Collaborative Technologies | Feature

Top Interactive Devices for Student Collaboration

Interactive devices can inspire student collaboration--but only when coupled with inspired teaching.

top interactive devices for student collaboration

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's March 2013 digital edition. This is the third in a six-part monthly series examining how different technologies can help schools enhance collaboration among students. Previous installments have covered social media and configurable furniture. Here, we look at a variety of interactive devices and how teachers are using them to create a collaborative environment.

Beth Holland has a love/hate relationship with interactive whiteboards (IWBs). "I feel that they tend to force teachers into a traditional model of standing up in front of the room as the focal point," says the former director of academic technology at St. Michael's Country Day School in Newport, RI. "I try to work with teachers on how the whiteboard can be a launching pad for other activities and support digital collaborations," says Holland, now a senior associate with consulting firm EdTechTeacher in Chestnut Hill, MA.

Holland stresses that before districts invest in new devices, teachers must first define the learning environment they are trying to create and specify how the devices fit into that plan. Otherwise those devices may end up gathering dust in the corner of the classroom.

Greg Kulowiec, Holland's colleague, is a former social studies teacher and technology integration specialist. He recalls that, as a teacher, he always tried to make sure the whiteboard was contributing to the interactive nature of the classroom, even if only one student was at the board at a time. "Just having that visual component and having the student use it as a way to start thinking, and then verbally defending their decision, gets the other students involved," he says. "So what is happening on the whiteboard is not the real focal point and end result, but instead the jumping-off point of the conversation."

So how are other teachers and instructional technologists working to ensure that introducing new devices enhances collaboration?

Putting the "I" in IWB
As a teacher in the Washington, DC, Public Schools, Pamela Levine spent a good deal of time thinking about how to use interactive whiteboards to their full potential. "As they come out of the box, IWBs don't necessarily lend themselves to collaboration. It depends on how you use them," says Levine, now an instructional technology associate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education in California. The main strength of IWBs, she says, is that they allow you to display content with interactive materials such as New York Times maps or content from the BBC or the History Channel. Educational maps and data displayed on the whiteboard are open to manipulation, which can leverage student excitement.

An elementary school teacher using an IWB in a whole-group setting, though, can only get one or two students at the whiteboard at a time. "I didn't use that approach often, because the other students tend to get bored quickly," Levine says. More often, she used the IWB as a class center, with four students assigned to it while she walked around working with other students in class. "I liked to assign roles of a team to all four in that group, with each role contributing to the learning objective," she says.

For instance, in a reading activity with projectable books with interactive content, one student can take on the role of researcher (perhaps looking up outside resources on a computer); one can focus on vocabulary words; and another can be the synthesizer of ideas. "Part of their assignment becomes learning how to synthesize their contributions," Levine says.

Perry Rentz, an eighth-grade English teacher at Cass Middle School in Bartow County, GA, says that using PolyVision's Eno Click IWB has made grammar and writing exercises more engaging for his students. For example, in some of his classes all the students have MacBooks. They work on essays individually, then they AirDrop them to his MacBook to be projected and annotated on screen.

Because each student's work gets group feedback, the students are much more attentive, Rentz says. They also take turns doing the annotation with an Eno Mini slate, which, at about the size of an iPad, can be used anywhere in the room. The essays edited by the group in class are saved and uploaded to a class blog, where students from several other classes can read them. That collaborative editing process would be very difficult in a pen-and-paper environment or even with overhead projectors, he says. "Also, the ability to save an interactive lesson on the classroom website helps during discussions with parents about what the students are working on," Rentz says, "and to share lesson plans with other teachers."

Table Time
For several years, Le-Petit-Prince French Catholic School in Maple, Ontario, Canada, has been focused on applying all types of technology in the classroom, including IWBs, but Principal Nicole Mollot was looking for something that would help the 300-student school's children with collaboration. In November, Le-Petit-Prince created a collaborative learning center classroom centered on one of the first Promethean ActivTables to be installed in Canada.

An ActivTable is 46-inch touchscreen that serves as the table's surface. Shaped like a giant tablet, it allows up to six students to collaborate on projects and engage in activities that support various subject areas. So far, kindergartners and fifth- and sixth-grade math students at Le-Petit-Prince are using the ActivTable. "Already we have seen a dramatic change in the amount of collaborative learning and communications," Mollot says. Some of the lessons for kindergarteners are based on team-building strategies and activities, so that one of the goals is to learn how to be a member of a group and accept and exchange ideas.

For students studying geometry, the table has tools they can use together to perform tasks such as measure angles. "Our experience so far is that they talk to each other and engage in critical thinking, sharing, and problem solving," Mollot notes.

The ActivTable was a significant investment, costing Le-Petit-Prince approximately $10,000. But Mollot believes it will pay dividends as it helps teachers work with students individually and in groups. The table has tracking devices so that even if several students are working at the same time, the teacher can instantly follow and assess each student's behavior and learning.

"For the students, it's a game, it's fun," Mollot adds. "We are a French-language school, and this gets them talking to each other, so they are always working on their language skills."

Clicker Questions
Another device with potential to foster team-based learning is student response systems (or clickers). Many teachers use clickers more frequently to assess whether students have grasped a certain concept, but they can also be a starting point for conversation.

Science education consultant Stephanie Chasteen has worked with teachers in both K-12 and higher education settings to study how to make the most effective use of clickers. Chasteen, a science teaching fellow in the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado, delivers workshops on how to write engaging questions that facilitate peer discussion. Getting student buy-in, she says, requires using clickers regularly in class early on, and then repeating what is expected of students. "Use the material from clicker questions in tests and quizzes so the students see the link," she adds.

Chasteen says that students learn more from clicker questions when they discuss them with one another before voting on the right answer and then participating in a whole-class discussion. The process helps them articulate and clarify their own thinking, she says, adding that students' perception of the value of using clickers depends on how the instructor focuses the discussions. "The key seems to be not to focus too much on getting the right answer, but to look for the reasoning behind how you got there," Chasteen says.

She notes that K-12 teachers should plan lessons that appeal to students at many different levels at once. "You have to write clicker questions so that advanced students don't get the answer too fast and get bored," she says.

Start Small
Chasteen recommends that teachers just beginning to use clickers start with a few questions per class--and she warns them not to be too disappointed if these first attempts don't immediately facilitate spirited whole-class discussions. It may take some time to fine-tune the questions so that they generate conversation.

Likewise, Kulowiec says that using any new technology in class requires a ramp-up process. "At first you have a $2,000 interactive whiteboard and you are only doing the same thing with it you did with a dry-erase board. The next step is to augment that with things you couldn't do otherwise, such as using screencasting tools to record and publish what happened in class for students to review later." 

When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of a new device, Kulowiec says he has seen schools doing evaluations simply by asking, "Are teachers using technology in the classroom: Yes or no?" He says, "They are not thinking about the end result. They should be asking: What are the students doing with the technology?"

Some districts make the mistake of purchasing resources without defining the problem they want the technology to solve, he adds. "If you say you want students to be able to publish and create videos and work more collaboratively, that's much better than just saying, "We are going to get 35 iPads and see what happens."

Interactive Alternatives
Interactive projectors are lighting up classrooms around the country. At January's FETC 2013, three companies showcased their variations on the popular product.

Epson introduced the BrightLink 436Wi interactive projector, which allows two users to annotate images at the same time. Watch the video for a demonstration from Epson's Tom Piche.

To foster collaboration among teachers as well as students, Mitsubishi introduced its WD390U-EST "Cloud" projector, an interactive projector with a thin client workstation built in. Teachers can share educational materials over a server, and can also collaborate with students via smartphones and tablets. In the video, TK takes viewers inside the Cloud.

An interactive option for districts looking to upgrade rather than replace came from Chief, which introduced interactive mounts that can transform any projector into an interactive display. According to Derek Derks, business development manager for Chief, fitting an existing display with a Chief mount allows teachers to "pick the right projector for your room, and the interactivity is separated." The mounts use Luidia's eBeam technology to turn any wall into a surface that teachers and students can manipulate and mark up with a stylus. The system includes free access to cloud-based software called Scrapbook, which allows teachers to initiate a meeting with up to 25 others so that students can mirror their screens to the main display.