Bye-bye blackboards

While “individualized, self-directed online learning is all the rage,” schools are rushing to buy interactive whiteboards put “the teacher front and center” with an updated chalkboard, writes Mike Petrilli in Education Next’s blog.

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.

Critics complain the whiteboards are expensive ways to support “stand-and-deliver instruction” instead of student discovery and collaboration.

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.

With school budgets shrinking, the day of the interactive whiteboard may be waning, Petrilli writes. These technologies will survive only “if they allow teachers to be just as effective with a class of 30 students as a class of 20” by increasing engagement.

I can hear teachers saying: You mean a class of 42 instead of a class of 34. I’m curious: Are interactive whiteboards worth the cost? If it’s a choice between whiteboards and slightly smaller classes, a longer school day, more books, more field trips  or the idea of your choice, what would deliver the most brains for the buck?

About Joanne


  1. I am the only teacher at my school that has a chalkboard.

    When my school underwent “modernization,” I insisted that my chalkboards remain.

    (I’m highly allergic to the ink used in the whiteboard markers.)

    Unfortunately, my classroom is now the only place my students have ever seen a chalkboard and the novelty of it is a continual distraction.

    Maybe I should put a typewriter on my desk and see if that pushes them over the edge.

  2. “I’m highly allergic to the ink used in the whiteboard markers.”

    That’s interesting. The reason given out our local school for banning chalkboards in favor of whiteboards is that students are allergic to chalk.

  3. Kevin Smith says:

    There are far cheaper ways to accomplish the same function as a Smart board than an actual Smart board. MIMIO bars cost only $800 and are portable, Interwrite pads cost $400 and can be moved around the room (and handed to a student at their seat), and the grand daddy of savings, the Wii interactive white-board can be set-up for $80 apiece. While I see the interactive white-board as a useful instructional technology, the high end versions are a waste.

  4. What I want to know is, what happens when construction in the area cuts the fiber-optic cable carrying the Internet signal (as happened in my classroom building one week)? Or if the network goes down? Or if hackers get in?

    I can still teach with a chalkboard and chalk. I doubt I could so easily with a non-functional “smart” board.

  5. I am not a big fan of smart boards, but then I am notoriously low tech as a teacher–surprising, given that I was a computer consultant for years. I don’t much care for hardware.

  6. Correction: Students are not allergic to chalk, as it is non-organic. The whiteboard markers are odious, though, and I hate them.

    I do like SmartBoards, though I cannot possibly find one that costs anywhere near $5000 – a 7foot one is $2500.

    That said, I begged and pleaded for them to leave the chalkboards in my room – to no avail. Whiteboard came in. I hate it.

    I would make very good use of a SmartBoard if I had one though. They are wonderful tools.

    They suck as teachers. Wonderful Tools.

    They can be game changers in the same way that Internet replaced the Encyclopedia and a PC replaced the typewriter, gradebook and slide projector, overhead, movie projector, TV and VCR/DVD, announcements, radio or other noisemaker. Not changed for the better necessarily but changed nonetheless.

  7. Ponderosa says:

    I’m delighted to hear that I’m not the only one who hates whiteboards. Two days ago, when I had to purchase new Expo markers (with my own money) because the dang things run out so frequently, I couldn’t help but think about how cheap chalk is by comparison. The $7 I spent on four markers would have kept me in chalk for years. Whiteboards are yet another example of how the private realm has learned to funnel public dollars into its pockets.

    By the way, I firmly believe that the regular (as opposed to “low-odor”) markers are neurotoxins. The studies have not been done yet, but eventually the truth with come out. Anything that makes you dizzy when you smell it should be avoided.

  8. My building has Promethean ActivBoards installed in all classrooms. I tried installing the software on my MacBook Pro, but removed that crapware after 5 minutes. Having 3 constantly running processes for a simple input device is just programming incompetence. Instead, I use it as simply a giant external monitor.

    This allows me to do my lectures as presentations on the screen, instead of scribbles on a board. It’s great for showing graphs, and animations are a big help. It captures the students attention better than simply writing on the board, and they always know where to look. The whiteboard itself I use, then, for working with students during class, and for reviewing problems.

    It’s a lot of work to set up, by I enjoy it, and the kids seem to as well.

  9. Kevin Smith says:

    Ricki – Smartboard lessons don’t depend on Internet access, so I don’t think that would have any effect on lessons.

    Curmudgeon – Google “Wii Remote Whiteboard” and see if you couldn’t work that out in a budget. If your school has an LCD projector for you to use you’ll be golden after only $80.

  10. Myself, I’d like to have a document camera instead of my hard-to-focus overhead that requires me to make transparencies or use special markers. Not likely.

    I am one of those out there sensitive to chalk dust. It’s an irritant, even more so than those markers. Smart boards aren’t going to happen to me any time soon (as a specialist), but the content area teachers who have them find them to be very effective even with the larger classes. Plus it’s a more effective way to use DVDs or streaming video from your computer.

  11. Katharine, yes, it’s kind of interesting.

    Some people are allergic to chalk dust. I had an 8th grade math teacher who had to use a chalk holder.

    Oh, but those whiteboard markers. If I just get one whiff of them, my head spins and I’m laid out flat for the next 12 hours.

    When I enter another teacher’s classroom, I can only stay there for a few minutes if there’s a pen uncapped.

  12. Diana Senechal says:

    Like many technology tools, SmartBoards are good for certain things at certain times. But when a school invests in them, it often wants the teachers to use them frequently, if not daily. That is a problem. If things essentially tangential to the subject become mandatory, then we have a lot of distractions. Sure, it would be possible to make every lesson into a SmartBoard lesson. But sometimes it’s good to turn the gadgets off and pay attention to a book, a problem, an idea, or whatever it might be.

    As for the clickers, they, too, have their advantages and disadvantages. They are useful for gauging student comprehension at various checkpoints. But the results can be deceptive. Some students aren’t good at quick responses. (I am in some situations and not in others.) Sometimes the lesson hasn’t had time to sink in yet (that’s part of what homework is for). I have seen clickers in action, and when they are inobtrusive and used sparingly, they’re fine. But again, if a school buys them, it’ll probably want teachers to use them a lot.

  13. prometheus says:

    It is nice to be able to be at the front of the room, using what is essentially a computer with a great big monitor that everyone can see easily.

    That being said, although Smartboards are fun, given the choice of larger classes as a consequence, I’ll leave them out and keep the smaller classes, thanks.

  14. Well, isn’t that the problem with ed? We want *one* thing to bring results when actually the interplay of many factors is required.

    I like my Smartboard. Do tons of stuff with it. I don’t use it every day, though. One lovely thing about converting my lectures to powerpoints is that I face the class when I do my lectures — turning your back on 16-year-olds to write can be a dicey proposition — if we’re honest, we call that classroom management, not “engagement.” Also great for meeting the requirements of IEPs that require teacher provided notes, multiple modes of presentation, etc. About 25% of my kids any given year have this sort of IEP.

    Oh, and I LOVE my genuine slate chalkboard. Nothing feels the same to write on. And my small classes (usually around 20). And the fact that I can pretty much buy any set of books I want. Hmm. We’re a top district again, why?

  15. tim-10-ber says:

    AS a parent — been there, bought numerous boards for the school via the PTO only for the money to be WASTED as the board sat in closets after the principal that begged for them retired/fired from the district! UGH!! Let the schools buy them and not waste parents money.

    A private school in my city uses them to record the notes and have them on the internet for the students to access later…

    I prefer my kids having laptops —

  16. I have a laptop connected to a document camera/lcd projector. It’s a fairly handy setup, even more so than an overhead. A *big* improvement is that I can be out of the way when I write, instead of directly in front of the screen as I was with an overhead.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: New blog post: Bye-bye blackboards […]