Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gemara Skill Synchronization

The project objective is to synchronize the in-class delivery of several domains of content, each representing several skillsets critical to the learning of Gemara. The proposed approach is to use the standard Gemara page layout as the backdrop for delivering and teaching the divergent skill and information sets. i.e. vocabulary, language skills, procedural logic and hierarchical thinking skills. The first task was to investigate which technologies would allow us to accomplish this. Initially, using a Smartboard seemed to be the logical approach, but as I did further research, I found that there is a healthy running dialog among educators pitting Smartboards against Tablet PC’s. After reviewing the literature and reviews and speaking with several educators who use the prospective systems I then tried out a Smartboard and a Tablet PC to get an initial hands-on-feel for each setup. I then started weighing the Pro’s and Cons of each type of system. My initial findings are as follows.

Smartboard Pros:

Easy of use The Smartboard functions like a big single button touchpad mouse. Anything you can do with a mouse you can do with a Smartboard (there is a button to allow your next mouse click to count as a right click). The software that is made by SmartTech to interface with the Smartboard is both intuitive and robust in its features. The SmartTools interface reasonably well with MS Office applications that are “InkAware” (Office 2003 and Office 2007)

Durability:The Smartboard unit is durable and can be used by students. If equipped with a wheeled stand it can be shared by several classrooms. Most models must be used in conjunction with a computer and a digital projector (either LCD or DLP).

Smartboard Cons:

Re-orienting: If either the Smartboard or the Projector are not mounted (to either the ceiling or wall) the slightest movement will send the Smartboard out of alignment requiring it to be reoriented. Re-orienting is a simple 10 second procedure but is quite disruptive to a lesson in progress.

Shadow: Using a Smartboard requires the teacher to intersect between the projector and the screen, this can be quite distracting to the students and make it difficult for the teacher to use the Smartboard in their own shadow. (2-3 teachers I spoke with use wands or sticks to mitigate this). Rear projection Smartboards are available but cost 3-4 times more than the simple projector/Smartboard setup.

Limited Software support: While Microsoft apps are “ink-aware” and have limited compatibility with the SmartTech software, many software titles are not. The most notable standouts at this time are Inspiration (although SmartTech does sell its own Inspiration type software) and virtually all Hebrew work processors i.e. Davka and Dagesh (with the exception of Hebrew enabled MS Word) Note: Inspiration 8.0 is compatible with ACTIV board, another manufacturer of interactive whiteboards.

Tablet PC Pros:

Software integration: Since the Tablet PC setup involves virtually no specialized software, anything you can do on the screen of your laptop or desktop can be shown in real time to the class through the projector. Currently the biggest proponent of Tablet PCs is the Microsoft corporation. With thee introduction of Windows XP Tablet PC edition in 2005, Microsoft has made supporting and promoting Tablet PCs a corporate priority. With the introduction of Windows Vista and Office 2007, they have improved Tablet PC integration and handwriting recognition dramatically. While inputting text using Dagesh and Davka is still more convenient with a keyboard and mouse as opposed to the tablet and stylus inputs, editing and display functions work well with the Tablet PC input system.

Ease of use: While there is a slight learning curve to using the stylus as a mouse and the handwriting recognition can be quirky (especially if you handwriting is as bad as mine), there is virtually no software learning curve in switching to a Tablet PC if you are staying with applications you are familiar with.

It is worth noting that the “killer app” for the Tablet PC is one that most people are least familiar with, namely OneNote versions 2003 and 2007. OneNote is a very powerful information gathering and sorting tool that allows many types of data (print audio, video, digital files etc) to be organized, searched, annotated and manipulated. OneNote comes free with virtually all Tablet PCs on the market today.

Fewer distractions: Since the projector will display what is on the screen, there is no need for the teacher to intersect between the projector and the screen to manipulate or add data. Similarly, since the screen is simply the wall or dry erase board in the classroom there is no need to reorient the screen if the projector is moved.

Tablet PC Cons:

Durablity: A tablet PC will likely see a lot of movement and bumping around since it will be used in a classroom setting. The high cost component in a Smartboard setup is the Smartboard itself which is quite durable and can be used with any desktop or laptop with a USB port. In a tablet PC setup the high cost item is the Tablet PC itself which is as vulnerable to damage as any other laptop.

Limited Student Input: The Tablet PC is not as child user friendly as the Smartboard and does not immediately lend itself to students inputting answers as they could do easily with a Smartboard.

Pen Loss: One of the teachers I spoke to pointed out that one convenience of a Smartboard setup is that the pens are just pieces of plastic shaped to look like pens but a stick, fingertip, or capped pen would all do the same thing as far is input in concerned. Whereas a Tablet PC generally requires a specialized electronic peen which can cost $40 to $50 to replace

A Global Issue: Cost

Cost is a critical factor in determining which system is most viable, but how each system will be used makes a simple price comparison irrelevant. i.e. A wall mounted Smartboard with a ceiling mounted projector avoid some of the Smartboard’s inherent problems, but such a setup precludes sharing the resources. A Tablet PC with a cart mounted projector is shareable thus maximizing the resource. A laptop tends to b considered more of a “personal” resource rather than a shared resource. As a result most of the teachers I spoke to don’t like the idea of sharing a laptop especially since it complicates lesson preparation. This would also be a factor in determining overall comparative costs.


Elky Langer said...

Thanks for explaining the issues so thoroughly. I've been researching it as well. It turns out the wall mounted Smartboard with the top-mounted projector isn't that much more expensive than the separate projector model, which eliminates the shadow issue. I'm leaning in that direction right now, though as you mentioned it does mean the resources cannot be shared.

The lack of "ink aware" in Davka products doesn't strike me as a huge issue. I suppose it depends on what you're using it for.

TPeromsik said...

Thank you for the information. Personally, I have been experimenting with the same things and here's what I have found:
1. The only real advantage of a smartboard is the lessons that come with the smartboard software. As a JS teacher, these don't help me. I am not aware of a significant amount of lesson modules that would help me.
2. Microsoft OneNote is an incredible program, even for people who don't use a Tablet PC. In Onenote 2007, I can insert a Davkawriter document as a virtual printout, and mark it up and type or write all over it. Onenote is included with many versions of Office '07 so it may be installed on your computer right now.
3. What I'm going to try is to use my laptop (non-Tablet PC) with a projector and a plug-in drawing tablet as the input device. This may answer the durability problem, allowing for student input at a much lower risk of breaking something.
4. In terms of cost-effectiveness, this setup involves minimal cost. For a school that already has LCD projectors, laptops, and Office 2007 Enterprise, this "Smartboard" functionality can be added for less than $100.