Bye-Bye Blackboards

Education Next Issue Cover

Interactive and expensive, whiteboards come to the classroom


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Summer 2010 / Vol. 10, No. 3

It’s easy to ridicule “interactive whiteboards” and the schools that are rushing to buy them. Choose your analogy: it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, perfecting VHS in a Blu-ray world, or lemmings jumping over a cliff. For while individualized, self-directed online learning is all the rage, here’s a technology that still takes whole-class instruction for a given, puts the teacher front and center, and offers not much more than a modern update to the age-old chalkboard.

These contraptions, which go by brand names like SMART Boards and Promethean ActivBoards and cost about $5,000 a pop, are giant computerized screens that crackle with video, audio, and Internet connectivity. When hooked up to a computer, they enable teachers to present multimedia lessons meant to catch the eyes (and brains) of a generation addicted to Wii, iPhones, and IMing. They also serve as an old-fashioned blackboard (teachers and students write on them with special markers) but with a twist: whatever is scribbled on the board can be captured, digitized, and saved for later. This is particularly helpful for students who miss class and can in effect replay the lesson at their leisure. It also allows teachers to “rewind” and explain a point made 15 minutes or 15 days earlier.

But for the technorati and the pedagogical constructivists, this isn’t nearly transformative enough. (Or, in Clay Christensen’s words, “disruptive” enough.) As 6th-grade teacher (and edu-tech expert) Bill Ferriter recently asked in Teacher Magazine, “Do we really want to spend thousands of dollars on a tool that makes stand-and-deliver instruction easier? …Why are we wasting money on interactive whiteboards—tools that do little to promote independent discovery and collaborative work?”

If there’s common ground between “individualized learning” gurus and whiteboard fans, it might come in the form of “learner response systems.” These clickers allow all students in the class to answer a teacher’s question at once. Their responses can be instantly aggregated and displayed on the whiteboard; teachers can look at their computer screens and know right away which of their students gave the wrong answer. It’s “formative assessment” taken to the extreme, and allows a teacher to know which students need more explanation, and when the class is ready to move on. A nonexperimental study conducted by Robert Marzano and funded by Promethean found positive results for 79 teachers who used the clickers in conjunction with the boards.

And it’s not hard to understand why these things are spreading like kudzu. Karen Lockard is the principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase (BCC) high school in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.; Promethean boards are now installed in two-thirds of her school’s classrooms. She told me this fall, “I had a parent call me the week after school started and she said, ‘My son can’t learn in this classroom this year because his teacher had a Promethean board last year and now she doesn’t. And now my kid can’t learn.’ I didn’t ask her, what did he do the year before that when [the whiteboards] didn’t exist?”

Of course, the golden age of the interactive whiteboard might soon come to an end, as the recession, the crash in property taxes, and competition from the baby boomers’ retirement expenses take their toll on school budgets. But these technologies still might be worth the investment, if they allow teachers to be just as effective with a class of 30 students as a class of 20. (If they can keep students more engaged, why not?) With that sort of efficiency, the whiteboards will pay for themselves. Will the teachers unions go for that sort of deal? Or will they view it as too “disruptive”?

Comment on this article
  • Suzanne Arrand says:

    Keep your eye on the UK where efforts are being made to make SMART, Promethian and other brands of white board hardware compatible. Educational material developed for white board use will not have to be hardware-specific.

  • Marion Brady says:

    I retired before the new technology was available, but I made use of blackboards in ways that were’t teacher centered, and the new boards would work just as well.

    I routinely made use of small work teams, challenging them to tackle a difficult intellectual issue and produce a “product” (e.g. A list of factors that might explain a high crime rate in a part of town with which they were familiar.

    Eventually, team conclusions all appeared on the board, generating dialog, and maybe leading to a “master” list in preparation for a next step — another team project, such as
    generating proposals for dealing with the problem.

  • Barry Stern says:

    My daughter attends a brand new elementary school, with most of the classrooms equipped with these smart boards. Yet the school doesn’t have a playground, swings, or even a simple jungle gym. Go figure!

    And what studies have shown that all the electro-magnetic radiation produced by these smart boards are safe in the long run, particularly for children with brain-based learning disorders?

  • Mrs Blossom says:

    Perhaps those that ridicule these IWB haven’t been fully taught the benefits and are not using them to their full benefit. Even in a global recession, education and the applications that make teacher’s lives easier and student’s lessons more enjoyable should be at the forefront of our minds. We should encourage those who have had the opportunity of this forward thinking technology to learn more and use their IWB to their fullest capacity. Perhaps you are right, baby boomers, recessions and in some countries, politicians, will alter schools budgets, but instead of teachers ignoring the equipment, schools should be looking at more affordable and easier ways to train their staff. Online courses offer a much easier way to train, allowing teachers to progress at their own pace, does anyone else have any other ideas about how to use the IWB to their fullest? Barry Stern, I agree it is a shame your daughter doesn’t have a play area in her school, schools should encourage technology enhancements for learning, but combine them with traditional aspects such as play areas… would you be able to suggest they build an area perhaps? Physical exercise is just as vital for children’s education.

  • Teacher says:

    These Smart Boards are dangerous both for the eyesight of the children and the teachers. The projector’s light is of 40000 lx, at 30 cm and 4000-5000 lx on the Whiteboard’s surface, instead of 500 lx, that is acceptable for a classroom.

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