Interactive whiteboards

Yesterday was an “abbreviated Wednesday” at Weston High School, since the afternoon was devoted to a Professional Development Day for teachers. We focused on the subject of interactive whiteboards (IWBs); many of our classrooms have recently been equipped with either an ActivBoard or a SmartBoard, and we badly need training in how to use them effectively. An ActivBoard was installed in my classroom over the summer, and I’ve attempted to use both their own software and the SmartBoard software with the ActivBoard. Although they are competing brands (and the hardware is different), the software is reasonably compatible and somewhat similar.

Somewhat — but definitely not entirely. As a result of the workshop, I have decided to give up on the SmartBoard software and return to the ActivBoard software, which definitely is closer to meeting my needs as a teacher. I wouldn’t pretend to have done anything like a thorough analysis of their relative strengths and weaknesses; all I can say is that there are several tasks that don’t work as well (or apparently don’t work at all) on the SmartBoard. But take this with a grain of salt, since the information that I don’t yet know about either one would fill a book. There is a small amount of evidence (not definitive, but still…) that the ActivBoard software works better on Macs and the SmartBoard software works better on Windows. My conjecture — with no evidence at all — is that this difference arises because the ActivBoard software was probably developed on Macs and the SmartBoard software on Windows; when each is ported to the other platform, it’s never quite as effective as the original.

The bottom line, of course, is whether either of these products helps kids learn better and helps teachers teach better, or whether they are merely cool toys. They both have a somewhat useful feature that one’s notes on the whiteboard can be captured as computer images and then posted on a website. Then absentees can find class notes and students who were present in class can check their own notes against what was written on the board. Frankly, though, I’m skeptical of this feature, at least for the absentees: class notes in a math class are almost entirely cryptic to anyone who wasn’t there to listen to the class and participate in it. Maybe it works in other subjects. As for other features of the interactive whiteboards, the jury is still out concerning their effectiveness. The only study I’ve seen so far is “The Interactive Whiteboards, Pedagogy and Pupil Performance Evaluation: An Evaluation of the Schools Whiteboard Expansion (SWE) Project: London Challenge,” which draws the following conclusions (you’ll have to work your way through the educationese):

The main findings are that the SWE scheme substantially increased the number of IWBs in use in London secondary school core subject departments. As a technology, IWBs adapt well to the kind of whole class teaching environment favoured in secondary school core subjects. Their actual use varies according to the teacher, and between subject areas.

The transformation of secondary school pedagogy is a long term project. The use of IWBs can contribute to this aim under the appropriate circumstances. Discussion of pedagogy should precede and embed discussion of the technology. Successful CPD is most likely to be effective if it supports individual teachers’ exploration of their current pedagogy, and helps identify how IWB use can support, extend or transform this. Discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of different ways of using the technology for particular purposes should be part of the on-going work of a department. Although the newness of the technology was initially welcomed by pupils any boost in motivation seems short-lived. Statistical analysis showed no impact on pupil performance in the first year in which departments were fully equipped. This is as we would expect at this stage in the policy-cycle.

There are potentially some drawbacks to the ways in which IWBs are currently being used. The technology can:

  • Reinforce a transmission style of whole class teaching in which the contents of the board multiply and go faster, whilst pupils are increasingly reduced to a largely spectator role;
  • Reduce interactivity to what happens at the board, not what happens in the classroom.

Those with responsibility for the rollout of the technology and training for best practice in its use need to be aware of these dangers and help refocus discussion amongst colleagues on their pedagogic aims so that teachers harness what the
technology itself can do in the light of their broader pedagogic purposes.

Further research and exploration of how peripherals can mediate the focus on action at the front of the class, and create more space for pupil involvement in the creation of lesson content is needed. Amongst practitioners, this kind of exploration currently flows from teachers already committed to using any technology in this way, i.e. bending the technology to their own pedagogic intent.

As I say, the jury is still out. As with so many technological advances, its success may all hang on adequate teacher training.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Technology, Weston