Monday, January 5, 2009

Electronic Whiteboards - A Wise Choice?

by Ron Smith, MLTI/eMINTS Region 3

As a educator who currently has the opportunity to work with staff members in schools across Washington and Hancock Counties, I receive many requests to deliver electronic whiteboard sessions. I always enjoy these sessions, as they tend to be rather fun, fast paced, and hands-on. Educators typically come away excited about using the whiteboard with students.

I recently read this blog post by Wesley Fryer and it’s accompanying comments (by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez, among others) that reflected a lively debate about electronic whiteboard use. The overall tone of the debate (particularly by Stager) was very anti-whiteboard. Some of the more interesting points expressed were:

(1)An electronic whiteboard, by its very nature, promotes a very teacher centered classroom environment. Essentially, from a pedagogical standpoint, there is no difference between a electronic whiteboard and a chalkboard.

(2)The cost of the whiteboard is simply not justified. Limited resources most certainly could be spent in a wiser manner.

(3)Purchasing an electronic whiteboard represents an easy, highly visible, and ultimately unwise representation of creating the illusion of a 21st Century learning environment. Decision makers can quickly point to this purchase as a way of demonstrating their commitment to promoting technology in their schools.

What are your reactions to these assertions? What are some ways in which electronic whiteboards can be used in a true student-centered classroom environment? Are they a good investment for our schools?


SJ said...

I currently have a Smartboard in my classroom mounted on the wall with the projector mounted to the ceiling. This is the ideal Smartboard situation. I am a middle school math teacher and I use my Smartboard on a daily basis, it is humming away all day long. The Smartboard benefit for myself and my students is that all of the examples that I put on the board they can have at their fingertips within seconds. At the end of every class I email to my students a PDF version of that lesson. As we work through the chapter they go back through and look at my examples. My students respond well to this and find all of this helpful.

Jim Burke said...

Ron,thanks for the post.

As you know, I also receive many requests in the Western Maine area for SmartBoard trainings. And they do create quite a splash and energize teachers, but my opinion has always been, that given X amount of dollars (finite resources), I would prefer to see projectors in all classrooms than the combination in just a few. But you know that about me as well. Maybe that's why I've been dragging my feet on this Smartboard certification thing. Arghhhh! ;)

Great discussion on Wes Fryer's blog. Even though Gary Stager often irritates me with his sometime misplaced confrontational style, the guy really gets me to think about so many issues. This is one of them.

What fascinates me more in the electronic whiteboard and/or tablet world is the multi-touch technology that will eventually be coming our way, allowing us all to to sculpt and manipulate objects fluidly directly by touch rather than a mouse click (or finger point/drag) method. The whole idea of being able to mold something electronically fascinates me.

Anyhow, Ron, thanks again for the post. It is very worthy of discussion. Waiting for your next one! :)


Jim Burke said...

Sarah . . . you geek! ;) You always make such good use of the tools in your repertoire. Keep up the great work.

Sarah's blogs are here:


Jim Burke said...

Sarah. . .time that you offer us a post here on Learning in Maine. Wadja say? :)


Ron Smith said...

SJ -

Thanks for your response. I agree that having the projector ceiling mounted, as well as a permanently affixed board is essential to actually making use of it. I have seen classrooms/schools where this is not the case, and typically the board(s) sits idle. I can appreciate the benefits of a board in the math setting you described. - Ron

Ron Smith said...

Jim -

Agreed about Mr. Stager's style - he really seems like he is out to pick a fight.

However, I also agree he does make you see things from a different perspective at times.

Cathy Garland said...

I believe that the discussion to use or not to use a whiteboard is only a small part of the real question.

The real question is how far can teachers utilize current or cutting-edge technology to help students learn better and prepare them for their next challenge (i.e. college, work, real life, etc.)

If, for example, the corporate world uses whiteboards and live audio-video for corporate meetings, shouldn't we help college students use the same technology? If, in another example, college students must take online courses (due to over-populated campuses or work schedules), shouldn't we help K-12 students learn to do the same?

There are key skills to be learned with each of the new technologies emerging. It's not about the technology itself really.

Can students build networks? Can they communicate well - wether face to face or in a chat room? Can they participate in a collaborative effort to map a project or their own knowledge on a project? Can they function in the highly-technology-saturated world?

Carl Anderson said...

If Gary is picking a fight it is a fight that is worth picking. Most schools have tight budgets. An interactive whiteboard is expensive. For the cost of placing one of these in every classroom is by no means justified especially when they clearly promote and reinforce a detrimental pedagogy. By districts buying into this technology as a way to say they are in with 21st Century learning they are missing the boat completely, diverting resources to a sinking ship, and ignoring research that shows student-centered learning is far more effective than a talking head in front of the classroom. All of this in the era of data driven decision making. Unbelievable.

Also, if an interactive projected display is so important than why spend all the money for a board when you can accomplish the same result with a small hack of the Wii remote and a little bit of free software from Johnny Lee.

sylvia martinez said...

Hi Ron,
Glad you picked up this conversation.

I do think it's important to look distinctly at the two major lines of argument for and against whiteboards.

1. Objection on pedagogical grounds. This argument is about whether the IWB reinforces an instructionist, front of the room style of teaching. While it's true that a handful of teachers find ways to use IWBs in different ways, you have to look at the vast majority of use. It's also pretty clear that if you don't have strong feelings about this type of instruction being bad, this argument won't be relevant to you.

2. Cost. This line of argument could be summed up as a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) argument. Based on my own, admittedly non-scientific visits to classrooms, I would guess that about 50% of IWBs are being used as projector screens, 30% are not being used at all, and the rest (20%) are being used in a way that is at least somewhat interactive.

Without judging the pedagogy AT ALL, you would have to say this is dismal. If these numbers are right, 80% of your money has gone to waste, making the TCO for each $2,000 IWB more like $10,000 each. In other words, you are paying for 5 IWBs to get one that is used for more than a projector screen.

So the answer to this line of argument is to either pay less (such as the Wiimote do it yourself version) or get teachers to use it more. However, does PD really get teachers to use them more, and how expensive is that? And what would be an acceptable outcome? Only having a TCO of 3 times the actual cost instead of 5 times? That doesn't sound so great either.

I think all schools who have purchased IWBs owe it to themselves to do a careful inventory and observation to determine if their investment was worth it. Make a rubric, stand in classrooms, and count it up. If IWBs are worth the money, prove it.

Just stating that "some" teachers use them well and banking on the prestige factor (the superintendent with the most IWBs wins!) won't do it.


As far as the Wii hack goes, I'd say hack away! If you can make one and can make it work (using the free, but basic software) you are ready and capable of using it. Not many teachers are willing to invest in learning this, and of course, Smarboards are more fun.
This is not to promote a particular brand, it's just a fact. However, I do believe that the critical part is how you are going to use it. If you use for presentations only, that's one thing. It does improve the quality of presentation and level of engagement - albeit, at a great price - but essentially doesn't change the teacher-centered approach. If you let kids use it, to either explore or present something, it's a bit a different feel already, would you agree? Students can be working independently using the Smartboard while a teacher is leading a little workshop with another group of students, then they switch.
As always, more creative, more committed to teaching minds will find creative and effective uses for these. The manipulation part is wonderful on its own.

aireland said...

In my opinion, the Wii hack is a great thing for students to work with but not so great as a cheap replacement to the purchase of an IWB for permanent placement in a classroom. It would get a projector in the classroom so Jim would be good with that step (as am I but just as a first step). And in the interest of full disclosure I will say that the teacher in the front of the classroom is not offensive to me. I am more interested in what is accomplished by the teacher and students regardless of where the teacher is in the room. Merely having a student in the front of the room or having a teacher not be front and center is not a reliable indicator of teaching philosophy and guiding pedagogy.

Olga hit on an important point in the IWB discussion that goes beyond the cost argument (which is specious anyway) and that is the multi-level use of the IWB by both teachers and students. How the IWB is used will change over time with PD and experience. The power to reach a learner on a deep level is the true strength of the tool. Combining all the modalities (including kinesthetic)in one tool is worth the price. Valuing the potential inherent in the tool and the professional using it or planning its use is priceless. Very little is less inspiring to most teachers than to give them bubble gum and baling wire and expecting them to live down to the not so subtle expectation implicit in the gesture.

Ed Latham said...

Olga, you are right in that usage of the whiteboards independently and in ways that take advantage of the manipulation part is great, but in the last 3.5 years I have been training teachers and schools to use these boards, I have seen a very low percentage of teachers able to utilize some of the teaching strategies that take advantage of these great tools. I am upset that I have not been recording data along the way, but I conjecture that over 90% of the usage of interactive whiteboards I have seen in classes over 3.5 years could all be done with a mounted projector in the classroom. I feel, as does Jim, that schools need to work on getting mounted projectors in first (make sure you have one SMART Board in system though to take advantage of their wonderful software!) and let teachers learn how to extend their teaching habits to more interactive or independent uses. As teachers can consistently demonstrate ideas that extend the capabilities of the projector set up, the districts can now start focusing funding on expensive stuff like whiteboards. I have seen so many systems stuff a whiteboard in a classroom with a teacher that does not utilize that technology much beyond a projector and marker board in the classroom would provide.

With all that said, I did have the pleasure of working with one young lady that really does use the interactive white board to revolutionize the way her classroom runs. She has changed the way she plans, teaches, assesses progress and evaluates students all in ways REQUIRE the use of her interactive board. Her class is simply amazing and it is a joy to work with her every chance I get. Had she not received the interactive board and the critical training she received, she would have a vastly different classroom.

I question if the huge investment right off the bat helps to develop those great environments eventually and therefore the initial investment may be worth it. In contrast I have been to one room where the teacher shares that he/she has not even turned on the interactive board all year (this is January now). Teachers are such a wide ranging bunch as are most any group of people. Some strategies will work great and some tools work great for particular individuals. With that logic, I propose that systems invest in mounted projector that can do over 90% of what I have seen done may be a much better usage of limited resources in today's schools.

aireland said...

Maybe the discussion shouldn't really be about the tool but rather the willingness and ability of educators to create a learning environment at all. Technology won't make a poor teacher into a good teacher or a god teacher into a great teacher but can help a great teacher stay enthused, engaged and developing professionally.

Carl Anderson said...

Why does there have to be a front of the classroom at all?

Teacher in front of the classroom vs. student in front of the classroom implies that a learning environment needs this kind of orientation.

New technologies always change the way something is done. For years schools have tried to cram computer technologies (including peripherals like IWBs) but especially the internet into a pedagogical and system structure that these technologies ultimately render either inadequate or outdated. This begs the question then, "What does 21st Century Learning look like?" That is the question districts should ask themselves before going out and investing huge sums of cash on these toys.

A true 21st century classroom has no front, each student moves along at their own pace in a student directed course of learning utilizing multiple resources including but not limited to digital technologies. Each student in a 21st century classroom has their own personal learning plan (PLN) that addresses their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, and motivation. In a 21st century classroom students with learning disabilities are usually indistinguishable from the rest of the population because essentially all students have an IEP. In a 21st century classroom a teachers role is more that of advisor than instructor. In a 21st century classroom there is no need for bell schedules and the lines between fields of study are blurred just as they are in real life. In a 21st century school there is no differentiation between grade levels, students move along at their own pace according to their own intellectual, physical, and emotional developmental readiness. This eliminates the research supported argument against retention while not advancing a student who is not ready. In a 21st century classroom students work on projects that address learning standards and objectives in an authentic way so as to promote transfer of learning and learning for understanding.

When a school district looking to promote 21st century classrooms has achieved such an environment for their students and an IWB is deemed necessary to improve student learning then and only then can an IWB be looked upon as an example of implementing 21st Century Learning.

aireland said...

Who decided what a 21st century classroom should look like and how it should function? Certainly some of what was said in the earlier post can be agreed with but what this has to do with learning in any specific century is questionable. Might we be confusing adult learning needs with that of children's learning needs?

Carl Anderson said...

21st century education is distinguished by what the disruptive technologies not available before make possible and/or what they render unnecessary. How is the environment I described not addressing children's learning needs? I would love to hear some other descriptions of 21st century education. So many times this buzz phrase gets used but rarely is a clear description or vision of it provided.

There are plenty of schools doing exactly what I describe that in my view are more 21st century than IWBs in the classroom. For more info see:

Carl Anderson said...

That url got cut off, here it is as a link: Project Based Learning: Mummified Chicken, Mutant Frogs, and ...

Jim Burke said...

Thanks for the link, Carl. I'm enjoying this discussion.

Question: Is there room for instructivism in your vision? In other words, is it pure constructivism/Connectivism without any "just-in-case" learning?


Carl Anderson said...

What I advocate for is a blend approach. The video I shared is from EdVisions and their schools are almost 100% project-based. However, they have been reporting that most of their schools are moving to some instructivist classes for math. What I see in both the EdVisions model and our traditional model is an anomaly. The traditional system is ill equipped to deal with disruptive innovation and is ill equipped to address every student learning need. If you accept Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences you have to concede that not every class provides the optimal learning environment for every student. This is where I believe a blend or rather a sponsored disruption can come into play. If, for instance, a charter school were started, sponsored by an independent school district that operated under the EdVisions model but was physically located within the traditional school (perhaps geographically dispersed among many schools but connected digitally) where students could dual enroll to fit their own learning style, needs, interests, etc. then students could have it both ways. A school system could be restructured in such a way as to keep what is done best in both environments. Such a system would validate constructivist and progressive theories by academics like Gardner, Maslow, Piaget, Caine & Caine, and Dewey, as well as behaviorist theories for learning such as those trumpeted by Skinner. The technology allows us to have it both ways and truly support all learning modalities while providing for little overhead our traditional schools with the ability to compete with the disruptive innovation (Clayton Christensen) of personalized learning.

Zohair said...

This is an incredibly lively and intelligent discussion. It must be that I'm new to educational blogs, but I've never seen such activity on a blog before.

Regarding interactive whiteboards, I wonder if there's a middle ground. The hardware whiteboards are far too expensive, but -given many classrooms have projectors already (and if they don't, they should)- why not simply use software whiteboards? I'm using the term "software whiteboard" to refer to a piece of software that can run on the computer connected to the projector. Disclaimer: I work at a company that's trying to make the world's best software whiteboard ( Dabbleboard).

I apologize if this sounds like a shameless plug, but I'm genuinely interested: wouldn't a good software whiteboard offer 80% of the benefit of a hardware one? Is the intuitive feeling of touching a large physical surface really so important, or is it just a nice-to-have? How can we get the best bang-for-the-buck?

Carl Anderson said...


I have to give your product an endorsement. I love Dabbleboard. However, software whiteboards and electronic whiteboards are not really comparable. IWBs really are more about touch surface interactive display while software whiteboards are primarily a collaborative device. I do have to say though, the one time we got the most out of our IWBs was when we used them in conjunction with Dabbleboard in our building to do a collaborative activity between multiple classrooms.

Zohair said...

@Carl, thanks for the endorsement! Clearly interactivity is important, but I still wonder why the _touch_ aspect of IWBs matters so much. The interactivity comes for "free" from the computer+software, but the touch panel costs a lot. What if the teacher and students could just use an air mouse (like the Logitech MX Air or the Gyration ones) with a projector?

Jim Burke said...

Related discussion: