Putting Interactive Whiteboards in Perspective

Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are finally becoming a fixture in k-12 classrooms everywhere. Brands such as Smart™, Promethean™, Teamboard™ and Mimeo™ are now becoming commonplace names for the generic IWB device in much the same way as Ski-Doo™ has come to mean ‘snowmobile.’ Run a web search using the term “interactive whiteboard resources for” along with any subject field and you will get an enormous number of matches with websites containing lesson ideas, lesson plan, interactive resources, non-interactive resources such as video and audio as well as sites that compile links to resources the owners have judged to be useful. You will also see sites in which users enthusiastically endorse the use of IWBs in the classroom, providing examples of how the devices have transformed their practice for the better. It’s very easy to find links that support the notion that teachers love their IWBs. There’s even a site with almost that very name! The web, it seems, wants us all to ditch everything else and jump on the IWB where ‘B’ in this case most surely denotes ‘bandwagon!’

If you dig deeper with a more critical eye, though, you will find a host of users with strongly opposing views. If you search carefully you will find many posts—from bloggers mostly—detailing how the whole movement toward the use of IWBs has been a setback for education as a whole. Citing issues such as excessive cost, shoddy and inappropriate installation and the tendency for the equipment to shift classes toward a ‘teacher as sage/lecture for the whole period’ modality, people in this camp feel we would be better off if IWBs were consigned to the scrap heap with all due haste, lest we bankrupt the system while creating a horde of mindless complacent zombies for citizens.

Where, then, is the truth in all of this? Fortunately the whole debate around the usefulness of IWBs does not leave us in a situation where we have to choose A or B; that is to own and use vs. to not own and use the devices. Perhaps the situation is best summed up by the notion that while IWBs are powerful teaching and learning tools they are just one among many. The issue then becomes when and how to use them to best effect.

There is just one assumption you need to agree with: specifically that group-based instruction is of at least some use. If you are of the mind that learning is totally an individual thing on all levels then: (a) you believe that learning in groups makes no sense because individuals have nothing to learn from one another (b) you believe that everyone has to construct their own meaning so one person’s interpretation of a concept has no bearing on that of another, and (c) you are able to handle the individual learning needs of all of your students exclusively on a one-to-one basis. If this is the case then you might as well forget IWBs and go ahead using whatever it is you have been. We would all love to learn your secrets. Oh, and if the tone of this paragraph sounds more than a little cynical then so be it. For the rest of us who see the value in at least some group-based there is merit in digging deeper. Mind you, we do not need to agree on the extent to which it is useful—that simply establishes the amount of effort and time you and your students will invest in following group based methods—methods that IWBs are well-suited for.

Without doubt my favourite site for IWB resources is Phet. This U of Colorado site offers many interactive simulations that allow students to explore science concepts. The materials may be used, for free, in classrooms everywhere. They may be used individually or in groups. I prefer using them in groups. Here’s how it works: provide a challenge, give one student control of the simulation but allow either a small group or the whole class to assist. For example, one of the simulations is a DC-only (there is also a fully-featured CD/DC simulation) circuit construction kit. As a class icebreaker you open the simulation, pull out several lengths of wire and join them to make a long flexible piece of wire, pull out a dry cell and pull out a lamp. You then get one student to go up to the IWB and challenge the student to light the lamp using just the one piece of flexible wire, the lamp and the dry-cell. It can be done but, for most, it is not obvious. The ‘trick’ is to realize that you can complete the circuit by actually touching one terminal of the cell to one terminal of the lamp, without using wire. It is not obvious and the solution requires the student to realize that the bulb needs to be connected in such a way that the current can flow through both bulb connections, through the filament, thus completing a conductive path from the terminals of the cell. Phet simulations illustrate the good use of IWBs in several ways.

They are not ‘canned’; there is true interaction. The word ‘interactive’ can be seen as a continuum ranging from low (turning a page or pressing ‘next’) to high. Higher levels of interaction allow the student to more fully investigate the concept at hand. Students come with a wide range of preexisting concepts. Some help and some (which used to be termed ‘misconceptions’) definitely do not. Allowing for a wider range of interaction enables the student to explore the pre-existing conceptions and either abandon or modify them in light of new knowledge.

They do not necessarily require an inordinately long period of time, but there is ample room for extension if appropriate. The amount of time students are prepared to devote in pursuit of a goal varies widely. By offering fairly short but flexible times the students can spend the right amount of time.

The activities lend themselves to group participation. There is no arguing about the fact that students need to be empowered to do their own thinking; their own work. That said, the IWB activity described above serves as an excellent warm-up activity, drawing the students in and encouraging them to pursue the whole thing further, regardless of whether that later work will be individual or group-based.

They are about the learning, not the technology.  IWBs and, for that  matter, any learning technology are not the goal. They are a means to an end. Pursuing the ‘use of IWBs’ as a goal is nonsense. The use of an IWB in pursuit of a valid goal—in this case an understanding of current electricity—is another thing. The activity noted above is quite natural. While using the simulation it is easy to forget that this is not ‘the real thing’ because to the extent necessary, the simulation does reflect the real thing, but in a way that is more efficient, safer and less-costly both in terms of time and money. In all regards, then, the IWB/simulation combination is a superior method. That is all that really counts.

In this light, then, you can see that IWBs do have a place in the contemporary classroom. The extent to which they are used as well as the exact manner is the real issue to be settled. That is something that will need time to get sorted out.

There are other things that need to be dealt with along the way. Obviously users need to be familiar with the basics. On the surface they seem simple enough—a touch on the board gets registered as a left-click. At first glance, then, the whole thing seems obvious. An IWB is just an old-style ‘erasable marker on a white surface’ board with a little attitude thrown in. Teachers should just dive in, right? The rest will just follow. Too bad it’s not that simple. The fact is that many IWBs are being used in non-interactive mode for displaying PowerPoint™ slides if they are used at all. In many cases IWBs are treated as fragile black boxes that are used to a very minimal extent. In order to effect the required change appropriate user-training is in order. This training needs to cover at least three bases (1) the rudiments—how to connect align and use IWBs in pen and touch mode. (2) how to use the special IWB software that is generally bundled with the devices and (3) what constitutes appropriate usage. Items 1 and 2 can be handled easily enough. For example, online video tutorials or live demos given by an onsite (most schools have at least one) expert can be quite efficient and effective. Item 3 is a bit more subtle, varying with individual teaching styles and values as well as with the grade level and nature of the subject. This type of professional development will likely be more effective if it plays out in the form of an ongoing conversation between peers; a conversation that can certainly be mediated through eLearning methods. This part will take time.

Owing to the wide number of vendors on the market at the moment there is also the issues of compatibility. Lessons created through manufacturer-specific software are not universal: that is not only can the files  not be opened universally regardless of software but, worse still, some manufacturers have stipulated that software shipped with their equipment may not be displayed on other equipment. This means that if a teacher creates a lesson for the ‘brand A’ board in their homeroom they may not display the lesson using the ‘brand B’ board just down the hall. Fortunately there are some solutions. First, there has been a fair bit of work done on developing a common ‘.iwb’ file format and many of the major players are signing on by including it with the new releases. This is only a partial solution, however, as the format is not perfect; the translation often has a few hiccups. A second solution is not to rely on the supplied software at all but to use others that are not hardware limited. Microsoft’s PowerPoint™ (for limited interaction) or OneNote™ (for better interaction) readily come to mind. A third thing is that the best resources do not require the use of that software, rather, as in the case of Phet, the resources are freely available on the web and only require the use of freely-available software such as a web browser or the Java™ platform.

It must be acknowledged that the IWB is a single domineering object in the room. That’s two problems: ‘single’ and ‘domineering.’ You can only have one—too bad, it would be great to have five or six! At between $3500 and $6500 a pop (not counting installation) it’s just not possible. While there are times when a single board is useful—it is good to fix all eyes in one place for short times—there are also many times when this can be a big problem. Consider the challenges faced by the use of IWBs as learning centres or as tools for use by small groups. The large display can easily serve as a distraction to other groups. The solution is straightforward: give the other groups suitably engaging tasks and there will be no need for idle eyes wandering to the whiteboard! Besides, if the board is used on a regular basis the novelty factor will wear off and the board will be no more or less distracting than the classroom windows.

Here’s a list of some suggestions for IWBs:

Lesson warmups/energizers: You can show a short video or get small (3-5 players) to play a competitive game at the start of class to focus attention on the lesson ahead–a lesson that may or may not make further use of the IWB.

Simulations: As already described these enable the exploration and development of concepts. These can be done either as a while-class activity or in a small group.

Presentation of knowledge: IWB software bundled with devices or more generic software such as Microsoft OneNote™ can be used to prepare multimedia presentations that use static slides, videos as well as interactive components. The combination can be a powerful learning experience, especially when the duration is carefully chosen and the teacher seeks the involvement of the students.

Presentations by Students: Given the opportunity to explore the various IWB functions, students are more than capable of using them to enhance their own work. A little extra guidance may be in order if this is their first introduction to IWBs because there will be a tendency to put the pizzaz over the core ideas of the presentation.

Demonstration: The many quality videos available from sites such as Youtube are an obvious source for demonstrations. Better, though, you can easily stage your own. A mathematics teacher, for example, could could use a digital interface such as a Vernier LabQuest™ and simply place a thermometer in a container of hot water. The software would then display a graph of the results and the students could be challenged to find the best mathematical model that fits the data.

Drill and Practice: There are thousands of online resources available. Just go to google and start typing ‘multiplication facts.’ Before you even finish typing the last word, at least 3 search suggestions will drop down. Settle on any one of them and you will find … enough. Similarly for spelling, grammar, arithmetic, second language. Just one warning: there are so many resources available for this type of work there may be a tendency to overdo it.

Two additional features of IWBs are worth mentioning. First, computer software can be used to record a session or any part of it. Recordings, in the form of videos, can be accessed later by students who missed the session or who simply wish to review parts of it. Second, IWBs can be used to join classrooms. Attach a webcam to the top of the board, run software such as Blackboard Collaborate™ or even Skype™ and the IWB can be a conduit that joins your classroom to one somewhere else in the world. The possibilities are almost limitless–think about what this could do for your second-language, or social studies class. Think also about how this could transform a PLC!

The best of all is a blended situation; one that weaves the use of IWBs in with other available technologies including, yes, paper and pencil–or maybe tablet and stylus. :>)  This, of course, is something that will not happen in a week, or even a year. Any way you look at it, though, the whiteboards are here. More, since they are built to last it is likely they will be around for a while so it would be wise to make an investment of time and effort and begin to incorporate them to some extent in daily activities. In keeping with the overall idea that they do have a suitable time and place it may be wise to follow some of this advice.

  • Search for activities that support your teaching. Be selective and only use the ones that your instincts really like. Don’t just use the IWB for its own sake.
  • Integrate the IWB activities sparingly. Remember it’s a long career and you have plenty of time to build up a war chest.
  • Pass on your findings to your colleagues and don’t be shy in asking what works for them.

As a final thought, always bear in mind that the real goal here is excellence in teaching and learning and not in the use of any particular new-fangled device, regardless of how popular or attractive it may be. IWBs are one tool among many others so maintain balance, keep the non IWB activities that are working well, look for new engaging IWB activities and never forget to keep looking elsewhere for ever different ideas. Both emerging and existing tools are constantly yielding new ideas and methods.

Tablets and Transforming Education–Much is Needed Before it Should Happen

Some time in the ’90’s I had an ongoing conversation with a colleague who had recently purchased a Palm Pilot. Remember those–hand-held and about the size of a modern day smartphone. They had note-taking ability, limited writing recognition, a calendar and organizer along with some other capabilities. At the time they lacked telephone and wifi capabilities. They did have their uses though. My friend, who was finding his new device to be quite useful, was very enthusiastic about the potential effect this type of device might have on the classroom. He was even of the mind that it could replace much of the paper resources–books, workbooks and writing sheets–so popular at the time. He was wrong, though. Here we are, a dozen years later and all those things–the paper things–are still about as popular and essential as ever.

So what?

Sometime in the coming year a new crop of high powered, low cost 7″ tablets will hit the market. They will be shiny, useful and capable. In short order just about everyone who can afford it will have one. At around $150 each that will likely be just about everyone. Everyone, that is except (a) the richer crowd who will remain with the more expensive 10″ models and (b) those who simply cannot afford the luxury of owning the newest toy. Given the power, portability and just plain coolness of these new devices it won’t be long before educators everywhere will be looking to integrate them into their teaching and learning activities. That said, it may be wise to wait before joining the stampede to place sets of these in the classrooms.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is likely that a sizable proportion of the students will have their own equipment so it would be something of a waste of resources purchasing items that students may have anyway. That said, there is certainly nothing wrong purchasing school sets for those students who do not have their own but when the time is right. This brings us to the second problem: that of managing and supporting the devices. Doing for existing school computers is already quite a headache. Disk imaging and maintenance is already difficult enough. Bringing a fleet of portables into the mix, all of which require the installation of a large number of apps as well as user accounts makes it even more onerous. Worse again there would be no guarantee of any sort of standardization, so the management application would likely have to contend with multiple equipment types, multiple operating systems and, likely, multiple users per machine. Leading straight out of this is also the issue of BYOD. As already mentioned, a sizable percentage of the students will want to use their own equipment so the students will need to access the apps, many of which will need to be purchased, and the district’s technical team will need to find a way to allow the student-owned devices to access the Internet and parts of the school Intranet while maintaining the security of the school’s own information systems–a tall order at best.

The tablets themselves have significant technical limitations. Compared to laptops and traditional PC’s, tablets are mostly inferior when it comes to creating content. Have you ever tried composing an essay on one? Anything longer than a 2-3 line reply is something much better suited to a device with a real keyboard! Oh the typos! As for harder tasks such as 3-d modelling for tech-ed as well as processor (and energy) intensive tasks like video production, the devices simply do not have the horsepower. Not all software is compatible either. Adobe Flash™ is generally unsupported on tablets and Java™ run-time based applications will not work either.

But then there is the biggest problem of all: barging ahead and purchasing tablets for students is actually a case of putting the cart before the horse. Schools are in the business of educating students so every decision has to be made on just one basis: will doing this increase achievement? (And, yes, that includes decisions around sanitation, busing, scheduling, staffing, discipline and everything else. Just think about it!) Purchasing tablets for schools is just a case of obtaining equipment for which there is no well-defined need at this point in time. The end result of this can only be either (a) the equipment is under-used or not used at all or (b) the usage to which the equipment is put amounts to busy work; that is the devices will be used in a haphazard fashion with ill-defined outcomes and even less well-defined procedures. In short, people may feel inclined to use them just for the sake of using them.

This is not to suggest that practitioners and leaders should step back and wait. In all likelihood devices similar to the 7″ tablets are very much a part of the future of educational technology but that will not happen by itself. Much work has to be done. Lessons that take advantage of the equipment have to be developed and, more importantly, that all-important eContent has to be developed. That will take a considerable effort on behalf of a large number of people. Simply put, the education community needs to find its way and that will take active participation on behalf of a lot of dedicated members. It is with that in mind that perhaps people should get behind this new movement.

When they arrive on the market the new tablets will be powerful and very attractive. Unfortunately the finer-details of how they fit into the mosaic of school live will not exist. Fortunately the seeds of those ideas already exist. Tablets are not new. The iPad, for instance, a very capable device, has now been available during three school years. These have begun a legacy of usage. Some literature exists. More importantly, a legion of teachers are already out there with the desire and the skills to start this tech integration process and, make no mistake, it will happen.

It will take time, though. Well-developed learning activities take a lot time and energy. They must be planned, developed, classroom-tested and then further refined before becoming truly useful. Finally they must be implemented on a larger scale. This is a process that takes years. So should we all wait? Of course not. Tablets, as already mentioned, will be an important part of the landscape. It’s just that, at this time, we should not expect them to just sweep through the system. There’s years of work yet to be done before the devices will be a mature part of the landscape. In the meantime, educational leaders should move ahead treating the integration of these devices as part of a large scale pilot. The huge benefits will come but only after a lot of dedicated developmental work.  That work has no particular endpoint; it is something that needs to be ongoing.

This piece started with a recollection of a story of a similar device–the palm pilot–and how it failed to make any lasting widespread dent on classroom activities. Yesterday’s palm pilot, today’s tablet…they are not too different. Each seems, in its time, to be the next greatest thing. But that’s because we can all only see so far. There will be always something else, just over the horizon. As has been pointed out, there’s a great likelihood that no one particular device will make the big splash that some may think.

But think about it, though. Smartphones and tablets are becoming mainstream. Teachers as well as students are adopting them…in droves. What’s more, the devices are no longer unwelcome. Once, not too long ago, wireless devices were seen as a distraction; a means by which students could avoid doing their work and simply waste valuable time. Increasingly they are being seen as the opposite; a means by which valuable tasks can be enhanced. Small look-up jobs like definitions, sources and map info are now done almost exclusively (by those than can) through these devices. Some reading is now done through them. Learning Management System (LMS) access is increasingly being dome through them. Perhaps this is, in fact, the wave. It’s not that the devices will come in and shove everything else out of the way. Rather, the devices will gently move in, enhance classroom life where it should and stay out of the places it does not belong.

Now where those places are and are not–finding them is the fun part!