When Apple announced their revolutionary iPad, there was much disagreement between those who believed in the product and those who thought it completely ridiculous. And then release day arrived and droves of avid Appleites lined up outside retailers to be the first to pick up their very own iPad. Nevermind the silliness of the name, or the fact that it didn’t support Flash, or any of the other so-called “deal-breakers” missing from the flashy device, people wanted it. So much so that the international release has been pushed back due to incredible demand in the US.

My goal here isn’t to describe the frenzy surrounding the iPad, it’s to talk about the touchscreen that it employs. Ever since the iTouch/iPhone release, Apple has clearly had the vision to make multi-touch screens a reality. Like many of their products, the display is incredibly easy to use and relies on basic ideas about kinesthetic learning to function. Resizing images is accomplished by dragging corners in or out, turning pages by swiping fingers across the screen, and so forth. They have, in essence, trained an entire generation on the basics of touchscreen usage.

Riding the wave of Apple’s success are a number of companies. Don’t get me wrong, many of these developers had been working on multi-touch surfaces long before the iTouch ever showed up, but only through Apple did it become commonplace. Now we have companies like MultiTouch (Finland), SMART Tech (Calgary) and Microsoft (EVERYWHERE) competing to carve their own niches in the market.

MultiTouch has been hard at work developing large scale collaborative multi-touch displays. Their most recent is the monstrous MultiTouch Box which can be purchased as large as 9.8ft x 3.6ft. They also offer the MultiTouch Cell which functions in a more modular sense in that it can incorporate the screens of as few as one to as many as fourteen displays simultaneously. Just imagine the possibilities for a classroom using this kind of technology. Forget old SMART Boards mounted on walls at the front of the class (not that I have anything against SBs, just that they seem old-fashioned now), and replace those with several multi-touch displays built right into desk surfaces. Now take all of those, and connect them to a display on the front wall and voila! Collaborative learning!

This is not to say that SMART isn’t on board with their own multi-touch surface. They offer the SMART Table which is designed for elementary classrooms and can support as many as ten users simultaneously. What is nice about the ST is that it draws upon SMART’s existing toolkit for widgets and other educationally-tempered content without needing educators to relearn a brand new systems. If they know how to use a SMART Board, chances are good that they will easily pick up on the Table as well.

You’re probably thinking this stuff is so far-fetched that you’d never ever see it in a classroom, but that’s not true! These kinds of technologies already exist in universities, some of which use it for medical studies where a 3D anatomical model can be displayed and manipulated with ease. I’ve always imagined that multi-touch surfaces would become the future of the 21st Century classroom. I envision a room where every desk has a multi-touch screen embedded in the surface and which is connected to a main screen on the teacher’s desk. (Software already exists to allow teachers to oversee the screens of all students in a classroom from a single monitor.)

Imagine being able to tap out notes on a visual display and have that display show up on the desks of every student. How many times have you had to rearrange a classroom to accomodate that student with poor vision? How many times have you had to provide notes for students with LDs like dysgraphia? Combine the technology already present in SMART Tech’s Notebook software and you’ve just improved the learning of two students without alerting the entire class. It’s subtle, and it’s efficient; two key components to assisting students in your classroom. The potential for using multi-touch surfaces as vehicles for assistive technology are endless.

The kinds of projects you can devise with these devices is incredible. Say for example you want your students to create a collage or poster. It becomes quick and easy for students to access the Internet, locate images and videos to incorporate, drag them with their fingers onto the poster surface, and then rearrange them in a hands-on way. Not only does this appeal to your visual learners, it also covers your kinesthetic learners as well. And isn’t that what differentiation is? Finding a way to enhance the learning of all students, regardless of learning style?

By now, I suspect there is a significant amount of doubt surrounding these technologies given the potential cost. Yes, it will be an expensive venture to incorporate this kind of tech into an ordinary classroom. When SMART Boards first came out, some schools were allowed to pilot them, and in exchange for the hardware/software bundles, those teachers went out and instructed others on their use. It would not be too far-fetched to imagine a future where this continues. I’m sure most people doubted that SMART Boards would ever make it into CBE classrooms, and yet there they are. Still doubtful? I taught at a school in the north-east quadrant of the city and almost every classroom was outfitted with a SMART Board. And not old models either. They were using the bundled Board with attached projector models.

A guy can dream, right?