Tangibles, tabletops or mobiles: which is best for collaborative learning?

Liveblog notes from an IET Technology Coffee Morning by Yvonne Rogers, on Tangibles, tabletops or mobiles: which is best for collaborative learning?

(Podcast version will be available at podcast.open.ac.uk)

Review of her work over the last 10 years. Has been looking at new technologies – shareable technologies – and how they support different activities.

15-20 years ago, students working together f2f would huddle round a PC. One would take control of the mouse, the others would be onlookers. Taking control was awkward. Touchpads and laptops allowed people to move outdoors – but interaction much the same.  Then 10 years ago, mobiles came along – designed for one person to use, but children use them in pairs.

Now, new technologies – tabletops, tangibles – designed specifically for multiple users at one time. Reactable for collaborative music-making using tangible things on a tabletop.

These seem to give better support for collaborative learning than 1-person PC. But which works best for what activity? What are the opportunities and constraints of these technologies and contexts?

First: define collaborative learning. Draw from Dillenbourg (1999): small groups performing learning activities together, such as problem-solving. Can be synchronous, frequent; involves joint effort, cooperation, exploration of ideas and perspectives.

1. Tabletops

Fingertip interaction, multiple users, bird’s eye view supports ‘diving in’. (See How to make a multitouch surface for less than £500 for an overview of this sort of thing.)

Claims made: supports sharing, co-creation, more equitable participation, reduced social awkwardness. Her research to see whether it’s true.  Or is it that tabletops are the new whiteboard? (BBC News report on IoE study “Doubts over hi-tech white boards”, Jan 2007).

Jeff Rick talked about ShareIT project earlier, large project, looking at tabletops. How does it work, how does it compare to single-user, do some groups work better? What learning activities work well? Also exploring how to evaluate collaboration – participation level (physical, verbal), kinds of discussion, awareness of others).

One recent study – collaborative learning – compared single-touch and multi-touch for designing and planning seating allocation in a classroom. Icons to represent children. Software – ‘OurSpace’ – shows icons for the children with attributes (e.g. chatty, short-sighted, friendship group). Compared multi-touch and single-touch (enforces one-at-a-time input) – using a Diamond Touch tabletop, 45 children, 7-9 years old, 15 same-gender trials.

No difference for participation – but for younger kids there was less equitable participation in single-touch. Evidence of parallel working in multi-touch; turn-taking talk replaced some task-focused talk in single touch. No gender differences; verbal participation increased with age while physical participation decreased, particularly in single touch.

Why no big differences? Benefit of tabletop may not be multi-touch – may be more subtle ‘collaboration’ mechanisms. Need close analysis of video rather than gross quantitative measures. E.g. increased awareness, use of verbal narratives to keep others informed of actions and intentions; fluid switching between parallel and joint interactions (in multitouch); undoing of other’s work led to more discussion and verbal justification of own position/idea.

Actions speak loudly with words. Verbal and physical blocking can prompt explanations and justifications – e.g. undoing, knocking hands out of the way, holding finger on icon to protect your contribution. What might be considered harmful or undesirable interactions and intrusions can be beneficial for learning, engenders negotiation, enables users to evaluate and consider others’ ideas. Controversial idea!

2. Mobile learning

Claims made similarly – convenience (any time any place), context (any where), motivation (increased engagement).

Can it be more? E.g. used for short bursts of time to support ongoing physical activities, or communicating while exploring. Changing the learning process. So interacting with environment, experiencing, talking to one another, looking up information, taking measurements, comparing with stored data, hypothesizing, reflecting, deciding what to do – not driven by the software. Talking to remote peers/tutors.

Good for measing changing aspects – CO2 emissions, weather, air quality, tracking zoo animals, food consumption. It brings data and visualisations alive, providing external representations in situ – engenders more reasoning and communicating. Helps work through partially-formed ideas.

LillyPad Project – investigated how to restore Indianapolis floodplains (Lilly Arbor Project) – working with environmental scientists, conducting experiments to assess different methods of tree planting. Interaction designers/computing (Yvonne Rogers) to improve scientific inquiry.

Existing practice was one-mile stretch along bank divided in to 6 plots. Teams measure tree growth twice a year. Get measuring devices, map, paper checklist – locate a tree, ID it, measure, record and comment. Good measurements, but limited sense-making took place among students.

So mobile device to go further – enable students t switch between observation, data collection and analysis – reflect, share insights. Simple design – enter new measurements electronically, and access contextually-relevant info to help with ID and explanation.  LillyPad application – data entry, growth history stats, growth history graph. Also contextual info – pictures of leaves, bark, and how to ID what might have nibbled the tree – beaver, deer, rabbit, vole etc.

First trial – one person in group had the app, but was too much to enter data and look stuff up. So second trial, two devices – one for data entry, one for lookup. Not one each, to encourage collaboration – and there are other jobs, including ID. Groups of 5-6 students, 18-60 yo, with a team leader, spent a day on the activity – up to 250 trees to measure.

Findings – engagement – used info and stats pages frequently; team leaders tailored questions that students could answer by looking up. Sharing – over the shoulder showing/looking, lots of reading out. Inquiry – graphs and stats used to reason and make hypotheses about anomalies (e.g. tree appears to have shrunk). Many instances of theorisation and sense-making, about 5-20 per group. Shrinking tree – students and instructor work together through series of inferences, switch between representations.

Visualisation of sense-making activities – what students say, and how they interact. Graphical representation – clearly different interaction.

3. Tangibles

Claimed learning benefits from physical manipulation – combine familiar and known in new and unfamiliar ways, exploratory and reflective, hands-on, makes learning playful. Seems to encourage exploration, but not clear what the learning benefits per se (no diff between tangibles and GUI for balance beam, Paul Marshall, 2009).

Depends how complex the task is – for ‘simple’ concrete tasks (story writing, colour mixing) – tangibles can encourage more. For ‘complex’ abstract tasks (e.g. geometry, physics) external representations (graphs, equations) may be more effective than tangibles – better mapping between problem space and solution, and makes problem more cognitively tractable. Debatable though, more speculative.


Learning benefits are subtle! Focus on process (sense-making, negotiation, exploration), not the outcomes. Shareable technologies can change group dynamics and participation levels, increasing awareness, negotiation and reflection.

Which is best?

  • Tabletops can support ‘intense’ collaborative learning.
  • Mobiles can support ‘integrated’ learning – indoors/outdoors, within a group, etc, more sense-making.
  • Tangibles can support ‘playful’ learning – encouraging exploration of possibilities.

But should look at how to use them together, in classroom and outdoors – an ecology of devices and displays. Tom Mowers’ work – combine tangibles, mobiles, large displays, and other objects (string!) – to encourage children in different activities at different times.


Q1: Lots of examples of people experiencing things – a step to show learning. How do you know that learning has taken place?

Y: Doesn’t learning involve experience? It’s a question of what you want students to learn. Different activities; some without technology, some with – encourage different things. Specific activity of risk management – think how you do it currently, and how you want to enhance. Do you want them to work more together, or more on their own? Could encourage. It’s not saying let’s do away with other kinds of learning, or with PCs – they’re not going away. But this is about how to encourage/support collaborative learning. It’s not about learning outcomes in the narrow sense – generally find small differences.

Q2: Tabletops and experiments with children doing the seating allocation task. Might traditionally do it with bits of paper. Is tabletop different?

YR: We did do a paper-based prototype, alarmed at how well engaged and excited the kids were at that. But added functionality to tabletop – could annotate – show e.g. drawing movement routes. Do you really need them? The tabletop did allow you to track which child did what – better for analysis if nothing else. Interesting research question.

Paul Marshall: The kids also fight less with the paper-based version, which we take as being a bad thing. Easier with paper to prevent access by others. Tenuously making argument that tabletops better because more fighting, hence better arguments

Jeff Rick: another difference is that on tabletop, could attach students to desks and then move the desks. Quite difficult to do with paper – discouraged exploration and sense of spatial orientation and physicality.

Q3: Looked at changes in learner practices?

YR: Have compared. With mobile, previous was paper-based. Considerable difference in sense-making activity. Technology intervention will change the practice, interesting question is to look at how. Collaboration not necessarily better, but different. Depends crucially on your goals.

Q4: Kids undoing each other’s work, versus OU students on a wiki where they’re reluctant to change other’s work. How much is it the affordances making it so easy, so it doesn’t look like it costs a lot?

YR: Yes, it’s very easy to do it – just reach and move it. Paper based can take your work away from others. Maybe might be different if you got OU students round a tabletop. Did study with adults – Computing Dept – similar. Increase in physical equity with tabletop vs multiple mice, but not in terms of what people said – which had the greatest effect. Interesting ‘professorial’ effects on fighting/moving.

Q5: How much is collaboration a function of the tech vs control?

YR: From early one-mouse to multiple-mouse stuff, do get different effects. On mobile one deliberately only gave 2 PDAs per group of 5-6; each used it at some time, but encouraged collaboration. The control is very important.

Q6: Person using mouse being the servant rather than the leader of the group?

YR: Yes, seen, but not very often.

Q7: Teacher mediation with tabletop – looking over shoulder – who’s driving activity. Contrast with mobile devices.

YR: Not looked at yet but study with autistic children starting soon, with teacher more involved in the application. Question of where teacher stands, are they a part, or standing over. In mobile setting, teacher very dominant, directing. After a while, students learned more and could initiate more discussion.

Q8: How to set expectations?

YR: We showed them the device, they appropriated it – they decided who had it and how they used it.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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