Paper-based interfaces for primary schools

Despite multiple efforts directed at making schools all-digital, paper is still far from disappearing from our classrooms. This is especially true in primary schools, as many parents and teachers consider that paper-based skills like handwriting should still have a prominent role in the education of children. Paper is tangible, cheap, familiar, reliable, easy to carry around, so… how can we leverage this and integrate paper with digital technologies, complementing each other’s strengths?

Previous research work by our lab explored the potential of augmented paper-based tabletop applications to aid students in learning geometry notions, using a tabletop device to augment usual classroom elements like exercise sheets or rulers and protractors, bringing out and making explicit the geometrical properties that students had to learn about. Currently, we are exploring the application of paper-based tabletop applications to other subject areas like language learning or mathematics, with an emphasis on making the technology flexible and easy to use for teachers in a classroom where multiple concerns (the management of multiple groups of students, activities, time, discipline, assessment) fight for the teachers’ attention.

Ladybug: a tangible game to manipulate and learn to compare fractions




Mathematics continues to be one of the most difficult areas for primary school students. Concretely, the notions of fractions and proportionality (taught around 10-11 years old) are some of the most difficult ones to grasp and understand, and often lead certain students to a kind of “blockage”. Different graphical and symbolic representations or metaphors (e.g. a round pie being divided in several portions) are often used to aid in the first steps within this tricky subject. 

We have developed a series of simple activities featuring multiple paper-based representations of fractions, that students can manipulate physically to construct, compare and build equivalent fractions to one another. These manipulatives include continuous (e.g., pie or bar) as well as discrete (e.g. using tokens) and symbolic/numerical representations. The augmentation provided by the tabletop device can be used to automate assessment of exercises, as well as the provision of complementary representations of the different tangible fractions.
 Paper-based fraction manipulatives
The culmination of the activities is the “Ladybug game”, a collaborative group activity in which the students have to help a ladybug avoid obstacles and move towards her home, by attracting her with different amounts (i.e., fractions) of food, represented by the fraction manipulatives in different corners of the table. In this ludic exercise, students apply the comparison and equivalence of fractions they are learning, to achieve the goal of the game.
 The ladybug game at EPFL's Journée des Classes    Interface elements of the ladybug game
This set of activities can be especially useful in a classroom setting, for several reasons:
  • Easy manipulation: The familiarity and ease of use of the paper elements let students build fractions effortlessly, thus helping students avoid the block when being confronted with such abstract notions.
  • Multiple representations: By playing with different representations of fractions, students progressively construct their notion of fraction, leveraging the properties of the different metaphors.
  • Pedagogical flexibility: Rather than “railroading” the teacher to a sequence of representations or exercises, teachers can flexibly choose which paper elements (and in which order and level of difficulty) best fit their students’ needs and knowledge.
  • Non-digital use: Paper manipulatives can still be useful for students while away from the tabletop, or even at home.
  • Collaborative: The tabletop format and the nature of the activities makes the activities especially interesting to foster collaborative groupwork.
Initial reception in tests with real teachers and students (e.g., at EPFL’s Journée des Classes) has been very positive. We are currently starting to collaborate with schools and teachers interested in trying them out in their own classrooms.


  • Caballero, Daniela, Yun Wen, Luis P. Prieto, and Pierre Dillenbourg. Single locus of control in a tangible paper-based tabletop application: An Exploratory Study. In Proceedings of the 9th ACM International Conference on Interactive Tabletops and Surfaces (ITS 2014), Dresden, Germany, November 2014. (ACM link)

Acknowledgements and funding

This project is part of the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship MIOCTI, whose goal is to study and model classroom orchestration, and to propose and evaluate solutions to enhance such orchestration, using tangible user interfaces and paper computing.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement FP7-PEOPLE-2012-IEF project no. 327384.
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