Interactive Whiteboards: Is the writing on the wall?

An interactive whiteboard in use
An interactive whiteboard in use

For those of you who don’t already know me, for my day job I currently work as a lecturer in Initial Teacher Education. Prior to this I was a Primary school teacher for a number of years, working in schools on the south coast of England. My particular area of expertise (such as it is) is Information & Communication Technology (or ICT). Within that field I have a specific interest in digital media technologies and their impact on the lives of young people both within and beyond the school gates. For this post I’ve decided to write about something that has some considerable significance within that context. It’s a bit out of character with the rest of the posts on this blog and is a bit of an experiment. If it finds a receptive audience then I hope to follow this up with other posts along similar lines. Otherwise I’ll stick to the software reviews, tutorials and screencasts.

Recently a friend and colleague of mine, Avril Loveless, passed on a link to a blog post written by a teacher working in the US, titled “What I’d Buy Instead of an Interactive Whiteboard”. The author, Bill Ferriter, teaches 6th Grade Language Arts in North Carolina and is a former Teacher of the Year. In the post he discusses how, given the opportunity, he would choose to spend the money that might otherwise be spent on equipping his classroom with an Interactive Whiteboard (hereafter referred to as an IWB). If you’re not already familiar with IWBs then this wikipedia entry should bring you up to speed. If you have a teaching role in an educational setting that uses IWB technology then I highly recommend reading Bill’s blog post. However, before doing so you should probably also read an article that he wrote previously, entitled “Why I Hate Interactive Whiteboards”. The title alone should give you a pretty strong indication of which way he’s leaning on this one!

To what extent are Interactive Whiteboards actually interactive?

In that article Bill nails his colours firmly to the mast. He states that “even with time and training, interactive whiteboards are an under-informed and irresponsible purchase”. He goes on to assert that “[t]hey do little more than reinforce a teacher-centric model of learning”. This is a view that I have a lot of sympathy with. In fact the use of the term ‘interactive’ in the nomenclature for this technology is perhaps rather misleading. That term I believe has been used historically to refer to the ability given to a presenter to interact with computer software via the device. However, over the years IWBs seem to have been perceived to be imbued with deeper ‘interactive’ characteristics. Indeed IWBs have often been marketed as a technology that will ‘transform’ approaches to teaching and learning: suggesting that they might facilitate more innovative teaching methods. However, the practice with IWBs that I generally see in schools largely conforms to an old-fashioned ‘chalk and talk’ model of teaching and learning. In some cases this amounts to the teacher simply handwriting on the board as if it were a conventional whiteboard. Sometimes the teacher, or student teacher, has prepared some slides or pages containing images and text or they might have loaded up an ‘interactive teaching program’ or website. Occasionally a child might be summoned to the front of the class to interact with the IWB, although current wisdom suggests that this can slow the pace of whole class teaching and might therefore be best avoided. This hardly constitutes the kind of interactivity that promotes effective learning and teaching. As one of the comments in response to Bill’s blog post suggests, the term ‘interactive’ in classroom terms is generally used to indicate a shift away from teacher-centred approaches to more pupil-centred pedagogy and therefore from this perspective the term seems inappropriately applied to a technology which largely supports teacher-centred, instructional teaching.

Isn’t it all about how the teacher uses the IWB?

There is an argument that says that if the IWB is in the hands of a good teacher then it becomes a valuable piece of technology. Or, conversely, that an IWB won’t turn a bad teacher into a good one. However, the question that I would then ask is whether a really good teacher would choose to use an IWB in the first place, particularly if alternative technologies were on offer? What if teachers were able to choose for themselves the technology that was installed in their classroom? Investing in IWBs is an expensive business. Not only do you need to purchase the IWB itself but there is also the cost of a data projector and usually a ceiling mounting kit too. You need to have a computer shackled to the board, which is a further expense, and let’s not forget the installation costs.

Now, I wouldn’t want my views to be misunderstood here. I believe that the facility to present digital media to a whole class (or a group) of learners is tremendously powerful. However, as Bill Ferriter points out, an IWB is not required in order to achieve this. A mid-range data-projector and a set of speakers will do that job very nicely and will cost a great deal less. The money that is saved could then instead be spent in a variety of ways that would promote the kind of interactivity that underpins effective learning and teaching in the 21st century. I would encourage all teachers to carry out a similar exercise to that carried out by Bill and consider how they might exploit other available digital technologies in their practice. His list includes technologies that put the emphasis firmly on collaboration and shared knowledge creation.

Who is driving the adoption of IWB technology?

The extent to which adoption of IWBs in the classroom has been driven by teachers is questionable. For many years now the UK government, through Becta, its agency for informing policy and practice with ICT in schools, has been championing the adoption of IWB technology. And within Initial Teacher Education the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) has also pushed IWB adoption through the provision of directed funding for the purchase of IWBs and associated technology. It is interesting to note that when he was recently interviewed about cuts in Becta’s funding, Ed Balls (currently Schools Minister) talked about their success in “get[ting] IT into schools” and suggested that they needed to continue to “sell that technology round the world”. His comments leave me questioning the Government’s basis for promoting the adoption of technologies such as IWBs in our schools. Bill Ferriter suggests that improving pedagogic practice might not be the foremost concern of school leaders when making the decision to invest in this technology:

“Frankly, it seems like most school leaders don’t really care whether IWBs change instruction in meaningful ways in their school’s classrooms. Why? Because whiteboards aren’t an instructional tool in their eyes. They’re a PR tool-a tangible representation of innovation that can be shown off to supervisors and parents alike. Heaven forbid that you run a school without whiteboards if your colleagues down the street have taken a big bite of this 21st century fruit. You’ll look like a hayseed at the next PTA meeting, won’t you?”

I don’t believe that this view is as cynical as it might sound. Certainly I don’t believe that the provision of IWBs in classrooms is always a reflection of demand for this kind of technology from teaching staff. I work in an institution where every teaching space is equipped with an IWB and yet staff regularly bemoan the lack of conventional whiteboards and some have even written on the IWBs with permanent marker pens (in error, I think). This certainly doesn’t paint a picture of technological innovation being driven by the tutors.

If Interactive Whiteboards are the answer then what is the question?

In my role as a lecturer in ICT Education, I have to help prepare student teachers for working in the current context. Currently that context includes IWBs installed in almost all Primary and Secondary school classrooms and this provision is generally paired with an expectation (from colleagues in the partner schools and often also from University colleagues) that these are exploited as a teaching tool on a daily basis (if not in every lesson). However, it is also my role to encourage student teachers to promote the development of their pupils’ digital media literacy and their ICT capability. For this to happen it is vital that these children interact with technologies in ways that are much more profound than watching their teacher use an IWB and which reflect uses of technology beyond the classroom. That means using digital technologies to explore their environment, to model possibilities, to find things out for themselves, to develop their ideas, to present their knowledge in multimodal forms, to share their understanding, to collaborate… I could go on.

My ICT colleagues and I, often receive requests from student teachers for “more interactive whiteboard training” as many are under the impression that induction into the mystical ways of the IWB is the key to effective and innovative teaching practice: an impression that is often reinforced by the experience that they have on their teaching placements. IWBs appear to be widely accepted as a tool that is central to modern teaching practice and, at least according to student feedback, their effectiveness and impact is rarely questioned. Curiously it is often the teachers who are least digitally literate who insist on our student teachers using this technology when they are on teaching practice. Perhaps this is due to a perception that using this piece of technology is a sign of their readiness to ‘move with the times’, to adopt supposedly ‘innovative’ teaching practices? Or perhaps it is a misguided view that through using this technology on a regular basis they are fulfilling the children’s entitlement to an ICT education?

I believe that teachers need to be given the opportunity to select the tools that will most benefit their pupils’ learning. To be in a position to make informed decisions they need to be encouraged to explore a range of digital technologies and to carefully evaluate their impact. If this does not happen then there is a real danger that Interactive Whiteboards will continue to reinforce outdated models of teaching that will disengage learners. There is also perhaps a risk that with limited budgets the expenditure on IWBs will mean that funding for other technologies will not be forthcoming. Bill Ferriter’s blog post, and the comments that follow it, give me some hope that good practice will prevail.

What do you think?

What is your view on the potential of IWBs? Do you think I am writing them off too readily? How would you spend the money that you could save by not having an IWB installed in your classroom? Are you seeing a change in attitudes towards this technology in the classroom or is it just as popular as ever? Whatever your viewpoint, I’d be interested to hear it so please do post a comment below.

10 comments

  1. Keith

    This is a really thought-provoking post Jeremy. I think it’s also interesting from the perspective of wider policies towards technologies in schools over the last 13 years. This has been characterised in education by targets to get all schools online. Then all schools with lower pupil-to-computer ratios; resulted in a lot of suites then laptop trolleys. Then all schools connected to broadband. Then all classrooms equipped with IWBs. Laptops for all…..and so on. On the one hand I think this sense of entitlement for all is laudable. But on the other hand isn’t it also quite disempowering for teachers? I think of classrooms as often being extensions of the teachers who inhabit them; particularly in primary. Goffman talked about the way environments and objects in them can become an extension of people’s identities. The trouble with the blanket ‘IWBs for all approach’ is that it lacks teacher agency. Like you say teachers have had no say in what technologies they might or might not make use of. I remember someone once saying at a conference I think that one local authority had taken away the ‘old’ whiteboards to make sure that the teachers used the new technology. What kind of say have teachers had even in where the IWBs are installed in their classrooms, what happens to the old whiteboard? What type of whiteboard?

  2. Amanda

    I found this blog very thought provoking Jeremy and I agree that there is an expectation from partner schools that ITE students are ‘au fait’ with IWB’s. I also agree about the dubious reference to interactivity.
    However, in order that we, the new generation of teachers, are able to maximise the capabilities of this hardware, surely there is a need for training? After all, teachers already in the workplace received training when IWBs were installed.

  3. Amanda

    I meant to add here that, as you have noted about the cost implications, it would appear that we are stuck with them for the foreseeable (until perhaps we all have burned retinas from continually looking into the projectors). We therefore need to know how to use them properly, and with all the available capability??

  4. Sina

    Great post, Jeremy. There are loads of interesting points in there. I do agree with the notion that an IWB in itself does not mean learning. The fact that there are IWBs in most class rooms does not equal better teaching either. It just means there is a new tool. And it is definitely time well spent trying to answer the questions as to why are they there, how can they support different kinds of learning and what is their pedagogical value? Yet when is the right time for trainee teachers to answer those questions: before they ever used one, during their time at university, while being on placements, after they graduate? In this context I totally agree with Amada’s argument: how are students supposed to reject or embrace a new technology, if they are not sure whether they have seen it work in its full capacity?

    This is where I in my role as Technical Demonstrator come into play I guess. I have offered one hour workshops on Smartboards in the past and soon will do more. Preparing those sessions I found myself in the peculiar situation not knowing for sure, what to cover in such a workshop. From a technical point of view there is nothing new or challenging in an IWB. There is an on-switch and then one can use the overlay to navigate the computer connected. So I did not really understand what the actual problem was. Throughout the first couple of workshops it became clear to me that the technical side was not the real issue. There seems to be the assumption that IWBs have some magic functions that are simply hidden away somewhere. “Where to click” was not the issue, but “how to make it relevant to learning and teaching”. Basically I need to define what “full capacity” actually means when it comes to IWBs. But how could I possibly do that as a technician with no training in pedagogy, lesson planning and specific subject affiliation? Who has the knowledge and authority to define when an IWB has achieved its “full capacity”?

    This shouts out for team work big time. So hopefully in the coming workshops I can establish a dialogue between trainee teachers and me (and everyone else, who would like to make suggestions). I need to understand what is expected from them “in the real world” and how we can help them to fulfil those expectations. They need to become equally confident in using IWBs as well as purposely not using them, if they feel they do not enhance learning and teaching. Hence we should enable students to fulfil “real world demands”, but at the same time become confident to question where those demands and expectations come from and whether they are useful. In the end of the day, however, it will be them, who have every right to decide what “full capacity” means when it comes to IWBs.

  5. steph

    Really interesting post! I was pretty adamant that having a IWB present in the classroom was a positive thing but can see and understand this alternative point of view. However i do think that some of the points made by bill are a bit excessive and i still feel that understanding how to use an IWB effectively to enhance a lesson or use as an aid to a lesson can be very beneficial, i guess i will only know the true effect of an IWB when i have one of my own and a class to ‘use’ it with.

  6. Jeremy

    Thanks for posting this, Ross. I too have been trying to find out about Conservative policy with regards to ICT in education and also drew a blank. I guess we shall just have to wait and see.

  7. Neil Spurgeon

    Hi all I realise I am joining this discussion rather late
    in the day, we even do have a ‘sort-of’ Tory Government now, which
    throws interesting light on the final two comments above, however I
    am particularly concerned with Sina’s excellent comments re teams
    of ‘experts’ to try and get the most out of IWB. Given that, maybe
    they are not the best tools and maybe we didn’t want them – the
    fact is they are there, stuck on the wall and forcing a particular
    shape and didactic method on teachers which none of us like very
    much and which is ever so 19th Century. BUT and it is a big but
    too, given that we have ’em and are expected to use ’em, how can we
    as teachers, together with thinking technologists like Sina, get
    the most out of ’em? Should we for example be trying to use
    detailed illustrations and diagrams with movement and student
    participation including disambulation of objects, whether that be
    Dinosaurs in Primary, the Mary Rose in Secondary, a Nuclear Reactor
    in FE and nano technology in HE or perhaps more usefully maybe we
    should just play video, one of the best ‘tricks’ in Smart Boards is
    the ability to instantly freeze a video by just putting the pen
    down into the holder and discussing what has just occurred on
    screen. Or maybe we should be storyboarding ‘how to pass the exam’
    in cartoon form? I don’t know the answer, which is why I am asking
    the question, but I’ll bet that Sina and I together, given a few
    moments in a classroom with an IWB on the wall, could come up with
    some ideas that would knock the socks off Ofsted next time they
    come calling and, at the same time and much much more usefully
    would allow my students to get more, from that object which I might
    hate, but hate more not knowing how to use properly, hanging on the
    wall.

  8. Alex Quinn

    It’s 2012 now and technology is here and it is here to stay! I think some classrooms are going a little overboard with buying ipods and ipads for the classroom, but I think having interactive whiteboards are a great tool to use in the classroom. My girlfriends school district just installed these interactive whiteboards for her kindergarten class. At first you would think it may be an unwise decision to place them in such a lower grade level, but she said they have been working great and have been students have been getting something out of it . Scholastic is a great place to check out IWB programs for the lower grades too. I don’t think it should replace teachers being able to teach and learn from their own practices, but I’d rather a IWB be placed in my child’s classroom then having new textbooks replaced every other year just because two sentences in the book have changed.

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