U.K. classrooms test ‘smart desks’

Classroom desks soon could serve as interactive computer screens sensitive to the touch of several students simultaneously, if a pilot project in Britain’s classrooms is an indication of things to come.

Researchers at Durham University in England are working with software company SynergyNet to develop the next-generation desktops, dubbed "Star Trek desks" by a university spokesman and commonly known as "smart desks." The desks allow students to use touch-screen capabilities to do class assignments and exercises while a teacher monitors students’ progress from a central screen near the front of the classroom. The screen reacts like a small interactive whiteboard and also can be used as a keyboard.

The interactive desks were first unveiled in a classroom Sept. 16, and researchers will continue to test the technology at all grade levels over the next four years. 

Liz Burd, leader of Durham University’s Technology-Enhanced Learning Research Group, said developers aimed to create a product that would allow widespread use in any classroom, eliminating the all-too-common problem of only a few students having access to school technology.

"We are interested in the [way] it can support collaborative learning and also in the way in which integrating a computer into a desk and allowing any number of touches ensures that everyone has equal access to it," Burd said in an eMail message to eSchool News. "Part of our design and testing will be to ensure that the user interface is very intuitive, so teachers can use it very easily and they do not need to spend a lot of time learning how to use it."

Durham researchers last year announced the desk would "act like a large version of an Apple iPhone."

Burd did not specify how much the smart desks will cost when they’re distributed to schools worldwide, but she said software designed for the desktops will be free for schools that purchase the smart desks themselves.

"We hope that soon the price will come down, so this will make it more affordable for schools," Burd said, adding that the initial price could be similar to that of an interactive whiteboard, which cost between $1,200 and $2,500 apiece.

The smart desk technology is similar in concept to a multi-touch interface unveiled by software giant Microsoft Corp. at a computer conference last year. The Microsoft interface, called Surface, reportedly can process more than one finger touch at a time, and users can rotate images like they can on the iPhone. Company officials said the technology would work with existing touch screens.

Burd said Durham’s smart desks are "platform independent" and stressed that developers are writing software that will "network multi-touch devices together and enable school applications to work on multi-touch hardware." She said Durham researchers would like to test the smart-desk software on Microsoft Surface devices when they are available commercially.

Teachers and K-12 administrators said the "Stark Trek desks" being tested in England could be an asset for any teacher hoping to incorporate advanced technology in everyday lessons and might one day replace "move-to-use" whiteboards.

"This is an area where I believe technology will be a true resource for our teachers and students," said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif. "Certainly our students are already moving in this direction, and to expand the possibilities for students to collaborate using technology … will only help more students be more successful learners. This type of technology is where our youngsters are moving already, with everything from [the Nintendo] Wii [to] cell phones [and] interactive computers."

The interactive desks, Liebman said, would maintain students’ attention and attract technology-savvy educators to schools that have invested in the smart desks.

"I would also think that this would be a joy to teach with for teachers who are comfortable using technology as a teaching resource," he said.

Durham University’s research team found that male students are often the "dominant actors" in a classroom setting, meaning female students get shortchanged on time spent with school computers. Buying desks that allow more than one student to use the device simultaneously could be a way to even the playing field for female students and those whose disabilities inhibit them from easily accessing technology, Burd said.

Liebman said he hasn’t noticed consistent differences in the assertiveness of male and female students as a teacher or a superintendent. But technology like Durham University’s interactive desks could be inviting for every student, he said—including girls and boys who are usually reluctant to participate during class.

"The shy kid can play a role in that, as well as the alpha-male type," he said. "And kids do work better when they work in groups, so if you can have groups, it’s got to be a better thing for kids."

Durham University

Berryessa Union School District

Note to readers:

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