Are ActivTables transforming teaching, or simply substituting existing practices?

Yesterday I was invited to see a demonstration of the Promethean ActivTable, a multi touch learning tool that allows students to work in collaborative groups to manipulate and share information.

It was pretty cool. Watching students use it reminded me of those scenes in TV shows like CSI where the detectives use their hands to drag and manipulate images and data.

The students using it were very engaged, and the software running on it very cleverly required students to work in a cooperative and collaborative manner.

But while the technology was exciting, having seen the demonstration, I’m not sure that a table like this would really enhance the learning or facilitate the kind of pedagogies I want to see more of at my school.

When running on Windows, the table could only have one point of touch, so wasn’t really very useful. However when running the Activ software provided by Promethean for the table, multiple touch was enabled, and groups of up to 6 students could work together.

The software was full of engaging activities and teachers could use them as templates, modifying them to create new activities. I watched as children worked together to join consonants with vowel-consonants on virtual flashcards, and match these with pictures. I saw children pull out questions about famous people, such as Bill Gates, and use browsers within the software to research the answers to specific questions, such as his birthdate.

But what I was seeing was nothing more than substitution.

The demonstration I saw took typical activities that we might use with students in literacy or mathematics groups, and transferred them to the table. While it was fascinating to watch, and highly engaging for the students using the table, I couldn’t see what it was adding to our repertoire.

I really love using the SAMR model to help me consider how technology is used in the classroom:

SAMR: Puentedura, R. R., Ph.D., SAMR model.

SAMR: Puentedura, R. R., Ph.D., SAMR model.

In the demonstration I saw, this amazing technology was only being used at the lowest level of enhancement. It was a direct tool substitute, and for several thousand dollars, an extraordinarily expensive substitute.

Normally, that wouldn’t deter me because I’d expect that someone out there would already be developing  great software that could be added to enhance the product. So many useful apps have been developed by third parties to allow iPads to become powerful learning and creation tools for K-6 classrooms. Without those apps, iPads wouldn’t be nearly so useful.

But the problem with the ActivTable is that the multi-touch only operates when you are using their specific software. Under windows, it goes back to being single touch, which defeats the point as its designed to foster collaboration. I assume that this means third parties would not be able to develop software for the table, so we’d have to rely on Promethean to develop a software package that does more than act as a substitute for existing classroom practices. Making it such a closed system seriously limits its potential, as the creative minds outside Promethean are shut out from developing anything for it.

Now I’m not sure if my concerns are valid. I didn’t get a chance to fiddle around with the software myself to see what sort of transformative capabilities it might have. I have asked for some further information from the company that demonstrated it for us and I’ll be interested to find out what they tell me.

However, until some of these concerns are addressed, I don’t think that the ActivTable is going to help take my school in the direction I’d like to see it go. At this stage, I’d rather invest in a 3D printer. That’s a technology with amazing creative potential. I have no idea how 3D printing would transform our curriculum, but I know it would take us into territory we haven’t been before.

Update: 

Here is the response I received from the Promethean rep when I expressed my concerns to her:

The Table fits in with all of the SAMR elements.  We only looked at a couple of the apps (about 4 out of 80 odd) and there are plenty which cover those two final stages of the SAMR diagram below; either  in a small way (eg. self-creating own CVC words in that one app we saw today) or else the whole activity is about the creation, for Eg the Music Maker or the Newspaper Maker or the Presentation maker, just to name a few off the top of my head, where absolutely all of the activity relies on the students creating or building the content for their own purposes/ needs. 

And the main thing the Table brings, which is 100% the ‘Redefinition column’ is the very fact that you can provide students with an authentic and truly collaborative environment- they cannot do this on IWBs, iPads/Tablets as on these other technologies the kids have to take turns, only one person can make a change / input something at once.

 On the ActivTable it’s possible to ALL be interacting with things simultaneously and have a practical situation where the students are discussing, making decisions and changing things/ inputing things simultaneously- in other words, truly working collaboratively.  In this regard, the ‘new task, previously inconceivable’ is actually collaboration.  How do you teach these skills authentically in any other way? With other technologies its about ‘turn taking’. (NB. PISA international exams are introducing a collaborative working component to their exams from 2015, collaboration is where schooling is heading 

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