Mr. Somsak’s students used to wish that they could go outside and play instead of attend his math lessons.
His classes were all “chalk and talk,” he says, lectures and examples on the board. But one day, Thailand’s Ministry of Education asked him to try out Microsoft MultiPoint, software in his class, which allows dozens of computer mice to be connected to the same PC, one per student, so they can all use it at once.
That may sound like anarchy, but it’s not. Each student chooses their own cursor, often a cartoon character, an icon or their name. A projector displays questions and games on a screen for everyone to see and interact with. Instead of cursor chaos, Mr. Somsak found that after the initial excitement was brought to order, the kids liked lessons on MultiPoint so much that they started looking forward to his math class each day.
“They are more affectionate towards their teacher,” said Somsak Noyvisate, who teaches fifth grade math at the PrasertIslam School near Bangkok. “When they see Mr. Somsak, or they know they have a math class with me, they come up and say ‘Let’s do MultiPoint! Let’s do MultiPoint!'”
On a day he was teaching fractions, it became clear how MultiPoint changed the dynamic of the classroom. In most traditional classes one student answers a question at a time, but with MultiPoint all students answer each question, and software keeps track of the answers and tallies scores at the end of the session. And everyone knows who the last student to answer is because the software can make students’ cursors disappear after they’ve clicked their answers.
The trials in 10 schools in Thailand told educators there they were on to something. The software gave more students a chance to use computers than before, and more importantly, the kids were more engaged in the lessons, said Sitthiporn Keeratiwattanakul, an officer in the Ministry of Education’s bureau of technology for teaching and learning.
The software is part of a broad attempt by companies and nonprofit organizations to introduce more computers and other technology into schools in developing nations. Organizations such as Inveneo, Microsoft, NComputing and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) hope to provide schoolchildren in emerging economies a way to keep up with kids in modern nations.
Plenty of controversy surrounds these initiatives. The leaders of some countries complain such ventures are a way to make their children more like Westerners, and that the loss of language and culture are at stake. Others accuse companies of simply trying to grow markets for their products instead of actually helping. OLPC, for example, has been accused of using its laptop project to expand the use of the Linux OS, while others say Microsoft simply hopes to counter Linux and spread Windows. Where children are involved, there are rarely easy answers.
Other countries, such as Thailand, which was first to embrace MultiPoint, see technology as a possible way out of poverty.
“When young kids get access to technology, you never know. In five years they might be so inspired by MultiPoint that they become a great programmer or something else,” said Supoet Srinutapon, director of the public sector program at Microsoft Thailand.
Microsoft already has MultiPoint pilot programs running in other several other Asian countries as well as in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, and also Central and Eastern Europe, according to Faycal Bouchlaghem, general manager of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Group in Asia.
By the end of this year, officials in Thailand hope to install MultiPoint in five to 10 classrooms each in 100 schools. Eventually, they plan to roll out the system in 800 small schools throughout the country.
That’s no small investment for a developing nation. The central government will pay around US$2,000 per classroom, including the cost of the computer, the projector, the mice and other parts, for MultiPoint. The cost to reach the Ministry of Education’s 800 school goal could cost $16 million of its $9.6 billion 2009 budget.
Meantime, the next step for MultiPoint in Thailand is a Web site where teachers can share advice on how to use the technology, trade lesson plans and more. Microsoft recently launched a software developers kit for MultiPoint, hoping more programs will be created around the technology.
Kids in the math class using MultiPoint said they liked the technology and it did make lessons more interesting. But when asked what he’d rather be doing on that sunny day in Thailand, little Nanthawat Paenkarn said simply, “out playing football [soccer] with my friends.”