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Computerized desks

Desks with touch screen for digital and manual writing

illustrations laura daviña | photo miguel boyayan Instead of writing in a notepad, the student uses an ordinary lead pencil to write directly on a touch-sensitive glass screen, also known as digital tablet, which replaces the lid of a conventional school desk. To erase what was written, a dry cloth or a piece of cotton wool suffices, or either of these soaked in alcohol. As letters, texts or drawings are produced on the touch screen, a microcomputer integrated to the desk processes the information. Thus, whatever is being drawn or written is simultaneously displayed on a flat, thin screen that can be made of liquid crystal (LCD), the size of which goes up to the limit of the touch screen and is attached to it. The glass touch screen can also be vertical or inclined, thanks to a hinge mechanism. This enables the student to use a keyboard and a mouse to operate the computer or access the internet.

All these features are part of a new product that is in the final stages of preparation and validation, called Lap Tup-niquim, the initials of ‘Linha de Apoio Pedagógico Tupiniquim’, (Brazilian Pedagogical Support Line) developed through a partnership between the Renato Archer Research Center (Cenpra), of Campinas, which is under the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Brazilian Information Technology Association (Abinfo), a company housed in Ciatec, the High Tech Development Complex in Campinas, in the State of São Paulo.

This computer-equipped school desk, also referred to as a digital drawing board, is built on a solid steel structure. The touch screen is simple and low-cost; it is consists of ordinary glass covered by a thin, transparent tin oxide-based film that conducts electricity. The manufacturing technology of the digital tablet was developed by researcher Victor Pellegrini Mammana, head of the Information Display Division at Cenpra. The related patent was granted in the United States in 2001. A request for analysis was filed with INPI, Brazil’s intellectual property institute. “A major innovation was introduced into the digital school desk, in comparison with the previous technology used in the digital tablet. The innovation was its construction in a big area, measuring 25 inches diagonally, which required developing new processes,” says Victor.

A computer with an Intel Celeron processor, flash memory for data storage and wireless connection circuit board is installed under the touch screen. “A tool that was previously restricted to InfoTech labs will definitely enter the classroom, thus creating conditions to experience the digital world,” says Carlos Mammana, a director of Abinfo and a retired professor from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), who also headed Cenpra for 28 years. “Instead of students learning basic computer notions for a short time, the digital school desk, as part of the classroom context, will become part of students’ daily lives.”

Practical evaluation
The project, developed at the request of the city government of Serrana, a city 315 kilometers from São Paulo, in the region of Ribeirão Preto, began last August, under the coordination of Abinfo. Eight versions of the digital school desk have been developed since then, until the final prototype was achieved. As of May, this prototype will start being evaluated by public school teachers and the town’s students – the first being the Maria Celina School. Approximately 200 Lap Tup-niquim school desks and five digital classroom boards will be placed in five classrooms used by elementary school fifth-graders studying in the morning and afternoon shifts. Students enrolled in the evening classes in the Young Adults Education program/EJA will also evaluate the desks.

The integration of the touch screen with the computer will allow students to write as if they were writing in a notepad; in other words, students will continue to use handwriting. As each classroom will be equipped with a server to manage the educational content, the students will only be able to access the sites the teacher authorizes. Another server computer, owned by the school, will allow teachers to access the courses taught in any classroom as necessary. Without getting up from their chair, teachers will also be able to keep track of each student’s performance.

Victor credits all of this to a prior experience in this field, when he coordinated one of the evaluations of the federal government’s One Computer for Each Student (UCA) project, which included ergonomics, display technology, a business model and the production chain; the project was developed in collaboration with Paulista State University (Unesp) in Rio Claro, with the necessary support and guidance for the development of the digital school desk prototype. “This attracted many ideas to education, because this topic was in the media,” says Victor. “When I was contacted by representatives from Serrana, they came up with new ideas that were better in cost and ergonomic terms, and this included the touch screen”

The school desk is based on open software, in this case, on the Linux Educational software adopted by the Ministry of Education. Thus, the teachers will be able to work with any educational content they may wish. “A multidisciplinary team of teachers and technicians is working on the educational content that will be used in this project,” says Miguel João Neto, the director of Projects and Economic Development at the Serrana town council. All the notes that students jot down in the classroom are stored in the computer and can be copied into a portable memory device such as a pen-drive.

victor MammanaStudent writes with a pencil on the touch screen that equips the digital school deskvictor Mammana

“In its initial phase, the project included a Dutch engineering student who was taking part in a training program run by Abinfo, who contributed to the development of another concept for the school desk and the ergonomics project,” says Carlos Mammana, Victor’s father. As the project was being developed, a new concept was created – the Lap Tup-niquim, which is much more versatile, with the added advantage of using the school desks that are currently available in government schools.” The design of the school desk is ergonomic and using a regular pencil avoids sprained wrists, responsible for injuries from overusing a mouse or the keyboard. The touch screen makes it possible to use the writing surface from various angles. Software especially developed for the projects read the pencil and the mouse. The researchers filed a patent of the school desk as a concept. “It’s a very simple system, with interfaces that make this machine user-friendly,” Victor points out.

Teacher support
The first digital school desk model was made of plywood. From the second model onwards, the desk was made of steel, according to the standards of the National Education Development Fund (FNDE), linked to the Ministry of Education. This model was already equipped with the hinge device. A third version of the desk was shown last November at the Latin Display 2007, an international technology event held in the city of Campinas. “The computerized desk drew strong praise as an educational tool,” says Miguel Neto.

Based on this application, which will equip some 200 school desks, the researchers will verify what has to be improved, and then transform the prototype into the final model, which already has a long waiting list. Several towns in the Campinas region, such as Paulinia and Hortolândia, are already on the list. “But first we need the validation of the students and teachers to make sure that the model really works,” says Victor. “This initiative can be replicated in any other city,” points out Carlos Mammana, referring to the fact that it is easier to begin an experience of this kind in smaller cities.

Serrana, a town with 40 thousand inhabitants, with about 10 thousand elementary and high school students, is one of the municipalities in the region that invests most heavily in education, according to the Center for Research and Studies on Industrial Management (Cepegi), in Ribeirão Preto. A study conducted by Cepegi and released at the end of last year shows that average investment in education equals 13% in cities with the highest Human Development Indexes (HDI); Serrana invested 17.4% last year. The 25% stipulated in the Constitution is complemented by investments in agencies and other sectors of education. The town’s revenues total roughly R$ 45 million a year; last year, it invested R$ 15.9 million in education.

The Lap Tup-niquim prototype costs approximately R$ 1,300.00, a figure that should drop when the desk goes into large-scale production. At present, the cost of the school desks is higher than that of the educational laptops such as the XO, the One Laptop per Child (OLPC), or Intel’s Classmate, (read more in Pesquisa FAPESP Nr. 131), but the Ministry of Science and Technology is looking for other digital inclusion alternatives. To lower the cost of the digital school desks even further, the project’s researchers are looking into the possibility of recycling the computers from confiscated illegal slot machines that are being warehoused. The Ribeirão Preto region alone has hundreds of these. “Most have a 15-inch LCD monitor and a Pentium processor, suitable equipment for using with these school desks,” says Victor.

The funds
Approximately R$ 400 thousand to equip the five fifth grade classrooms with the digital school desks and blackboards are being provided by the Serrana town council, by Abinfo and by Cenpra. Once the validation process is concluded – and the digital school desk is approved by the users, the town council intends to extend the project to all its 15 municipal classrooms. To this end, it has already started negotiating the funding required with the federal government. “The project also proposes to use local labor in small companies to be established in Serrana to manufacture the school desks’ mechanical components,” says Carlos Mammana.