Interactive whiteboards are not an answer in themselves

Interactive whiteboards (IWB) are rapidly making their way onto the ‘must have’ list for many schools.

In the same way that computers became imperative, IWBs are gradually being seen as a fait accompli for the classroom. There is a certain amount of sense to this. The advantages that IWBs offer tie in very closely with the overall integration we see happening with technology in general.

To explain to the uninitiated, an IWB is essentially a giant mouse pad with a screen, a device somewhat akin to the tablet PC (without the PC) but with ‘touch screen’ functionality. So essentially all we are doing with an IWB is driving the software that lives on your computer in the same way you do with a mouse.

As the world goes digital, one bastion at a time, it seems like a natural progression for the classroom to follow suit. Indeed, there is pressure at a curriculum level to increase the ICT ability of students, and not just in what we used to call computer studies, but across all subject areas. No mean feat! For this to happen, teachers will need to invest many hours of their already pressured time to obtain the curriculum in a digital format. To quote a line from the movie The Mission, ‘We live in a world, and the world is thus.’ It’s just what teachers in this day and age have to do … right? Well, that may be the case, but will that change anything from a learning point of view? Probably not!

How then do we employ this technology to better enhance learning and thus student outcomes? The answer lies at the pedagogical level. Imagine, if you will, a talented, enthusiastic teacher (much like yourself) standing at the front of the classroom guiding a room full of young minds through the complexities and nuances of a subject area. At our teacher’s disposal is a wealth of activities and images a mere click or two away. As a science teacher, it has often been necessary to disappear into the prep room to retrieve a video or poster that will help to illuminate a particular point or bring alive this new tangent we’ve found ourselves on thanks to a great question from the third row. Imagine being able to retrieve these resources (and better ones – imagine interactive posters!) while remaining in front of the class. Or, on those rare occasions when our talented teacher doesn’t know the answer, the class can turn into a live demonstration of how to find an answer (that sounds like The Habits of Mind – we are really cooking here!). Imagine all the possibilities, of which these are but a glimpse.


A demonstration of the ‘touch screen’ functionality on an IWB

As we venture into a new topic, our teacher can be collecting information from various sources and building a document that details this particular journey of discovery. The teacher can become less of an expert and more of a facilitator (gulp) in the learning process, guiding the overall direction and highlighting important landmarks along the way. In doing so, the ownership of the content may shift more to the students than the teacher – a powerful factor in achieving higher student outcomes. This newly created document then becomes very useful for review purposes and for creating any assessment pieces. We could get students to prepare supporting documents relating to different aspects or highlights that we can then link to from within the core document. At the end of the topic, have students create a summary document or a table of contents.

IWB Net refers to the interactive whiteboard as a ‘Digital Convergence Hub’. Quite a mouthful! What it means is that the IWB can become the point of access to an increasingly wide range of ‘digital learning objects’. These can range from simple Word or PowerPoint documents to fully interactive software packages such as Easiteach or Crocodile Clips or … I’m sure you can think of a myriad of other applications. Then there’s all those DVDs in the science department, and those really great YouTube clips you’ve saved or The Le@rning Federation content your Curriculum Coordinator has squirreled away on the intranet somewhere.


A group of teachers peer teaching

Digital infrastructure and organisation is obviously a critical component of this ‘Hub’ idea. There are content management solutions out there that can help with that, such as Command Systems DVC or ClickView (to name but two). Our teacher is able to access a range of these ‘digital learning objects’ quickly and efficiently and in doing so cater to a wide range of learning styles in the classroom. This idea of covering the different learning styles, I believe, is a big factor in the benefits list for IWBs.

The clincher for all of this is making teachers aware of these resources, and helping them to get comfortable with using them and the IWB itself. This becomes the responsibility of the school and the teacher in concert with one another. The placement of the boards in a school should be such that a teacher can have regular access. This is more a note for secondary schools. I’ve had discussions with schools that have chosen to put the IWB in a common classroom or a bookable space (especially when a limited number are purchased). This can actually create a barrier to use (this is borne out in discussions I’ve had after the fact). The first question to ask here is, ‘How often is any one teacher going to get access to the board?’ We need to look at this with our pragmatic hats on. If any one teacher is only going to get two hours a week or a fortnight in front of the IWB, how likely are they to invest the large amounts of time usually required in the ramp-up phase? On the other hand, if someone has a whole subject in front of the board, then surely there is a greater chance of them developing some digital lessons and exploring the various applications available to that subject. This may/will mean you have to limit the number of users. The research indicates that regular access is a key factor in effective use. You’re better off having a handful of champions than a staffroom full of disinterest.



© Scott Watkins, 2008
We acknowledge the author and DIB Australia as the source.
For more information on interactive whiteboards, contact DIB Australia on (03) 9457 4800.
Reprinted here with permission.