise decreased performance in maths, reading and science.

The study used data collated by the internationally recognised Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was in turn analysed by Asasociate Professor Alberto Posso from RMIT’s School of Economics, Finance and Marketing.

Published in the International Journal of Communication, the paper provides a snapshot of some of the pressures placed on today’s teens in Australia.

PISA’s database included tests from more than 12,000 Australian 15-year-olds in maths, reading and science, alongside additional information on the students’ online activities.

Assoc. Prof. Posso found that students “who play online video games every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science”.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day,” he said.

As a result, the academic suggests educators consider how to incorporate popular video games into their teaching, “so long as they’re not violent ones”.

By comparison, students that regularly sent time on social media scored 20 points worse in maths than students who had never used those platforms, but Posso still recommends incorporating the technology as a method of assisting students who fall behind.

“Teachers might want to look at blending the use of Facebook into their classes as a way of helping those students engage.”

The researcher also stresses that there could be other factors having major impacts that hamper teenager scholastic progress, and missing school could be as bad or worse as regularly using social media.

Students from minority ethnic or linguistic groups were also at increased risk of falling behind than those using Facebook or chat sites each day.

Diversity issues in computer science classes.

Want to address diversity in tech? Encourage girls to study computer science

Abutting the debate around STEM skills, questions regarding diversity in Australia’s tech sector have also been raised, with just one quarter of IT graduates and 10 per cent of engineering graduates being women.

According to the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda: ‘we need a concerted, national effort to overcome the cultural, institutional and organisational factors that discourage girls and women from studying STEM’.

Part of its ongoing research for Digital Careers, CSIRO has found that the diversity in tech issue begins at school, where there’s a marked lack of girls studying computer science at both primary and secondary levels.

Led by Dr Jason Zagami from Griffith University, the research has been published under the title: Female participation in school computing: reversing the trend, which attempts to identify some of the key reasons why girls aren’t getting involved.

The report found that computer science has not yet reached the same level of integration into schools as compulsory subjects like mathematics and general science.

In particular, the study suggests that maintaining girls’ interest in computing is critical through Years 7-8, as this is where female participation starts to decline significantly.

Dr Karsten Schulz, Manager for Digital Careers, explains that addressing parent preconceptions, exposure to positive role models and developing programs specifically for girls are all methods for maintaining their interest in the subject.

“Hearing from successful females working in the field and being exposed to the different career options available in the industry will help young girls to consider computing subjects and professions,” Dr Schulz says.

The report also suggests schools introduce code clubs for girls in early years, before social pressure begins to rise.

Digital Careers is a Government-backed education industry collaboration that combines research, primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions.

Brain neuroscience EduTECH

UK neuroscientist to discuss digital disruption in the classroom at EduTECH 2016

As a scientists, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords, Baroness Susan Greenfield (CBE) has an extensive and varied education, but her favourite topics include how emerging technologies influence the brain – a subject that is of particular interest to educators.

Due to speak later this year at EduTECH, Baroness Greenfield will present on the topic ‘How the digital world will change the way we think and learn’. Seizing the opportunity, Education Matters put in a call to discuss the future of technology in the classroom with Baroness Greenfield.

One of the topics high on our interview list relates to the push towards promoting STEM subjects in Australian classrooms, and in particular with a number of experts predicting that coding will soon become synonymous to literacy skills. Baroness Greenfield, however, is skeptical about these ideas.

“The word ‘literacy’ is very emotive, I think,” she said. “You can become skilled in coding and many other similar tasks, but literacy implies an understanding and application to a wide variety of life’s aspects. To say someone would be literate in computing and robotics means something much narrower than the way we apply it to reading.”

“Coding doesn’t open up an understanding of the world in the way books do.”

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that technology is changing rapidly, and often ends up having unintended consequences for the classroom paradigm, but Baroness Greenfield doesn’t think educators need to feel like their losing touch or struggling to keep up.

“The crucial issue that’s often forgotten is asking yourself, ‘What do I want to achieve?’. Until you know that, it’s hard to identify if you’re achieving anything. Most educators would agree that the focus is still very much on teaching kids to give the right answers to specific questions, but I don’t personally believe that’s ever been the real objective of education. Rather, it’s about facilitating students’ abilities to join up the dots in new ways, to foster confidence in new ideas – and that can only be achieved through inspirational teaching.”

Rather than replacing the work of a good teacher in any way, Baroness Greenfield believes that technology fills the role of an “adjunct” rather than an alternative, and that inspirational teachers will therefore find inspirational ways to engage with children via technology. But, she stresses, we’re yet to see the full impact of the digital generation.

“People talk about millenials, but we have to remember that Facebook only arrived around 2006,” she said. “That means the generation that are truly immersed in the digital world are still at school. Once they graduate and start taking part in the workforce, then we’ll begin to see the real impacts of digital disruption, in my opinion.”

While change is inevitable in some respects, Baroness Greenfield is quick to point out that the changes we see are nevertheless mediated by the current generation and how we shape education decisions and policy as a guide for future generations. As such, there are a few key issues she’s particularly keen to address before they become larger problems.

“Teachers continue to be overworked and underpaid in most places in the world, with many leaving the professions as a result. There’s too much regulation and so the career is no longer an attractive scenario. People need to feel relaxed and happy if they’re to do a job well over a long period of time.

“Ultimately, the notional of the teacher/pupil classroom will never change,” she said. “The best way to learn is for someone to teach you. For example, I taught medical students for many years within a traditional Oxford/Cambridge teaching system of question and answer. Just like the Ancient Greek dialogues – that’s how you develop ideas, that’s how you develop teaching that should never change. You could use screens or other technologies to facilitate that relationship, but you can’t move away from what is a very exciting human interaction.”

EduTECH will take place from 30 May – 31 May, 2016 at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre this year. See the website for further details.