Inking in the Classroom – Gerald Haigh writes for #TheFeed

The following is a post written by Gerald Haigh that originally featured in the November edition of #TheFeed, that takes a closer look at inking in the classroom, and how student performance is affected by the different ways they can use technology to take notes.



Over the years, we’ve seen the development of a wide range of options for interacting with computers – as well as keyboard and mouse, we have numerous specialist options such as voice, video, gesture, MIDI for musical instruments, eye-tracking, joysticks, switches -- the list goes on. Of these, pen input, although it’s been around for a long time (The ‘Styalator’ tablet with pen was demonstrated in 1956) has taken time to find a sustainable niche in the market.

Now, though, writing on the computer screen has come of age. Head Andrew Howard, at the ‘Transforming Learning through Tablet Computing’ conference held at his school in June this year said, ‘In the history of technology we could say that it came of age with the advent of the tablet. And now the pen is another gamechanger.’ One reason for this is the realisation that handwriting is not just the poor relation of typing that many touch typists (myself included, I confess) have believed it to be.  A Microsoft-commissioned paper by interface researcher Professor Sharon Oviatt makes a number of evidence-based points about handwriting on digital devices that make total sense to the teacher. One is that pen input is better for teaching and learning maths and science.

Over the last decade, our studies and those of others have repeatedly shown that when students solved science and math problems, performance improved significantly when they used a pen interface rather than a keyboard.’

Then there’s notetaking, Oviatt presents evidence that the student who uses a keyboard for making notes in a lesson or lecture will typically take down a lot of words without fully absorbing the content. A student with a pen is more likely to listen reflectively and write down just the key points.

Another finding reaches the unsurprising conclusion that,

‘…. children who drew letters, rather than viewing and naming them, performed better at recognising them visually later.’

But do read Sharon Oviatt’s paper. It’s worth your time. Her general conclusion, and the lesson for teachers, is that the choice of input device is a matter of horses for courses. The professional skill of the teacher lies both making the right choice personally and in helping children to do so.  (My guess is they’ll pretty soon get the idea, and come up with some surprises). The keyboard (with mouse and/or touch) is still the default choice producing lots of text (like this article) or supporting internet research. The pen is unbeatable for sketching, mindmapping, brainstorming, drawing and sharing diagrams. Any combination of methods will help with producing arresting and informative presentations or portfolio-style records of work.

Surface 3 pens

Does the answer lie with Surface?

The key question though, is whether accessible input choices can be readily available on any single device in the busy school environment.  The answer to this lies with pen-enabled touch-screen Windows devices, particularly the

Microsoft Surface. Together with Office 365 and other Microsoft technologies, they will enable young people to show the full range of their creative abilities. There are some great examples of what this means in a set of case studies of the impact of Surface and Surface pen across three schools in Australia. Carried out in 2014 by the Victoria Department of Education with Victoria University, the research was published under the heading ‘Inking Your Thinking’. One key paragraph, highlighted, says,

‘The study highlighted how naturally students use the Surface multimodal touchscreen, keyboard and pen to develop 21st century skills. Surface Pen, in particular, expanded their learning choices by enabling them to annotate images, maps and graphs and to write symbols, take notes and draw straight onto their devices. Teachers found that Surface devices opened a wider range of learning experiences, incorporating visual, oral, kinaesthetic and aural approaches. Students thrived on the opportunity to use them to learn independently, express their ideas and present and reflect on their learning.”

Surface Hub - collaboration

A different kind of lesson.

It seems to me that what’s opening up here is a different way of running a classroom in which teachers and students can keep connected through their Windows devices and Office 365. Not that the ‘visiting each student’ principle is in itself new. Some teachers have always tried to keep moving round the class, checking on exercise books, adding comments. The logistics of this are quite daunting however in a class of thirty where teacher needs to keep an eagle eye on everyone.

Now, though, keeping in touch with work in progress becomes much easier. Already we are seeing lessons in which the teacher has a Windows tablet enabled for pen input and, working in Office 365, can ‘visit’ the students’ work on their own devices, making quick annotations, sketches, words, diagrams.

This kind of instant feedback – on-the-spot real-time marking in fact – is best done with pen. Keyboard would be too laborious, especially where formulae, grids and mathematical terms are involved. As a bonus, when an issue is relevant to the whole class, the student’s work, and the annotations, can immediately be thrown up on the big screen for general discussion.

There are real opportunities here for ‘stretching’ students individually, encouraging feedback from them and peer-to-peer collaboration. Creative risk-taking by the teacher becomes possible, because the class can be set personalised and deliberately very challenging tasks that they may have trouble with. To do that in a traditional lesson is to risk demoralising students, or committing them to failure.  But with Windows devices, pen, and Office 365, instead of teacher chasing round the room trouble-shooting, or picking up the errors belatedly during weekend marking, she can effectively coach the students individually or all together through the difficulties. This way of working is exciting and engaging for teacher and students. It also saves time and considerably reduces the teacher’s ‘take-home’ marking load.

And that, really is just the start. Inking is starting to appear across all appropriate Windows applications including the ‘Edge’ browser, and Cortana and it’s clear that with Windows 10, inking is slated to be a key cross-platform component in the Microsoft Education strategy. Surface devices – Surface 3, Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, and, looking ahead, Microsoft Surface Hub - are central to this, and are set to open up new and exciting teaching and learning opportunities.

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