Other pupils played games with the technology when the teacher was not looking, making it more difficult for an inexperienced teacher to control the task, academics found.
The study, by researchers at the University of Newcastle, introduced seven interactive tables to lessons in a school over a six-week period to test their impact in classroom conditions.
It was the first academic study to test the use of tabletop technology by several groups of children at once, the university said.
Academics trained five teachers at Longbenton Community College, Newcastle, to use smart interactive tables with software written for the project. They were used by two classes of mixed ability children aged 12 and 13 for a series of lessons in history, geography and English.
While the research identified plenty of scope for using desktop technology in schools, they concluded that this would require much more flexible programmes than those they were able to use.
In some cases teachers found it harder to keep track of whether children were doing any work on digital desktops than if they had been writing in longhand in an exercise book.
In their report, the authors describe how a group of girls “leant over the tabletop gossiping about what they did last night and making plans for what they will do when this lesson finally finishes and they can leave school for the day”.
It records: “Taking furtive glances they are very aware of where their teacher is in the classroom. Whenever the teacher is close enough to see what they are doing, they start to absent-mindedly flick items of evidence across the screen.”
When teachers did lean over the interactive tabletops to check on pupils’ work, they were unable to see how much progress the group had made as the software had no progress indicator.
One teacher told the team: “I think because a teacher can’t see if they are messing around unless they are stood next to them … Whereas at a table, if they were screwing up statements or writing stupid answers, it would be hard to delete it.”
The tables were intended particularly for group work in class. But another problem to emerge was that it was not possible to tell if every child had joined in a task.
Another teacher reported: “But what you find is that Tommy has done it all and Mary, Peter and Billy have done nothing.”
Academics also noted that the teachers had difficulty in calling the class to order or stopping pupils from “playing around with the tabletop”, although they said this depended on the experience of the teacher.
One scene in the report notes: “The teacher shouts, ‘Excuse me Year 8s’… The students, seemingly ignoring their teacher, continue interacting with their tabletops, moving elements about on the surface and chattering.
“The teacher loudly requests, ‘Can you please focus’. At this the class becomes silent, but the children continue to ‘play’ with tabletop, flicking elements across the screen to one another.”
The research recommended a series of design changes to make tabletop technology more effective in classrooms, such as tracking screen touches by each child in a group and allowing a teacher to freeze all screens simultaneously.
Teaching tasks on the tabletops should also be highly flexible, to allow a teacher to adapt or skip sections if a child did not understand, it concluded.
Ahmed Kharrufa, a research associate from the University of Newcastle’s Culture Lab, said: “Interactive tables have the potential to be an exciting new way of learning in the classroom — but it is important that the issues we’ve identified are ironed out so they can be used effectively as soon as possible.”