What are Interactive Whiteboards? Some Advice.

Why have an IWB in your classroom?

Teachers all over the world have already discovered the power that this technology can have in a classroom. It is helping their students to learn more in a shorter space of time. The technology, in my own experience, helps disengaged students re-engage with their learning; it helps build confidence in the shy and is inspiring teachers to learn more and become even more effective in what they do. The video here, shows what users of SMART boards are feeling about this technology; this sentiment is echoed by teachers regardless of the brand of board they are using. An Interactive Whiteboard is one of the many technologies which are revolutionising our classrooms. Both Secondary and Primary schools are seeing the benefits in their classrooms all over the world.

This article aims to help you understand a little more about what this technology is and what you might need to consider before you purchase them for your school.

What is an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) or Interactive Device? 

Most of us want to know a little bit about the Interactive Whiteboard. How does it work? What does it do? What happens when it goes wrong and I’m stood in front of 30, impatient, students? Some studies even suggest that in order to use an Interactive Whiteboard successfully you need to know a lot about the technical aspects of the device that you are using. This can put off teachers and I can understand why. Although I recognise that understanding the way things work is important, I disagree with those who say it is essential to being a successful user of the board. You do need to know a few basics so that you can get started. However, installing a board should not be your concern, nor should the deeper technical aspects of the technology. What is more important is how you use the board in your lessons. However, if you’re considering the purchase of boards and are curious about their differences and similarities, their positives and pitfalls as well as wanting a brief understanding of the basics behind the technology then this page will help you.

It’s just a mouse!

When you sit at a computer and want to control the cursor you might use a mouse; a human interface device that is designed to allow you to activate icons and other features of the software running on your machine. An interactive whiteboard or interactive device is exactly the same thing. It is simply a giant mouse that allows you to control your computer using a large image projected from the front of the classroom. The board itself is not a computer, it does not have a CDRom slot on the side (no matter how hard you look) it relies completely on having a computer or laptop and a data projector working with it. This means that whatever you would normally run from your computer can work with the interactive whiteboard. All of the software that you might run from the comfort of your desk can now be run from the front of the classroom. The left mouse button becomes your finger or pen.

In order to start using your IWB all you need to do, once you have all the wires connected, is to orientate or calibrate it. This involves you running a small program which comes with the software provided by the manufacturer. It allows the computer, the IWB and the projector to work together. By pressing or clicking on each of the cross hairs that appear, you are telling the computer, and therefore the interactive whiteboard/device, exactly where the projected image is. This ensures that when you double click on an icon the computer knows what to do and opens the right application. If your cursor (or little arrow) seems to be too far away from where you are pointing, the chances are that you need to orientate or calibrate the board.

How frequently this process needs to occur will very often depend on the kind of set up you have in your classroom. If you have a permanent installation with a separate projector on the ceiling or wall then you might only need to do this once a day; just to be on the safe side. However, in my experience, having a class of lively students in a room above yours can sometimes mean that the projector wobbles with the ceiling as they move around above you and can mean that you have to calibrate or orientate the board again. For this reason I always opt for the top floor! Alternatively, whiteboards that use either short throw or ultra-short throw projectors lessen the need even further.  IF you opt for an interactive device, like the Epson Interactive Projector, you have even less to worry about in this regard.  The projector is in charge of both the image and the interface device.  That means you calibrate it to the computer not the space.  As long as you are using the same device, you’ll only need to calibrate it once – even if you move it around the room.  There are also models of IWB that have an auto calibration process which lessens the need to do this even further.

With all of the devices, the only other time you may need to calibrate is when you swap from one computer to another.  Remember that the calibration process allows the board to understand where the image and the computer meet.  You are using the board as a big mouse.  If you change the computer then you need to complete the process again so that the board as accurate information.

Pens or fingers?

Until recently the question of whether you wanted to use a pen or a finger seemed to be far more important than how the boards worked. Did you want your students to touch with fingers or a pen? Often you would hear the phrase “horses for courses” banded about as it really was all down to the preference of the school and age group you were teaching.  With the release of Promethean’s new ActivBoard 500 Pro this is no longer a relevant question. It would seem with the popularity of I pads and other capacitive devices, users have been calling out for gestures to be added to the boards.  As such, wanting to be unlimited by the use of two pens, Promethean’s board can now be used with fingers too! It would seem that the hardware for these major brands is starting to line-up a little. Although there are still other differences to consider.

  • SMART boards used to be an analog product that works through a resistive process between two surfaces. The board has membranes between which there is a gap. When you touch the board with your finger or your pen, a signal is sent as you complete the connection between the board and the computer. However, in 2012 they created a whole new type of technology in DViT(Digital Vision Touch). Small cameras are inserted into the corners of the whiteboard and, with the aid of some sophisticated software, calculate the position of what ever device you choose to use – finger, pen, stick.. it doesn’t matter.With the inception of the 800 series,  SMART boards also have the ability to automatically detect the action you wish to use through your gestures.  The larger surface of the palm of a hand activates the eraser automatically; the use of a small surface will behave as a left click and the pen as a drawing tool.  You will also get full capacitive capabilities that come with Windows 7 onwards.
  • Other boards, like Onfinity, Hitachi Star and Mimio use infra-red technology and as a result can turn any surface into an interactive whiteboard. You will need a battery operated pen for this product.
  • We now have a range of devices designed to turn ordinary televisions screens in to interactive surfaces.  This is done through the use of an external device fitted to a frame and allows users to touch the television and interact with it in the same way an IWB does. These devices can only have one user at a time and are controlled by you finger.  They do not have any capacitive qualities.  There is no need for a projector when using this product. This reduces the amount of space needed and if often preferred by users in early years as there is no projector to get in the way of a lowered screen.
  • Promethean have a digital board which contains a microchip in its top left hand corner. Most units require a battery free pen to control it. However, the new Activ Board 500 is similar to the SMART 800 series in that it can be controlled by both pens and touch.  This is done, in the same way, through the use of camera technology. The microchip in the Promethean Activboard is used to send signals between the pen and the computer. However, it also allows the user to keep the hardware up to date, you should not need to replace the whole unit in order to keep up to date – as you have to with SMART.
  • Finally, there is the blossoming market of interactive projectors.  Epson were one of the first that I knew of to produce a projector that does not need a board.  Using camera technology – but this time stored in the projector itself, this type of interactive solution is becoming more and more popular in the classroom.  It will turn any surface into an interactive one and comes as an ultra-short throw with auto calibration.  These now operate with multi-touch too!

It’s more about the software and support.

For all the products available, it is important to focus on the software that is provided. SMART’s Notebook and Promethean’s Activinspire are clearly world leaders and are both excellent solutions for Interactive resource creation. It is often this software, and its subsequent updates, which further teacher’s ability to create engaging, creative resources for their classroom. Despite the board in their teaching area being three or four years old, the updates in the software packages that come with them ensure that lesson resources are kept fresh and exciting as new features are added to the software packages.

Indeed, it is the advancement of the software that works with my board that has allowed me to progress so much with my own abilities. As my pedagogical skills have developed so have the abilities of the Interactive Whiteboard Software I am using. All good teachers love to learn new strategies and methodologies; it keeps us enthusiastic and our teaching fresh. By constantly updating their software, based on feedback from the teachers who use it, the Interactive Whiteboard companies have inspired me to keep working at my own technique. It is for this reason that you should make sure that these updates are free for the lifetime of the product; this is not the case with all manufacturers.

You should also consider the technical support, your budget and the training offered with your purchase. After all, there is little point in investing in an Interactive Whiteboard if your software is out of date in a year, you have to pay for the new version and the budget won’t allow it, no one has offered you any training so you don’t even know how to use it anyway and you can’t afford to buy more than one. It’s at this point that you become in danger of simply using the device to create and deliver teacher led activities rather than the pupil lead, interactive ones you purchased the device for in the first place!

If you want interactive whiteboards to make a real impact on teaching and learning then consistency is the key. Consistency in the type of software you are using will enable teachers to create and share resources with one another – allowing them to accelerate their learning as they discuss and share experiences with their colleagues. Consistency with the way in which the board is used in the classroom will help students to quickly develop the skills they need to feel confident in using the board. Consistency in the ways in which this new technology is rolled out will help ensure that it is used most effectively. For example, research shows that it is more effective to buy boards for one whole department or year group than it is to spread the boards around. By supplying boards to a group of people who work together on similar lessons, you are going to encourage sharing and resource development which will in turn accelerate the rate at which these technologies are used to their full impact in that curriculum area. This expertise can then be disseminated to other departments or year groups, as you find the money to buy more, by those who now have a good deal of experience using them in their own classroom.

Promethean’s Activ Inspire (full version) can only be used on a Promethean IWB, SMART Notebook is only allowed to be used with an approved SMART device so if you have a mixture, you’re stuck with a mixture of software too.  Although it is now possible to save files from one and open them in another – this is still awkward and time consuming. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is provide teachers with software that can be used on any device.  That way the technology is not leading or dictating the practice. If you’re stuck in this situation where you have multiple brands of board and need a piece of software that can be run on all of them, then may I suggest Easiteach Next Generation?

In my experience, Interactive Whiteboards have the ability to help create learning environments which appeal to all learners much more easily than you might be able to without them. There very nature allows kinesthetic, auditory and visual learning to happen all at once. When used well and with careful thought and planning they have the ability to empower teachers to produce lessons with a better pace, a tighter plan and a wider appeal. They help bring learning to life for many disengaged students. They encourage you to create pre-prepared resources, they also allow the teacher the opportunity to carefully consider the best methods they have of creating lessons that will include all the different needs of their learners. If you see the Interactive Whiteboard as another tool in your already thriving arsenal you have a method of pulling together all of your other excellent pedagogy and creating lessons that are better than “outstanding”; they are “fabulous”!

Why not check out my books  on how to get the best from your IWB?

Pedagogically Speaking Tips & Tricks for Promethean's Activ Inspire

Pedagogically Speaking Tips & Tricks for Promethean’s Activ Inspire

Tips and Tricks for SMART Notebook™

Out Now! Tips and Tricks for SMART Notebook™









Last Updated:27-02-2014


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