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Casting a shadow: how long will collaborative technology excite the classroom?

test 15 January 2007

In darkened classrooms around the world, pupils sit transfixed while beams of light project moving shapes in front of their eyes. The more they watch, the more they learn about the world beyond the four walls which surround them, but their education will remain unverified until they can replicate the experiences in the outside world.

For all its merit as a lesson in expanding one’s viewpoint beyond a single stationary wall in front of a captive audience, Plato’s allegory of the cave seems to have dictated the overlying classroom structure for centuries. There is no doubt that traditional education techniques have earned their longevity through high success rates, but as nearly every industry whose income potential depends on interactivity has pointed out in recent years, ‘collaboration’ is the new cave wall. Plato would likely approve, since the collaboration enabled by new technological tools allows students to see beyond the classroom, and hence expands discourse to a variety of participants and media.

The IT industry may have benefited most from the wave of computers that were added to classrooms in recent decades, but the AV industry’s turn at creating shadows on the wall seems to be gaining significance as the virtues of interactive media are charted by various educational institutions.

“The PC is an ‘I’ tool, it’s personal. You can hook it up to a projector and that allows you to display information to a group, but to actually take the whole technology platform and create a ‘we’ tool – this is where the interactive whiteboard plays a very important role,” observes Mike Dunn, CEO of PolyVision, maker of interactive whiteboards and the new Thunder ‘virtual flipchart’ collaborative platform. Since its introduction in mid-2006, Thunder has already been adopted by numerous primary and secondary educational institutions, creating a new type of ‘cave’ for advanced collaborative learning with its ability to surround students with content and pull in educational material and participants from around the world.

One could argue that classrooms have been interactive environments since the debut of the Socratic method, but children of the information age are hungry for an ever-changing array of stimuli. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) has been tracking the impact of tools such as interactive whiteboards since their appearance in classrooms a few years ago. “It’s very well established that electronic whiteboards have a motivational effect on pupils,” says Phil Bannister of the Evidence and Evaluation Directorate within Becta. “Instead of lots of individual pupils being sat around computers all looking at the same thing but on individual machines, there seems to be a great power in the fact that an interactive whiteboard is a real focal point for the entire class.”

That may still seem a bit like shadows projected on a cave wall, but as Plato indicated in his cave allegory, passive learning will not suffice. Students must be presented with the opportunity to interact with material, either by manipulating the learning software themselves or conducting their own presentations. “If the whiteboard is used a fairly passive way, with the teacher standing at the front and displaying things on the whiteboard while no one else gets a chance to use it, that doesn’t actually realise the full potential of whiteboards,” Bannister points out.

This circumstance grants audiovisual integrators numerous opportunities for the sale of software and hardware peripherals (interactive voting systems being one of the most popular) which increase the interactivity quotient of classroom AV systems. And, in addition to the ever-expanding array of visual tools employed in schools, audio systems are finally moving to the head of the class with the proliferation of Podcasts in the learning environment.

Whether the novelty of these new learning tools will withstand the test of time to the same degree as Plato’s and Socrates’ methods remains to be seen. “Nobody’s quite sure about the long-term effects of using whiteboards with pupils – if they’re going to get bored with seeing yet another lesson presented in this way,” Bannister cautions. “Pupils will be becoming more accustomed to speaking at the front of the room using the whiteboard, but we don’t know that the motivational effect of the technology is going to last forever.”

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