Students Learn Better With Star Trek-Style Touchscreen Desks

A new three-year study shows students learn mathematics faster and more effectively when their real desktops are more like multi-user virtual desktops.

Observe the criticisms of nearly any major public education system in the world, and a few of the many complaints are more or less universal. Technology moves faster than the education system. Teachers must teach at the pace of the slowest student rather than the fastest. And–particularly in the United States–grade school children as a group don’t care much for, or excel at, mathematics. So it’s heartening to learn that a new kind of “classroom of the future” shows promise at mitigating some of these problems, starting with that fundamental piece of classroom furniture: the desk.

A UK study involving roughly 400 students, mostly aged 8-10 years, and a new generation of multi-touch, multi-user, computerized desktop surfaces is showing that over the last three years the technology has appreciably boosted students’ math skills compared to peers learning the same material via the conventional paper-and-pencil method. How? Through collaboration, mostly, as well as by giving teachers better tools by which to micromanage individual students who need some extra instruction while allowing the rest of the class to continue moving forward.

Traditional instruction still shows respectable efficacy at increasing students fluency in mathematics, essentially through memorization and practice–dull, repetitive practice. But the researchers have concluded that these new touchscreen desks boost both fluency and flexibility–the critical thinking skills that allow students to solve complex problems not simply through knowing formulas and devices, but by being able to figure out what the real problem is and the most effective means of stripping it down and solving it.

One reason for this, the researchers say, is the multi-touch aspect of the technology. Students working in the next-gen classroom can work together at the same tabletop, each of them contributing and engaging with the problem as part of a group. Known as SynergyNet, the software uses computer vision systems that see in the infrared spectrum to distinguish between different touches on different parts of the surface, allowing students to access and use tools on the screen, move objects and visual aids around on their desktops, and otherwise physically interact with the numbers and information on their screens. By using these screens collaboratively, the researchers say, the students are to some extent teaching themselves as those with a stronger grasp on difficult concepts pull other students forward along with them.

Moreover, the teacher can simultaneously monitor what’s happening on various desktops via a master screen, allowing he or she to intervene quickly if one student or group of students begins to derail over a particular concept or problem. From the master desktop, the instructor can beam different problem sets to different groups around the classroom, or move one group’s set of solutions over to another desk for a second group to check or build upon. This enhances the collaborative aspect and keeps the entire class moving forward together at a steady pace, without any one student or group of students getting way ahead or falling woefully behind.

At least, that’s what the study published in the most recent journal Learning and Instruction suggests. This kind of stuff can be really hard to quantify, though testing showed that 45 percent of the students who used the technology for instruction were able to increase the number of “unique mathematical expressions” they were able to produce, compared to just 16 percent of those students taught via traditional paper-based exercises. (Just a note here: neither of those numbers inspires an overflow of confidence.)

It’s going to take a lot more time, research, and money (especially money) to prove this out, though we’d venture to guess that even if the “classroom of the future” isn’t necessarily boosting student performance it’s likely not hurting it either. After all, the future is increasingly multi-screen and multi-touch, wireless and paperless. Shouldn’t elementary education reflect that?