Mac labs get Smart new software

Children in some Canadian classrooms are giving a virtual thumbs-up to a new offering from SMART Technologies.

Calgary-based SMART Technologies Inc. has announced the availability of SynchronEyes 2.0 for Macintosh. SynchronEyes uses a TCP/IP network to create a learning environment where instructors can monitor and control up to 40 Macintosh workstations from a single computer.

John Schwengler, a teacher at Saint Francis High School in Calgary, said he didn’t know anything about SynchronEyes before this fall, but has been using it since January and likes the software’s capabilities.

“I use it mostly to keep the kids from punching away at the computer when you are trying to teach them things and to show them things across all the computers to show them what I am doing,” Schwengler, who teaches elementary-age students, said. “I use it in conjunction with a smartboard.”

SynchronEyes displays thumbnail images of all student screens on the teacher’s desktop so she/he can monitor each student’s progress. Students can send questions directly to the teacher, who can then type a response or click on that student’s thumbnail image to work through the problem together. If several students need assistance at the same time, the teacher can show her screen, or any student screen, to the entire class. To direct attention to the front of the classroom, teachers can blank all student screens and disable mice and keyboards.

“Most of the young ones will call out before they use that feature,” he said, laughing.

Nancy Knowlton, president and COO of SMART Technologies, said introducing the software on Macintosh was a logical next step.

“Macintosh has had a strong established base in education, and with the introduction of the iMac, the enthusiasm for the Macintosh platform was really rejuvenated and it’s our customers saying that PC is great, but we also have Mac labs,” she said.

She continued that the software suits multiple student computers in a classroom, which she describes as a computer lab situation.

“The software is attempting to do, what in the old days, a teacher would have you do when they called you up to the front of the classroom to solve a problem,” she said.

When a student has a question, a hand-up icon appears over the student’s thumbnail image on the teacher desktop. The teacher can view the question and then type a response or click on the student’s thumbnail image to work through the problem together.

“Our program is very focused on a limited level of functionality that is very intuitive and easy to use,” she said. “Teachers are not network administrators.”

To provide an up-close view of material that students can easily follow, an instructor can broadcast applications from his computer to each student’s monitor, or display a student’s work to the entire class.

And that is the real advantage to Schwengler.

“Being able to show across all the screens is good too, so they can see me doing things, because if they see it on the small screen in front of them, they seem to be more attentive,” he said.

While the teacher said he had no real complaints about the software, he added that he ” would like to see it able to start other applications.”

SynchronEyes 2.0, which is also available for Windows, has special prices for educational institutions.

“In Canadian dollars it is $750 instead of the normal list price of $1,499,” Knowlton said.

Alex Ferworn, a computer science professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, agrees that moving this product to Macintosh is a good idea.

“Especially in public schools, that is one of Mac’s big markets,” he said. “The educational market is still grabbed by Apple because it is easier to put things together with a Macintosh than a PC.”

However, Ferworn isn’t as sure that the product itself deserves the accolades it has received.

“Maybe remotely you might use it, but from a lab perspective, I don’t know how useful it might be as opposed to getting up and looking,” he said. “In a classroom, you tend to move away from teachers when you implement these kinds of things. If you look at language labs in public schools, they spent a lot of money to put in separate stations for the labs and they are never used for what they are intended.”