Five ways tech is transforming the classroom in 2014
30th Jan 2014 | 16:43
The latest elearning trends from BETT 2014
Most people are aware of the huge impact technology has had on homes and businesses, but what about schools?
Unless you've been a teacher or pupil in the last 10 years, you could be forgiven for conjuring images of wheezing halogen projectors, ticking Windows XP timebombs and VHS tapes so dusty they're almost sentient beings.
Walking around the recent BETT 2014 education expo in London shows just how much things have changed. Technology pervades just about every aspect of learning, transforming classrooms into interactive, connected and engaging environments. Forget about trying to stop kids sticking chewing gum on the underside of their desks though - even expensive gadgetry can't put a stop to that.
So what technology trends might you see if you walk into tomorrow's classroom, today? If your school is lucky enough to have the required funds, these would make it cooler than James Bond dropping you off at the school gates.
1. Massive, clever interactive whiteboards
Interactive whiteboards are like smartphones: you can't go for five minutes in a school without seeing one and some are a ton more useful than others. They were out in force at BETT 2014: big ones, small ones, some designed to be pawed at by children with chocolate-covered fingers and others taking the shape of fully-fledged all-in-one PCs the size of small cars.
They've been around since the mid '90s, but newer ones aim to stand out by delivering features via the cloud and allowing real-time collaboration between classroom-based teachers and students via smartphones and tablets.
Malcolm Taylor, Product Specialist for interactive large format displays at iBoardTouch, says that competition between vendors has become increasingly fierce as they have grown in popularity over the last 15 years.
"It's now a case of who can provide the better solution as opposed to who can provide the flashiest whiteboard," he says, adding that vendors aim to cover all potential classroom scenarios. "It's about giving teachers the right tools. That could be videoconferencing software that allows for remote teaching, or the ability to record classes so that teachers can prepare video tutorials and have them ready on the school network."
Taylor also reckons they can save schools a wad of cash when compared to projector technology used for similar purposes.
He adds: "Our LED screens run between 150 and 200 watts, while a projector runs at around 400 to 500 watts connected to a separate PC that runs at roughly the same. As such, it would cost around £80 a year to run a typical interactive whiteboard versus a projector that would be closer to £500."
2. A 3D printer could make your next lunchbox
3D printing has injected itself into the world of consumer and business tech, and it's now starting to show its classroom potential. In the UK, that's partly down to education secretary Michael Gove introducing 3D printing into the nation's syllabus back in July 2013, but making pop-out horse pictures and Bono-style tinted glasses undoubtedly panders to a global brand of cool.
Unlike larger CAD/CAM solutions that sit in the corner of technology classes, 3D printers are suitable for specific age ranges. The UP!3d's portable leanings makes it a good fit for younger students, while the larger MakerBot Replicator 2 lends itself to older ones who can create larger and more complex structures.
James Blackburn, Sales and Marketing Director at GoPrint3D, explains that 3D printing can help students learn the concept of 'spatial awareness' - that is, designing and manufacturing objects in multiple dimensions to be structurally sound in addition to looking good.
He says: "In product design students can construct things as part of wider kit - parts of a car for example. It not only has to fit together, but the wheels have to turn and you have to test for dynamics. That can form an introduction into the wider world of manufacturing, and the concepts are used in many different industries - from automotive to aerospace and healthcare."
According to Blackburn this can give students a grounding in design, and also provides an insight into business and economics. He adds: "If they're producing something, the machine will often tell you the amount of plastic it'll use so students can cost a project rather than just focusing on making the physical objects."
3D printing isn't all about serious manufacturing methods though. Blokify, a Minecraft-inspired mobile app, lets people create 3D structures by piling blocks on top of each other, which can be then be printed by compatible devices.
3. Gamification promises to make learning fun
Gamification is a buzzword often slung about in business circles to describe the application of game-like elements to non-game scenarios to make them more engaging. Salesforce.com, for example, offers a platform that lets companies reward their sales teams for completing certain by gaining 'levels' and progressing up the ranks.
Being natural creatures of the playpen and willing challengers, younger children and teens are considered a good fit for gamification. Spotting an opportunity, vendors are developing anything from mobile apps to cloud-based learning portals that offer competitive, interaction-based learning and discovery.
One particular website demoed to us, Little Bridge World, is a moderated online community with over five million young members. The only language allowed is English, a move imposed to help them communicate with others around the world while playing games to learn, improve grammar and solve problems.
Emma Rogers, the company's co-founder and CEO, says that gamification is catching on with students and teachers due to tablet manufactures such as Samsung (with its Galaxy Tab 3 Kids) blurring the lines between what children are doing at home and at school.
She says: "Children are suddenly an interesting market for tablet manufacturers. The next stage is that companies don't want to just sell games and apps for no reason - they want to sell ones that have value where kids will learn something.
"Also, teachers are realising that kids are not going to put up with the quality of products developed for education. They have to look good, feel good and work like the products that kids naturally choose to have on their tablets or laptops."
That rules out a Tamagotchi comeback, then.
4. Everything is moving to the cloud
Cloud computing's impact on elearning has become more apparent in recent years as teachers, governors and students get connected through internet-based services and portals.
Many services intend to replace free open source-based community web applications (such as Moodle), but schools have to consider factors such as necessity, cost and complexity, in addition to whether they will integrate into existing Management Information Systems (MISs).
They allow parents to pay school fees online, view their children's work, fill out consent forms, view letters and messages and carry out other parental engagements by logging on through a browser.
eSchools, which offers a cloud-based virtual learning environment (VLE), provides unlimited file storage to teachers who can access data about pupils from any internet-connected PC and can set projects and access calendars.
Additionally, governors can store documents in the cloud, exchange messages and view school attendance and other statistics. The company's platform is paid for on a per-pupil basis (pricing is based on a two-tier primary and secondary school system), with teacher, parent, governor and office accounts thrown in for free.
Jon Coleman, Business Development Manager for eSchools, says that moving to the cloud gives developers of VLEs an opportunity to constantly react to feedback from schools and plan upcoming features.
He says: "I've spent many hours working with schools over the years and have tried different learning platforms, but never had the opportunity to get every teacher engaged - the cloud allows us to do that."
5. Mobile elearning apps give birth to a new battleground
Schools, much like businesses, had little choice but to embrace the mobile revolution due to the popularity of smartphones and tablets (and difficulty in banning them). Many in the US and Europe operate 'bring your own device' (BYOD) policies that allow students to bring their own devices into classrooms.
Dell's education portfolio includes its Venue 8 Pro and Venue 11 Pro tablets, in addition to its recently unveiled Chromebook 11 that pairs with a web-based management solution to allow school IT departments to configure, load and manage applications for students and teachers.
According to research by Futuresource Consulting, Chromebooks accounted for one in four devices shipped into the US education market in the fourth quarter of 2013. Margaret Franco, Executive Director of End User Computing at Dell, says that having a broad selection of devices on the market allows schools to pick and choose based on the curriculum it follows.
"It depends on the learning experience that the teacher is looking to deliver," she says. "If the curriculum dictates interactive learning through hands-on discovery then a Venue 8 Pro or Venue 11 Pro would suit. Other curricula might dictate learning through test taking, in which case the right answer is a tablet plus a detachable keyboard."
Keeping kids 'appy
Of course, mobile devices - even those designed for elearning - are only as important as the apps that run on them.
James Guinevan, Senior Learning Architect at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, developer of the Curious George apps, stresses that apps designed for younger children have to be particularly engaging in order to survive.
"When it comes to engagement, which is a vague term, the important things to remember are characters, concept and then reusability or replayability," he says. "It's important that those are done correctly as a lot of development houses often come from PC backgrounds where there's a certain way of doing the user interface."
According to Guinevan, developers can gauge the success of elearning apps through sales, downloads and 'effectiveness', which is measured through feedback provided at the concept stage and throughout the development process.
"There's a lot of expectation from iOS users - particularly those that pay for apps - so you have to make sure they're effective and creative," he says. "You also have to make sure that your company's apps lock-in with your other products, so your app designed for a home tablet should feel the same as the version of it that's used at school, which can be challenging."