Imagine a classroom where children sit at desks embedded with âmulti-touch' surfaces that allow them to work simultaneously in the same physical workspace, both on their own and in collaboration with others.
Imagine that this system of desks is networked and connected to a central smartboard from which the teacher can send individual assignments to different desks, send one group's work or answers to another group, intervene if an individual or group needs assistance, or pull work up to the main board for the entire class to see.
This may sound like a classroom of the future, but it is in fact a classroom of the present, developed through the joint efforts of experts at Durham University's departments of computer science, education, and psychology.
What is more, the software used in this project is open source, which means that schools can use it for free.
Researchers from the university tested their software, called SynergyNet, in the classroom for 3 years, working with over 400 students, ages 8-10 years old in twelve different schools.
Lead researcher, Professor Liz Burd, School of Education, Durham University, said: "Our aim was to encourage far higher levels of active student engagement, where knowledge is obtained by sharing, problem-solving and creating, rather than by passive listening. This classroom enables both active engagement and equal access."
Researchers noted that both student engagement and student attendance increased. They also found that their efforts to improve fluency and flexibility in math were successful: 45 percent of students who used the program increased the number of unique mathematical expressions they created as opposed to 16 percent of students using pencil and paper.
An innovative project like SynergyNet's requires more than simply developing working software. Teachers must be trained to use the technology to its full potential. Project leaders stated:
"We believe that to make a real change in pedagogy it is necessary that, whenever new software is developed, careful consideration must be made about its operational use within the classroom."
To this end feedback from both teachers and students was used throughout the development process. Features such as the ability for teachers to replay group actions allow instructors to review and reflect on their own teaching or share it with others.