Interacting with Visual Information

A post by NAACE Vice Chair, Dave Smith, which also appears here.

No longer just restricted to the ICT classroom, many schools are now using display and projection equipment to enhance learning activities in every subject, writes Dave Smith, vice chair of Naace

For over a decade, technology has been gradually transforming the education sector. The increased variety of equipment and software means that technology is no longer restricted to the ICT classroom. Many schools are now using display and projection equipment to enhance their pupils’ learning experience through visual and interactive activities in every subject. But with the constant evolution of technology, schools often find themselves under pressure to keep up with recent trends, while also having to weigh up the benefits with the cost of investment.

The last 15 years have seen a massive investment into technology for classrooms. In 2000, we saw computer numbers in schools increase to over 800,000, a third of which were laptops, and nine in 10 schools had internet access, and by 2003, schools were expected to spend around £65 million on dedicated ICT budgets. However, one of the most prominent developments in classroom technology was the investment of around £200 million in interactive whiteboards, which had reached 58.3 per cent of schools by 2004, and is now the most commonly used piece of AV classroom technology (BESA Historic ICT in UK State Schools, 2015).

In Japan, there are on average two interactive whiteboards per school, whereas in the UK, most if not all classrooms will feature an interactive front-of-house display. But a new wave of innovation in educational technology has begun. In 2015, schools are now benefitting from a huge range of new equipment, devices, and software helping to increase student engagement and diversify lessons.

Recent developments
The acceleration and improvement of touch screen technology has allowed for the development of many new AV products, meaning that there is now an even wider choice of solutions for those who wish to update their classroom technology. For example, some schools are moving away from interactive whiteboards to use flat panel displays, which draw upon LED screen technology used in modern TVs. The main advantage of this is the heightened detail of the display. For example, in maths, when presenting a graph, the greater clarity will make grid lines far more visible and allow for greater precision in interacting with the screen. Flat panel displays are also much more energy efficient and low maintenance, producing little to no excess heat or noise, and unlike interactive whiteboards, with TV-style screens, teachers no longer have to squint through the beam of the projector while delivering their lessons.

Tablets and handheld devices
Tablets and handheld devices have also been a consideration for classrooms looking to increase student engagement with the front‑of-house display. Using whiteboards meant that students could go to the front of the classroom and control the material on the screen, but more recently, mirror image apps have been created that connect devices to the display so that children can view and interact with the material remotely from their desks.

Apple TVs have been fairly popular in this way, as an increasing number of students have iPads with which they can engage with the display, but there are alternatives. Software such as SMART 14, Promethean ClassFlow and Squirrel Reflector create a two-way interface between the screen and the user in the classroom, which can be run through smartphones or laptops using the school’s Wi-Fi connection at a fraction of the price.

Another key benefit of tablets being identified by schools is the ability to use the screen shot function and camera apps to capture the outcomes of work digitally, so that they can be annotated and stored on the school network, which helps to create a detailed record of work while reducing paper trails in the process. Tablets are likely to become more popular as they become more efficient and user friendly, and as a large number of students have access to this technology already, they will most likely be able to adapt to it quickly and enthusiastically. In fact, the low cost and mobility of tablets is resulting in schools forecasting that by 2016, 37 per cent of all computer hardware in schools would be tablet devices: a 13 per cent increase on last year’s prediction (BESA Tablet and Connectivity, 2014).

New types of projection
Visualisers and document cameras are another option that work very similarly to traditional overhead projectors, transferring real‑time digital images of documents or objects to the front-of-house display. The concept of visualisation has remained a prominent feature of teaching, but specialist visualiser hardware has taken a hit in the market due to the development of mirroring software and apps. Tablets can now be used in place of a visualiser, positioned anywhere in the classroom to capture and project various skills and methods, for example, presenting a science experiment up close, or demonstrating a particular art technique.

This form of instructional teaching is highly effective and still has its place in the classroom, so schools that have invested in visualisers should still make use of them, as they can project images without the need for photographing or converting them for use on the display.

Key concerns for schools
There are two main considerations when it comes to investing in new classroom technology: price and longevity. The interactive whiteboards used in most schools will now be over 10 years old, so when weighing up the costs and benefits of upgrading, one of the most common questions asked by governors is ‘how long will it last?’. The standard warranty and expected life span on flat panel displays is shorter; between three and seven years.

At the same time, new technology does come at a cost. For example, replacing the bulbs in a whiteboard projector every two to three years is far cheaper at £250, whereas investing in a flat panel display with touch screen capabilities and a life span based on hours of use, will cost around £2,500. But these costs are dropping, and if this trend continues, schools will find that purchasing this type of technology will not be as expensive as they may have thought.

The same is true of tablets. The majority of schools cannot currently provide a 1:1 ratio of devices to students and will often have shared devices. But as many children are gaining access to personal tablets, iPads and smartphones, some schools are considering bring-your‑own‑device (BYOD) models. There are safety and security risks, discrimination considerations and pricing policies that need to be established for this strategy to work well, but this could be a viable option in the foreseeable future.

The important thing to remember when purchasing new technology is to think long term; higher prices may be off-putting in the short term, but in the long run, you will benefit from better quality and the total cost of ownership will be more than parity.

Being able to keep up with these trends is critical for schools, especially now that most young pupils will have grown up surrounded by technology. By adopting new equipment and methods, schools can revitalise lessons and increase that all-important engagement factor in the classroom.

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