Apr 12, 2007
There seems to be a renewed interest in interactive whiteboards of late, with the debate largely centering around the notion of "value." Proponents often bring forth such lofty, yet immeasurable "proof" as a teacher or administrator declaration of how wonderful they are, how their classroom lessons are more engaging, effective, interactive, etc., etc. Or, better yet, they bring in a second grader and a board, and let him/her demonstrate it - leveraging what I would call the "cute factor" - in an effort to sell the technology to the school board and/or stakeholders. And in a particularly sad state of affairs, many view technology (and not just this technology) as more of a trophy than a tool - an opportunity to say, "look how advanced we are. We have interactive whiteboards in every classroom." A simple review of any recent ed tech conference will reveal plenty of evidence of this phenomenon - but I digress...

Opponents aren't a whole lot better. They are generally rather tongue-tied, stating that they just don't think they are "worth it," that the money could be better invested, or that a good teacher is a good teacher, and will succeed regardless of the technology they have (which I personally agree with, but has little to do with the issue at hand.)

While it would be difficult to argue against the value of more engaged students, or the likely improvements to classroom instruction, test scores, etc., my question is this - is it really the boards that made the difference? If we step back for just a second and look at the situation from an appropriate distance, what really changed?

The reality is that the board is only part of what was actually added to the room, and I would argue, was not the key component. The real key to this new found interactivity is the projector with a computer hooked up to it, not the whiteboard. The interactive board is, for all intents and purposes, a $
1500 giant mouse with some presentation software added.

There are a number of problems with interactive whiteboards that are also rarely discussed. For example, in order to use one, you must stand in between the board and the projector, which means you are not only casting a shadow, but are blocking the view. The shadow presents difficulties with accuracy, which lead to frequent erasing and re-writing/drawing, and the blocked view means that the user must constantly bounce back and forth, in and out of the way. Interactive whiteboards are also often problematic to mount - some classrooms simply do not have a good location to mount such a large and heavy item due to pre-existing cabinetry, etc. In addition, they are easily damaged, yielding extraordinary repair/replacement costs, post mischief.

Then there are the pedagogic issues. Interactive whiteboards by their very nature reinforce the traditional
"lecture hall" teaching style, which has been well proven to disengage, rather than engage most of today's students. The teacher is effectively anchored to the board, when they should be free to move about the class and drive engagement through personal interaction. And, contrary to assertions from interactive whiteboard manufacturers, our experience has been that students rarely actually touch the boards themselves. They are particularly difficult in elementary classes, since the kids are generally too short to reach much of the board. Overall from the student's perspective, once the initial "wow factor" wears off the board quickly becomes "no big deal" to them.

In the end, what we are ultimately doing is using the computer and projector to present a variety of media resources and technologies - which is great, of course - with a big, expensive, white mouse to control it. The annotation software that comes with the board is easily replaced by such products as GenevaLogic's Pointer for a mere $49. We can create the same, engaging environment and tools, and get the teacher out of the way of the board, all the while saving $1451 per room. Or better yet, we can save those great white mouse dollars, and invest them in
inexpensive technologies that offer better functionality at significantly lower cost, while using the balance for other classroom resources!

One such technology that shows great promise and alleviates the anchored teacher syndrome is the iPen from FingerSystem. It looks just like a large pen, but is really a lightweight, rechargeable wireless mouse that is both durable and accurate. It's an optical device, so it allows the user to mouse/write on any surface, and has a very long range - up to 30 meters - so the teacher is free to move about the class and/or hand the device off to a student. And best of all, it costs less than $100.

In addition to basic mouse functionality, the iPen software allows it to work much like most interactive whiteboards. Simply flip a switch and it goes into "pen mode," which offers the typical pen and highlight modes, enabling the drawing of circles, arrows, and all the other stuff that one would expect from an interactive board, including saving the annotations. It even handles text entry
through built in handwriting recognition, which automatically translates your writing into typed text - cursive or printed. No more punching an on screen keyboard. And it's particularly nice with graphics programs, since the pen is natural for artists who won't have to worry about their shadow blocking their view.

Pedagogically, it's a much better solution as well. The ability to interact while moving among the students, involving them while passing by virtually guarantees engagement. Standing next to that one or two who are struggling or don't ordinarily pay attention can have a dramatic impact. Even the ability to move among groups of students working on a project, handing them the pen here and there, could truly change the learning environment. And no one is excluded - even a second or third grader could use the pen at their desk, without any need for risky ladders or stands.

There are other similar solutions out there as well. Interwrite Learning has their wireless Interwrite Pad, which allows up to seven of the pads to be used in a single classroom. Wacom has Graphire pads and Salient has the V-Mouse pen.

I don't know about most other ed-tech advocates out there, but I'm sure I can find some great ways to invest that extra $1000+ per classroom. A couple of computers or some great software come to mind...


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  1. Thanks for your comments, Bonita! You make some excellent points - I would agree that there are greater resources out there for the Smartboard software specifically - the software for their board is its primary strength. I'm not sure I agree with amortizing a Smartboard over 10 years, however, since: the pricing will invariably drop through competitionSmartboards haven't existed for 10 years, so we have no real frame of reference for their lifespanInterface technology changes so rapidly, that a 10 year cycle seems pretty unlikely.
    Manufacturers have a tendency to release new "versions" of their products and say "everybody upgrade within 2 years, or we won't support you any more," which may make the product obsolete. One thing that hadn't crossed my mind, which you so eloquently pointed out, is the effect of maintaining attention by actually pointing at what you are describing. While this could still be done with the alternatives I mentioned, clearly it would be less elegant. In an ideal world, I think the best classroom would be constructed using all these technologies. But then there's the money issue...I get the reference and comparison to the Dukane system at your site, but I think you will soon see where it all fits together when we implement the Foresman and Harcourt curriculum. These days, the textbooks are little more than a reference manual that relies heavily on video content. When you are able to pull up any of the supporting videos, on demand from your classroom with a simple remote, I think you'll be impressed. We've seen this coming for a number of years, and believe, long term, that the technology will become vital to classroom instruction.Thanks again - I have truly enjoyed the dialog!

  2. Yes, all that you say about how the computer industry works is quite true. Nevertheless, we have had great success with the boards. Our oldest board is seven years and going strong so I think at least in that case we will get the ten year lifespan. It is true the value/cost has changed and I did not include that in my estimate, but the same came be said of any other technology.You are so right that in a perfect world we would have all of these and more. As an educator that has tried out many forms of technology in the classroom, I must say that smartboards have been the most solidly usable, easiest to implement given classroom constraints, easiest to train people upon, and least in need of technical support of any technology that I have implemented. How often do I ask you at the DO to come help me "fix" something on my board? It is why I support them so strongly--my experience has been so positive. I also LOVE using handhelds, but would never recommend them across the board unless the teachers and administrators were ready to "take on the technology challenge." They are not so easy to implement and require much more from everyone. It is why, despite my love for them and my belief in their amazing educational value, I do not promote their use to everyone. Finally, I look forward to the implementation of the Dukane system as you describe it. I would add that if we get to the place where steaming video will work with these I will be the loudest cheerleader. In the meantime, they do seem a waste as post-it note holders:) LOL! My point was not that Dukane or Edusoft is not a positive possibility, but that we should have dialogue on all areas of technology as it pertains to pedagogy and educational value.Thanks for continuing the talk. Hey--how come comments come out all in CAPS for me and not for you? I wasn't yelling! :)Bonita

  3. Okay, you two, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about all of this. Rather than respond immediately I've needed to process it in a way that gets across my perspective. I do agree with most all of what you both have to say. I'm one of those who would just be happy with the computer and projector and doesn't need the interactive whiteboard. That said I have seen them in use and they can be very engaging for our very visual students. Though that doesn't mean that they would be used effectively in every classroom. Here's where staff development and commitment from teachers is the most important. I just recently read a report from the Staff Development Committee that really surprised me. It was a type of survey that looked at where we are and where we are going in several areas,i.e. curriculum, reading and writing, GATE. and ELL. What disappointed me was the fact that Technology was its own item. Except for a minimal note, technology was not mentioned in any of the above areas. My point here is that until we think of technology as part of everything we do - integration- it will always stand by itself as an add-on. Interactive whiteboards, irregardless of brand, that are used to integrate the curriculum can affect student acheivement. There should be no "technology for technology sake", but "technology for student achievement". When we reach that level, whether we use an interactive whiteboard, streaming video, Video on Demand, broadcast, Audacity, or online resources like Spang Gang, it won't matter because all students will be engaged and learning with equity. And while this can be done without any technology, as educators, we need to move into the 21st century type of teaching to accommodate the 21st century learner. I can't include Edusoft in any of this discussion since it is a data retrieval and assessment program specifically designed to help teachers in targeting those students that need extra help and for teacher efficiency of grading Language Arts and Math assessments. It's not a teaching tool, but can be very effective in guiding a teacher as to where in the curriculum their students need assistance. I have seen how effective it is in targeting students in need of intervention for administrators.Recently England has released some reports as to how interactive whteboards have raised student acheivement. Their evaluations did not report on the effectiveness of the teachers who are the main component in the integration of any technology. My response to all of this is that a good teacher who can make wonderful use of integrating any technology into the curriculum will see the value of the technology. A

  4. I just wanted to add, too, that in terms of input devices, touch is the most intuitive. Check out this great movie about one of the input technologies on the horizon: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/65It may be that the Smartboard's interface style is not only cute, but it may be very appropriate for developing the kind of skills and mindset that will be used in tomorrow's more intuitive interface design.

  5. David,Have you tried Sketch up by Google. It works great showing the relationship between plain and 3 D shapes with an interactive whiteboard. I do have a Mimeo set up at Skyblue that Debbie has allowed me to play around with. Like the Smartboard, it has the same shadowing problems when a teacher is up at the board. But using the iPen moves the instruction away form the front of the room and into the hands of the students. You and any Saugus teacher are more than welcome to come by and check it out. the only interactive boards that I've seen that almost completely eliminate the shadowing are the new Smartboard and IBM's interactive whiteboard. Both mount at the top of the board and have a short throw projector. These units run about $3000 just to start. Not necessarily a school price.At some point response devices may even take the place of table PC's and wireless mouse devices. Then students are still doing the work just submitting in through radio frequency inputs like the Renaissance response system. I thought that demo on TED was great. I want my own lava lamp.A

  6. I can't say I know enough about smart boards to comment on their quirky behaviors. The idea behind it is what I like though. As a teacher, I want a way to save and share as many of my in class resources with the students and their families as I can. I want them to be able to see the notes and diagrams and thoughts that we talk about in class. I want to be able to have a brainstorm in class and save it for the next day's lesson, or for the student who was absent. I can't do that with a white board. I want a digital board, or pointing device that stores the work digitally. I also want a way to share my digital resources with my class. This is where the projector comes in. Something with a better resolution than a 32" TV with an S-video connection. So, when I say I am for Smartboards, it is not a vote for a brand, but more of a vote for expanded digital interaction and usability in the classroom. Perhaps now is not the time to upgrade to such technology if cost is prohibitive. Given today's cost, sure, let's get computers. But, given the size of computers today you also have consider the cost per square foot of keeping them in a classroom. Maybe we bank the money and wait 3 years when interactive boards and projectors are within reach. Ultimately, we are all looking at it with different mindsets. Some are looking from the pocketbook while others are looking for another way to present material. Those two mindsets will meet when the market lets them.

  7. You bet Scott and David. It is the market that decides. The up-front cost IS prohibitive in the sense that it is about $2300 for projector and board and then whatever more it takes to ceiling mount the projector and attach additional cabling for convenience. Our school PFO saved money for about three years to purchase them for our school (yes, everyone). I just finished with most of the cabling issues this past Friday so many teachers are very excited. At Highlands we have overcome the shadow problems by ceiling mounting our projectors. It is a wonderful difference and makes the boards and projectors easily and instantly used every day.
    I cannot speak for the mimeo either, only having used the ebeam--a similar technology. I agree with David in that it should be tried out before many are bought. It could be awesome. My understanding is that the price is not much under a smartboard so we at Highlands are not sad to have gone ahead with our plans and purchased a sure-bet instead.
    Interestingly, even without a board David picked up on how exciting the features of a board can be for teachers. Yes, we can do all of the things you describe: creating and saving "magnetic shapes and such" creating and saving lessons that require manipulatives, student use of the manipulatives at the board, etc. We can record all that has happened on the board and review it board by board at the end of a lesson or day, or even the next day. We can also tape and podcast lessons with all of the steps that happened on the board stored into our computer memory (and if wearing a microphone all the words will be there, too). Once teachers see a board in action, even those that are very techno frightened want to own one. The uses are quite obvious to teachers.
    Now when it comes to implementation--that is everything for student learning. I think the British studies may or may not be true. I agree with what Scott? said about testing does not cover our entire curriculum. I do not base all educational decisions on this. The two things about the boards that have really impressed me as a technology-type of teacher: my non techie teachers have adopted and use it frequently and appropriately without much training, and we have had few--almost no--issues with needing any kind of technology support for more than 5 years. There is a lot to be said for technology that can do that. Yes, the little boards that pass around the classroom are quite cool,too. I have no idea whether they would be as useful since I have not used them in the classroom yet. I ahve used handheld computers--these are awesome if you are a technology-happy teacher. Huge training for folks that are techno resistant though.
    Great discussion.Bonita

  8. Looking through your comments, my goal is not to pro or con whiteboards, but to speak to the engagement of children that is not bound by the brand of computer attachment, but broadened by the impact of freeware available throughout the internet. If we look at freeware, there is a smorgasbord of activities available to support kids individually, in small group and within a whole class lesson.
    As a sidenote, My husband, an animator, uses the Wacum tablet and finds it difficult and he's in the business! Here's my solution...
    I often will write w/whiteboard markers directly on my ole imacs who have been updated to become internet workhorses.
    There's a low tech smart board for ya!
    That being said, while smartboards impressively supplement the direct teacher, I find greater value at putting the child in the center of learning. Then, I can offer coaching as needed as assess skills from a distance. This "teacher as facilitator" model provides readable engagement that's easily tracked through kids' overall performance on educational game play.
    I feel smartboards shouldn't be offered instead of student labs, but as an introduction to lab activities, and if given the choice, I'd opt for the lab, and recycle old equipment whenever possible!
    For those of you who are lucky enough to have a smartboard, remember that every section of The Spang Gang Web Program begins with visual tools that will enhance smart board driven lessons, so if you have one, let the tools be free and assessible through internet freeware! That way you are showcasing activities that are fun, highly motivating, and can easily be reinforced at home.

  9. [...]That being said, while smartboards impressively supplement the direct teacher, I find greater value at putting the child in the center of learning. Then, I can offer coaching as needed as assess skills from a distance.My understanding is that the price is not much under a smartboard so we at Highlands are not sad to have gone ahead with our plans and purchased a sure-bet instead.http://www.electronicwhiteboardswarehouse.com/[...]

  10. Price of what is not much under a Smartboard? All of the items mentioned are less than half the cost of the smallest Smartboard (which nobody wants.) Not sure where you are coming from - please elaborate...

  11. http://www.epsonbrightlink.webengager.com/ An Epson ultra short throw projector (almost no shadowing/glare), does wireless content over network IP with a TabletPC and/or gives you the interactive whiteboard experience without the expense of buying the board... plus you can go to 96" diagonal in 16:10 aspect ratio so you're not stuck at a 77" diagonal 4:3 for example. Cost of projector plus MIMIO and runs RM Easiteach as well... non-proprietary open architechture.

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