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.

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10 thoughts on “Putting Interactive Whiteboards in Perspective

  1. I’m a high school math teacher and I use my IWB daily for warmups, interactive intros to lessons, and games. The students favorite game is Whack-A-Mole where they throw a koosh ball at the Smartboard and answer the question behind the mole. Students who would never have dreamed of going to the board are participating. It’s wonderful!
    You gave excellent advice. Start out small, and see where it takes you!

  2. Susi

    Hi Maurice,
    I agree, not another bandwagon… but a great tool in the hands of an even better teacher. Let’s use innovative, quality pedagogies to make the most of IWBs and any educational technology. There are alot of activities available that can be passed over, I really like your advice for teachers on building their war chest – selectively – and ongoing professional sharing and conversations. Great article.

  3. Pingback: Putting Interactive Whiteboards in Perspective | the teachers note

  4. Thanks for reviewing the whole IMB premise. What’s interesting is that after 25 years as an educator, I’ve never had one of these in any of my classrooms – due mostly to where I’ve chosen to teach: in the impoverish inner city districts. Noentheless, what you don’t have, you don’t miss. I think the gist of your article is very relevant: a cautionary tale about not getting too hung up on or over-reliant on any piece of technology, where simple solutions can do just as well. In reading the Steve Jobs biography, for example, it’s interesting to note that the master guru of technology loved whiteboards – but they were never IWB. Ah, simplicity!

    1. So true! Too often we are made to feel that if we don’t go with the latest fad that ‘everyone else’ is going with that there’s something wrong wuth US. WRONG! We need to instead, frege ahead and continuously discover what works for us in our own particular situation. Sometimes there are sweeping changes that effect everyone, but more often, the real changes need to happen at the individual level.

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