Touch and teach

A cross-disciplinary project at DurhamUniversity aims to use multi-touch technology like that found in the latest mobile phones for interactive desktops, which would allow several students to work together.

Project leader Dr Liz Burd, director of active learning in computing at Durham, said the idea sprang from work the computer science department had been doing on learning spaces. ‘We were looking at how to support collaborative activity,’ she said. ‘In the computer science department, we have a lot of team design activities, and our traditional labs weren’t suitable for communicating with one another.’

Following an interim solution dubbed Technocafe, the team realised that if an interactive plasma screen were used as the table surface, everyone could be physically involved in the design process.

The researchers began work on prototypes two years ago and have recently received £1.5m from the EPSRC and ESRC learning and teaching research programme to develop the full solution — the SynergyNet technology-enhanced learning project. The four-year study will involve a psychologist, an educationalist and four computer scientists.

Burd’s vision is of a classroom with a set of multi-touch desks at which several individuals can work alone or in a group. There will also be a console from which the teacher can send out materials to the class or individuals, and a central interactive whiteboard on which the teacher can display the work from any desk.

The technology is claimed to be more user-friendly for young children

Industrial collaborators on the project are NUI, a collaborative working specialist, and Lumin Visual Technologies. A CountyDurham company which supplies more traditional touch-screen systems for supermarkets has also offered its services. One of the key technical challenges will be scaling up the multi-touch technology from the size of a phone to a desktop, yet making it scaleable so young children can reach across it.

Burd believes SynergyNet could lead to a more egalitarian classroom. ‘You can’t have one person dominating the table — everyone has equal access to it,’ she said.

SynergyNet would also open up computing for very young children, the elderly and disabled people, who may not have the motor skills necessary to use a keyboard or mouse.

‘It’s quite complex for a young child to learn how to co-ordinate hand movement with what is on the screen,’ said Burd. ‘Our technology means because they manipulate objects directly on the table they look where they put their fingers, and that provides greater control. It also has natural benefits for people with disabilities and the elderly who may not have the ability to develop such fine motor skills.’

Because the table is so large, it can be used to display a keyboard that can be stretched to the size of large-button telephones. Disabled students who may not be able to control their motors skills sufficiently to press a single key could use a fist on the enlarged table keyboard.

The team has built a few applications on single desks, and the next stage will be getting the networking infrastructure in place to control how the desks will collaborate and the feedback both between them and to the teacher console.

At the end of the project, the Durham researchers plan to make the software free.

Berenice Baker