Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Using Smartglass in Education

I've more or less neglected this blog. I've started writing app reviews over at www.windowsphoneconcierge.com/. I've also been doing a little political commentary here and there which hasn't left too much time for this.

However, a question asked via Twitter has gotten the gears turning regarding the recently announced Microsoft SmartGlass. SmartGlass, in an overly simplified explanation, allows your phone, PC/tablet, and Xbox console to work together in new ways. Your tablet or phone can provide new information regarding a program you're watching or a game you're playing. In the demo Microsoft gave during their E3 event, they showed the potential ability to draw up or select plays for Madden on your tablet. While the presentation got me thinking about the old VMU for the Sega Dreamcast as well as Windows Media Center Extender functionality, it's a technology I would love to see applied to education (the question asked on Twitter was how we'd like to see this new tech applied to the classroom). It also got me wanting a Windows 8 tablet even more. But that's another story.

I should note that all of my suggestions here revolve around the hardware setup I usually have in a classroom. I have a teacher computer hooked up to a projector via a VGA cable. Sometimes the computer's in the front of the room while other times it's in the back. Given the time I've spent in other schools, I get the feeling that this is a very popular setup.

My first thought was to control PowerPoint presentations. Often, when I'm lecturing, I use PowerPoint to help the kids know what notes they need to take and also help break up the lecture with fun pictures and short videos when I can (making it better than the overheads I saw so many times as a student).

Sure, there are wireless PowerPoint controllers, but they're very limited. I can't have notes I want just for myself as I give the lecture appear on that little remote. However, I would love for them to appear on my phone (which I already have, saving me the cost of buying the remote) or Windows 8 tablet (which is just a matter of time until I buy one because of a list of reasons far to long to include here). I imagine that's a feature more industries than just education could use.

I can't edit my presentation very easily on the fly if I think of something during the presentation that I'd like to add. So many times I have a student ask a question or make a comment that makes me think of an article I had read, a way to add more clarification, or something along those lines. I still have to go back to my computer (which may disrupt the flow of things) if I want to have it added in. It'd be a great time saver if I could just inject that right into the PowerPoint from where I'm giving the lecture without disrupting what's up at the moment as some students may still be taking notes on the current slide. I'd love to be able to build a new slide into the presentation or load up an article from the web without changing what the students are currently seeing.

Every so often I like to play review games with the kids the day before a test. They're stress-free and help students take note of what they know and what they don't know. I could see a whole new world of review games open up using SmartGlass. A common review game is Jeopardy. With SmartGlass, the board could be shown to the students while the teacher can control it using a tablet or phone. The teacher could also be shown the answer to the question without the students seeing it. Of course this could go beyond just Jeopardy as game developers could build all sorts of review games that take advantage of SmartGlass.

Even beyond games, there are a lot of possibilities for apps using this technology. Being a government teacher, I would love to have a program that has the US Constitution and, via a tablet or phone, I can click on a clause and bring up relevant information and court cases and then choose to share that information to the main screen for students.

In schools where students all have access to a tablet or laptop (I know my school district is considering going in the 1-to-1 direction), this could help make days where students watch a documentary become something that's interactive. In a history class, as the documentary discusses the bombing of Pearl Harbor, students could look at pictures from the event. As a documentary talks about the Battle of Gettysburg, images of the weapons used in the battle could be shown on the tablet. It's very much based on the same concept shown during the E3 presentation, but taking it in more of an academic direction.

Now let's combine this with the PowerPoint idea I gave earlier. I would love to be able to set some assets during the lecture to be available on student devices. Let's say I'm giving a lecture on the Revolutionary War. It would be nice if students had the option to bring up an interactive map of the progress of the British from Lexington over to Concord while I'm talking about that without disrupting the PowerPoint slide that others may still be looking at. That way, those that are still taking notes can do so and those that are done with the slide can get even more from the lecture I'm already delivering.

The application of this technology doesn't even have to be very fancy. It could be just allowing a tablet to completely control a PC or, through a PC connected to a projector, display what's on the tablet. I know that there are ways to do this already, but the method can be something that many of today's educators find to be too complicated. Also, I've yet to find a way to control anything other than my Xbox using my Windows Phone. At E3, Microsoft demonstrated driving Internet Explorer on the XBox using a Windows Phone. Allow us to drive a PC in a similar fashion via phone or tablet. This would allow a teacher to walk around the room and control whatever it is that they're doing (writing code in a Computer Science class, going through an e-book in an English class, etc) without being tied down to a unit physically connected to a projector. This could be a huge benefit to teachers as it's hard for them to monitor students and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing if they're tied to a single location.

The beauty of this approach is that it allows teachers to do what they want with what they know. They don't have to find all sorts of software packages they can bring to the classroom. They don't have to learn a bunch of tricks. They can take what they know and have more freedom in the classroom. It also allows them to accomplish this goal without investing in any new hardware.

Speaking of making sure kids are doing what they're supposed to, some computer classrooms use software that allows the teacher to look at a student's screen to help make sure they're doing the work and not tweeting. Again, either by using a new app or via the app already on their desktop machine, the teacher could accomplish this task without sitting at their computer.

The beauty of SmartGlass in the classroom is very simple. It would require minimal investment from IT departments while allowing teachers to use the technology they already have, be it a Windows Phone, an Android device, or an iOS device. It also opens up a whole new market of applications for the classroom. Given that it wouldn't require much investment from the schools, that means that they might be able to put more of their budget towards software that takes advantage of it.

In order for this all to come together, I imagine it will require efforts not only from Microsoft in the fields of development and education, but also from software developers as well as potentially text book publishers. Given that there are so many teaching styles and methods, the sky's the limit on the application of SmartGlass in education.

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