May 2, 2008

OK, so it's been a year since I dared to float the controversial idea that interactive whiteboards are little more than a big, expensive white mouse, whose functionality can easily be replaced by far less expensive solutions (see my prior post, "Is the debate over the value of interactive whiteboards really about the boards?") I received tons of feedback from a variety of sources, which did little to sway my view of them. Most from proponents were testimonies of increased student engagement, etc., etc., very similar to those I mentioned in the prior post, all subjective and lacking in any real data. Even Smart's favorite "evidence" of student achievement from the EU is vague at best, listing their boards as one of a number of technologies (emphasis on the words "one of") that were implemented. Then there are the health risks, which are only just starting to surface.

Don't get me wrong, I too can appreciate the value of including a variety of media types when explaining a key concept or working through a problem, but is the whiteboard required (or safe, come to think of it?) Or does it simply add minimally to the delivery mechanism, that being the projector and computer? And, if it is only a minor addition that can easily be replaced by less expensive technology, then should we be investing such a large number of dollars in them?

Of particular interest was a response from an industry insider who has been intimately involved in the development of interactive whiteboards for more than a decade. To quote (names changed to protect the guilty):

"I was [company X's] 2nd employee, having started [them] up in the Western US back 1993, and spent 9 years there, establishing them in the Western US, and was involved with starting [their educational foundation] up. We were talking about the eventual demise of the electronic whiteboard, but it took off, and it didn't stop. That's marketing for you. When the first [board product] came out, it was a product looking for a market. Yes, you are right, it is a trophy tool in the classroom and little more - do you see lemmings?"

I found that fascinating, particularly from someone who was directly involved in the development and distribution of interactive whiteboards. I was also informed that my cost estimates for adding a whiteboard to a classroom were quite low at $2,300. In fact they were based on equipment cost only, with no consideration for installation requirements. Actual costs can quickly swell to double that number, or more (you have to read this from L.A. Unified School District's bid specifications: whiteboard install = labor during off hours, driving time, 16 hours of asbestos training, and 8 hours of lead training.)

With limited budgets and the ever-expanding role of technology in the education space (and the world, for that matter,) making wise decisions is absolutely essential. When we consider any technology for schools, the decision must not be based on emotion, subjective hypotheticals, "wow" factors, or a political desire to "look technologically advanced", but on outcomes and/or practicality. This drops technology decision making into two categories, in my view: those that improve efficiency and/or those that improve student achievement. Some may balk at the efficiency argument, but I personally believe that improvements in efficiency free valuable minutes in the day, which can be devoted to educational objectives.

When we begin to talk of improving education through technology, then we get into what I believe is the heart of the debate: instructional technology vs. educational technology.

For the past several decades, technology has simply been viewed as an add-on in the classroom, and this is reflected in the vast majority of schools across the United States. The Tom Snyder model of instructional technology, in which the primary use of technology is to enhance content delivery, is pervasive because it's easy and requires little-to-no change to a teacher's traditional pedagogic style. Supporters speak of enhanced student engagement, improved delivery, and increased interactivity, which they believe will automatically lead to (generally vague) improvements in academic achievement.

We also see evidence of this "add-on" mentality in the use of student computers. "Technology" is considered as a separate topic in our technology plans and goals. We set the bar at such high watermarks as "students will know how to use a word processor by grade 4" and so on, assigning a grade for technology proficiency alone, because it's easier to treat technology as a subject than to work towards integration. Technology use is effectively siloed out of the rest of the curriculum, except perhaps when we get back to delivery, which seems to be the "killer app" for most textbook providers. But I digress...

Educational technology, on the other hand, is founded on the assertion that the real potential of technology is in its ability to change habits - to become such an integral part of the educational process that the topics at hand simply can't be learned effectively without it. Whether in a one-to-one environment or in smaller banks as "stations" or "centers" in a process of research, reflection, and content creation, they need to be integrated into the process of learning. And we, as educators, should be investing in technologies and training that make that constructive, collaborative environment possible.

But that's hard. That requires a lot more work than simply "sprinkling" some technology into our educational environment. And it's not sexy, doesn't necessarily make us look good, or enable us to speak about how "technically advanced" our classrooms are. Then again, maybe it could, through the use of Web 2.0 and collaborative environments in which student work is highlighted/celebrated. But that's a whole other topic.

And so we find ourselves back at the original question: Is the "value" of interactive whiteboards really about the boards? Should we invest in technologies that, as Gary Stager puts it, "represent a pre- Gutenberg technology that reinforce the dominance of the front of the room"? Or should we instead be freeing our teachers to move about the class, involving their students in the process of instruction through the use of far less expensive and equally effective (more so, in my opinion) mobile solutions like iPens, Interwrite Pads, and Airliners? How many Asus EeePCs could you buy for the cost of that whiteboard and installation - 7? 10? 200+ at the school level? When considering the environment as a whole, that looks a lot more like pervasive technology access to me.


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  1. Jim - it's good to have a kindred spirit just an hour or so away. We had the opportunity to open a new school last summer, and many of our technology purchasing decisions were based on ideas that you presented here. We went with 50" Plasma TVs (movable, not mounted) and Airliner tablets because the TCO was so much better than projectors and interactive white boards. There were a few people who screamed about not getting white boards, but I challenged them to name one feature that the white board could give the teacher that the tablet couldn't provide, other than the ability to physically write on the screen. After they couldn't do that, they would then try to argue that being able to physically write on the screen was worth the extra $2000 per classroom. Usually they would stop arguing after a few minutes because they realized how silly they were sounding. For us, the next step is figuring out how we are going to get to a one-to-one environment in a school district that is underfunded even compared to other elementary only school districts. I am convinced that it will be attainable within the next 3 or 4 years, thanks to the recent proliferation of low-cost Linux based devices.

  2. To Steve above,I've been following the thread on Classroom 2.0. In fact, I guess you could say I've been stirring the pot a little using some of Jim's ideas from above. Most contributors have only talked about the tool, and not student achievement. I also find it hard to believe that someone mentioned that IWBs are relatively new. New to them maybe. IWBs are not part of 21st Century learning for students, Web 2.0 is, and soon it will be Web 3.0. Step away from the board and let students get more actively involved in their learning. Let students "construct" their learning.(Yeah David) Colleges and companies are asking for graduates who can problem solve, use critical thinking to understand the problems that our world will face in the future. Twenty years ago we trained students for jobs that exist today that didn't exist then. Today we are preparing students for jobs that have not been created yet.

  3. Teachers are discussing this very same issue and drawing similar conclusions on classroom 2.0 at

  4. My compliments to Jim Klein who has brought this subject to the forefront and the best whitepaper that I've seen on the subject of electronic whiteboards. In my opinion, technology is leapfrogging, especially as it relates to the wireless pads, as a replacement for those electronic whiteboards. I'm not really shocked that these alternate technologies have not taken off faster than they should have, in spite of their providing added mobility, no viewing blockage, no blinding, faster navigation, no manual installation whether via stand or onto a wall, and for far less money, not to mention, projecting on a far bigger screen that is elevated, however, the downside is, not within touch range. I would surmise that all electronic whiteboard manufacturers, (almost all sell pads, preferably as an adjunct to a board) have a strong vested interest in promoting the sales of electronic whiteboards, simply because the boards have far greater revenue (my opinion.) Unfortunately, many districts have come to consider board technology as de rigueur. A better option might be the document camera, plus the wireless pad. If you price both options out, it 'is' still a lot less money. These devices provide capture tools that allow teachers to annotate on more than just computer based material. These devices allow for electronic, and saved annotation on non computer based material such as transparencies, paper or lab material. Let me cite the State of Washington Technology Survey, where for every 5 document cameras that go in, now only one electronic whiteboard goes in. Do they know something we don't? This is a survey based on installed base. I will let you surmise where this trend is leading. I just want to add one more device to Jim's list. Most pads have as the basis of their communication foundation, Bluetooth technology. From personal experience, this is a very frustrating and limiting, especially for those, like me, less technically inclined. I would like to add to Jim's list, a new pad. Take a look at this newest wireless pad technology, no Bluetooth (just super RF,) no set up, very feature rich and generally far less money, around $350 . Feature rich is an understatement for this product. This company is also the worlds largest manufacturer of document cameras.

  5. As a teacher who has used an electronic whiteboard in the classroom, I have seen first-hand my students' enthusiastic engagement in learning activities and mastery of concepts across the curriculum through this medium. Several factors contributed to their successes. First, I made copious use of the excellent software available for many different subject areas. Second, rather than be "the lecturer up at the board," I had my students do the teaching (they loved using the board to demonstrate their mastery of ideas). Finally, we did a lot of research as a group via the Internet and Google Earth; it seemed to encourage more discussion than the times when students worked individually at computers.Having said all this, it's important to add that as with any technology, it's only as effective as the training educators get, their willingness and eagerness to using it, and the support and encouragement they receive.I was fortunate to have all three.

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