A response to "What I'd buy instead of an Interactive Whiteboard"

Whilst searching for interesting IWB twitters, I came across this blog post from Bill Ferriter.  In it, he responds to criticism he had received for posting that interactive whiteboards are a a waste of money.  He takes the cost of an IWB, installation, voting tools and slate ( about$5,000 – 6,000 – I assume USD) and tells us how he would spend his money differently.  He makes comments about how spending the budget set aside for one whiteboard in this way is, in his opinion, better value for the tax payer .

I wholeheartedly agree that each of the tools that he mentioned are incredibly valuable and I have used them myself in a similar way in my own classroom.  Net book computers, were given at discount prices to all students in Year 7 as they entered the High School I was working in (lucky I know), Voicethread has been less successful with my secondary students that I had hoped, that is in part possibly due to my not spending as much time with it as I should have.  It’s still a very powerful tool and certainly has a lot of possibilities when it comes to VLE or Online Classroom use.   Brainpop is replaced with ClickView in the schools that I have worked with and is also available in conjunction with Promethean.   Instead of Camtasia I would be using Jing and, as Mr Ferriter says, he doesn’t need to spend money on many of the items in his list.

His point seems to be that, with a limited budget, there are many more advantages to purchasing a range of products than to purchasing just the one for the classroom.  I admit that for some teachers there has to be some truth in that.  However, I really wish I lived down the road from this guy and that I could show him how an interactive whiteboard can be used to enhance teaching and learning.  He asks for examples of how people are using the IWBs productively in their classroom.  I could show him lots of ways in which this technology has made a big difference to my students and their learning.  I would never, however, advocate that an IWB and its software (and various bits of extra hardware)  are all you need!

As I read both his post and the comment that followed it I became increasingly aware of some of the bad practice that must be surrounding these products.  I have seen this practice myself, in schools I have worked in and schools I have consulted in.  I am well know for commenting that we pay £3,000 a board and that if all we are going to do is create PowerPoint’s then you’ve wasted your money! One commenter used a sarcastic tone when responding.  They commented that they were shocked that he couldn’t see that an IWB was revolutionising teaching  because “your teaching something in front with a pretty PPT” .  Jose’s sarcasm actually underlies my own point.  There is no point in spending all that money on an IWB if all you’re going to do is project a PPT from the front.  Buy a projector and a non-reflective pull down screen instead!  That’ll save you loads of money.

What Mr Ferriter’s post highlights to me is a lack of training in schools on how to get the best out of the technology.  Some of the comments  that were given in reponse mention that IWBs  “reinforce (the) teacher centered teaching model” (Cprofit) that “interactive whiteboards are teacher centered” (susan).  These comments horrify me.  If that is truly how teachers see IWBs then they really haven’t been given the training that they need and they really haven’t been shown the true potential the technology holds.   IWBs are for the pupils – not the teachers.  It should be the pupils who use them more not the teachers.  A well planned IWB lesson has, in the past, meant that pupils are leading the entire lesson, making personalised learning choices as individuals and as a whole class and are looking to me only for support when they need it.  They are developing their critical thinking skills, their skills of analysis, independence and social skills as they manage themselves as a group (of sometimes 30) with my support.

These kinds of activities can not be produced on an IWB without proper training and without proper thought being given to pedagogy. A lot of the people making comments mention that conversations about learning should happen before the boards are purchased.  I agree, it just seems unfair that these teachers do not seem to have access to information about how to get the best out of the software that their board comes with.

Mr Ferriter, commented that the best he had managed with his board was a simple drag and drop exercise.  Of course it depends on the software you are using on your board but there are so many more ways to use it than that. Below I have outlined just 3 simple ways in which I have used my board in the past.  There are many more examples I’d be happy to share if asked.  I have included a rationale for each one to justify my use of the software for pedagogical reasons.

  • Spice up your drag and drop so that when you students place answers in the wrong place it flies back and when they place them in the correct place it responds with a sound or other affirmation. (Only available with ActivInspre / Activ Studio)
    • I’ve used this with students right up to A level.  I usually start with a card sort activity of the same terms and ask pupils to work in pairs or small groups to make decisions.  I don’t use the board purely for the purpose of sorting I use the board as an assessment tool.  As a way of starting a learning conversation.  The pupils would then be invited to show me the decisions that they have made and the board will give them feedback as to whether they are correct.    One detailed example I can give was with a group of American visitors who came over to to the UK and wanted to have an introductory lesson to Jane Austin.  A Colleague and I created a card sort of rules that young women had to follow (eg ” Never wear scarlet” “It is unacceptable for a young woman to be left alone with a young man”, “young people should never call their parents anything other than sir or madam” etc) Some of these statements were true, others were nonsense.  The learning objective was to ask students to consider the constraints of the society in which Austin was writing and how she used her characters to show her opinion on these constraints.  The whiteboard meant that we had a tool through which a whole class discussion could be started.  Conversations about why choices had been made by students which were supported and developed by both other students and the teachers in the room meant that we could enhance the learning coversation and acclerate learning.  The IWB became a visual tool in this instance  as well as an instant assessment tool to spark conversation.
  • Use a visualiser (document camera) with your IWB to encourage students  to perform.
    • I was teaching a low ability class with very low self esteem last year.  They loved the visualiser.  It gave them confidence and they were all very eager to show what they had done underneath the camera.  Once their exercise book was being projected we could screen grab shot, place it straight into the software and then the students could help each other to improve.  Someone would put up their hand if they had found something that had been done to achieve the lesson’s objective and they would have great pleasure in using the basic annotation tools to highlight the places where a student had done well.  This also reinforced their own learning.  Pupils, as we know, learn more by doing.  The pupil was empowered to act as a teacher would as they made developments themselves.  Its what they call AFL (Assessment for learning) in the UK.  Pupils taking responsibility for each others learning, working together to improve.  But, as they had such low self esteem, having praise in this way (on the big screen as they called it) meant that they were growing inter personally as well as academically.
  • Use “easter eggs” to push high achievers and to support weaker ones.
    • I would often hide an “Easter egg” (term stolen from those extra bits you find on DVDs 😉 and leave an extra task or a bit of extra information underneath a picture, off the edge of the screen etc so that students could use the computer to help support them.  This would mean that those who were reluctant to raise their hand to ask for help could be told at the beginning of the activity that there’s something behind the… and they could go up themselves and find support in another way.  Pupils seem to respond so differently to a computer than a person.  They take it far less personally some how.

The term “interactive” is supposed to mean that students are taking control of something and doing something with it.  Hopefully, something that will enhance their understanding of the topic they are learning. Teachers find it hard to find the time to learn the skills required to access one piece of software and, in my experience, they are often happier only having one tool to learn about rather than several.  Whilst I take on board the point you have made that you can do some of the things IWBs do without their software it is worth noting Linda704s comment about “bombarding teachers with tools” (linda704).  Inspire  has lots and lots of features that pupils can use to help them learn and perhaps it is more appealing to have them all in one place.  Does that make it easier for teachers to handle? Or are these tools too hard to find in the software so they are just not being used?   May be the problem isn’t so much the IWB but the way in which teachers have been perceiving them. The way in which schools are not investing in PD and time for teachers to learn about how to get the best out of them.

A teacher is certainty not “up to date, (and) cutting edge.” just because they have an IWB.  Andrew Douch is absolutely right.  It is a professional’s responsibility to keep up to date with new practices and at each step of the way to evaluate how effective it is in enhancing teaching and learning. I agree that an IWB is not the solution to all pupils needs. I constantly say, it is just another tool to add to your tool kit.  I still use card sorts, group work, big pens and paper, walkthroughs and a million other pedagogical approaches in my lessons.

I welcome posts like Mr Ferriter’s because it shows that he is the kind of practitioner who does evalutate and rationalise the tools he is using and his own teaching practices.  Furthermore, the response his posts are generating are encouraging other teachers to do just the same.   I only wish I could have invited him into my classroom for a couple of days so he could see the pupils using the IWB not the teacher and he could evaluate the impact they have made on the pupils’ in my classes’ learning, progress and self esteem.