These Star Trek classrooms are TNG

Posted by Thomas Anderson

Researchers at Durham University have concluded that multi-touch, multi-user desks successfully boost student skills in mathematics.

Indeed, new results from a 3-year project working with over 400 pupils, mostly 8-10 year olds, indicate that collaborative learning increases both fluency and flexibility in various math related subjects. The study also demonstrates that using an interactive 'smart' desk offers clear benefits compared to simply working out a math problem on paper.

"Using multi-touch desks in the new classroom, the children were able to work together in new ways to solve and answer questions and problems using inventive solutions," explained Professor Liz Burd.

"Seeing what your friends are doing, and being able to fully participate in group activities, offers new ways of working in class, the researchers say. The 'Star Trek classroom' could also help learning and teaching in other subjects."

According to Burd, children who used a collaborative maths activity in the SynergyNet classroom improved in both mathematical flexibility and fluency, while children working on traditional paper-based activities only improved in flexibility.

"During the project, 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," said Burd.

"Our aim was to encourage far higher levels of active student engagement, where knowledge is obtained by sharing, problem-solving and creating, rather than by passive listening. This classroom enables both active engagement and equal access."

Bird also noted that the SynergyNet classroom encouraged students to collaborate more effectively, as such cooperation just did not happen when students used paper-based approaches.

So what does a next-generation classroom look like? Essentially, the Durham University team designed software and desks capable of recognizing multiple touches on the desktop using vision systems that see infrared light. Meaning, SynergyNet sets out to integrate a fully collaborative system of desks, building it into the fabric and furniture of the classroom. The new desks with a 'multi-touch' surface act as the central component and are networked to a primary smartboard.

In terms of current teaching, the new system means that the 'move-to-use' whiteboard is by-passed and the new desks can be both screen and keyboard. The desks act like multi-touch whiteboards and several students can use any one desk at once.

"Cooperative learning works very well in the new classroom because the pupils interact and learn in a different way. The children really enjoy doing maths in this way and are always disappointed when you turn the desks off!" researcher Emma Mercier explained.

"We can achieve fluency in maths through practice, however, boosting a pupil's ability to find a range of solutions to arithmetic questions is harder to teach. This classroom can help teachers to use collaborative learning to improve their pupils' flexibility in math."

To be sure, the teacher still plays a key role in the classroom, as he or she sends tasks to different tables,  individuals and groups. The teacher can also send one group's answers on to the next group to work on and add to, or to the board for a class discussion, while a live feed of the desks goes directly to the teacher who can intervene quickly to help an individual while allowing the group work to continue.

"Such a classroom may be some way off being a regular feature of schools across the world due to the costs in setting it up, and the level of support needed to make it work, however, in just 3 years the project team have noted major improvements in the technology, and a reduction in costs," Mercier added.