Last Friday while I was still in Phoenix I went to Pardes Jewish Day School and Phoenix Country Day School (PCDS) to see their SMALLab systems. Both schools have different versions of technology produced by SMALLab Learning intended to help students ’embody’ their learning, or take it off the page into an interactive, kinesthetic, collaborative space.
So what are these SMALLab systems?
PCDS has a full SMALLab system, one of only a handful which are installed in schools across the US. The SMALLab is a system that uses up to 12 tracking cameras to tracking movement over a three dimensional space, whilst projecting an image down onto a floor. Obviously this is a big exercise – there is a rather extensive installation process (and cost), and the resulting set-up requires a signficant amount of permanent space. The result of it is that multiple users can interact with a ‘learning scenario’, moving around and interacting with the digital image projected onto the floor. Using tracking wands, students can move objects in a 3D environment in accordance with the learning objectives of the scenario.
They system Pardes has is one of SMALLab learning’s Flow systems, a more portable system which run off an XBOX Kinect add-on to capture motion in order to interact with learning scenarios projected onto a screen or smartboard. Students interact with the simulations by moving their hands. This runs similar scenarios to the full system and new scenarios are continually being developed by SMALLab in collaboration with teachers. I observed students using three scenarios: an activity to mix colours of light and two scenarios on adding fractions. Some other interesting ones for science include a simulation of the movements of the Earth, moon and Sun which students can control; some activities about gear rations; and an activity exploring forces and gears in a bike riding scenario.
What are the advantages of these tools?
The theory developed by researcher from Arizona State University is that of ‘embodied learning‘, which suggests that by moving learning into a three dimensional, physical space students can learn more effectively. Importantly, it’s an attempt to use technology in an innovative way, beyond the superficial improvements which some technologies bring.
Whilst observing kids working with the Flow system, I definitely saw big positive effects on the engagement of the students. The students were very keen to participate and complete the tasks due to the game-like nature of the learning scenarios, even though there were not actual rewards for completion and minimal competitiveness between students. In addition, the rest of the class was enthusiastically watching from the sidelines, calling out suggestions and feedback.
One big advantage of the Flow system is the fact that the learning scenarios require the students to interact with one another. Two to three students participate at any one time, and they need to work together and communicate in order to complete the tasks. This was interesting to watch, as students were visibly improving their communication skills whilst I watched. This is very different to many interactive tasks completed on a Smartboard or computer, which are usually single-person activities.
Which is better, the SMALLab or Flow?
The full SMALLab system is a very impressive piece of technological innovation. When used well, it would create a more physical experience, better ’embodying’ the learning experience. However, this full system comes with a significant price tag and installation requirements for the 12 tracking cameras and required computing power. The SMALLab was installed at PCDS due to the collaboration between the school and the SMALLab developers at Arizona State University, and was funded largely by a specific family of the school.
In addition, the full SMALLab system requires a dedicated space due to the need to install the tracking cameras and projector on the ceiling. Initially PCDS had a room dedicated to the SMALLab, but over time with expansion of the school the room is now used both as the SMALLab and as a traditional classroom. This is less than ideal, as there is a fair amount of time required to work the transition between the room uses. This also means that use of the room is limited by availability, which doesn’t really encourage class teachers to use it to implement the learning scenarios.
PCDS has developed an interesting solution to these time and space limitations. They don’t use the SMALLab for classes to come and use the learning scenarios, rather they use it for to get their IT students to develop and code learning scenarios themselves. This is interesting as it requires the students to think about more variables and inputs than a traditional computer program requires, and also asks them to think about the learning outcomes they are looking for. However, although this is an innovative use of the SMALLab, I can’t help but notice that the system is rarely being utilised to actually help students learn in the way it was designed for.
In contrast, the Flow system overcomes many of these obstacles. It is much cheaper, more portable and more easily incorporated into classrooms without extensive set up costs. In can be used in any classroom with a Smart board or projector merely with the addition of the Kinect add-on and the appropriate software. Whilst it does need a clear space in front of the projector screen, this requires less set-up than the SMALLab. Additionally, if the cheaper Flow system becomes more widespread than the relatively difficult to implement SMALLab system, more learning scenarios can and will be developed for it. There are of course limitations to this systems – fewer students can use it at a time, and there is a more limited 3D aspect to it. However, the increased availability of this quickly overcomes these limitations.
Overall, the Flow system appears to be the way that SMALLab Learning are moving. It is an interesting, engaging way of teaching material which appears to appeal to the students, and could be an interesting addition to many classrooms.
However, whenever I see technological tools for education, I have to ask the question: what exactly is it adding to the educationalexperience? How is it improving on a) existing technology, such as traditional computers and smartboards; and b) so called ‘low-tech’ solutions?
I am still torn as to the benefits of either the SMALLab or the Flow in this regard. Are they worth the cost compared to existing computer / smartboard technology? Can we ’embody’ learning in similar ways by simply implementing low-tech (paper and cardboard, etc) teaching methods which require movement around the classroom?