Whiteboards: A smart choice?

Schools are spending for high-tech gizmos like interactive whiteboards to teach 21st-century students. But it’s not clear the expensive gadgets help teachers teach any better, reports the Washington Post.

Many academics question industry-backed studies linking improved test scores to their products. And some go further. They argue that the most ubiquitous device-of-the-future, the whiteboard — essentially a giant interactive computer screen that is usurping blackboards in classrooms across America — locks teachers into a 19th-century lecture style of instruction counter to the more collaborative small-group models that many reformers favor.

Educational technology spending will total $16 billion next year, analysts estimate.

Nancy Knowlton, the chief executive of SMART Technologies, said that schools are desperate to find ways to engage multi-tasking, tech-savvy kids, who often play video games before they can read and that some “strictly gathered research data,” along with anecdotal evidence, show that her company’s products work.

“[Students] are engaged when they’re in class, they are motivated, they are attending school, they are behaving and this is translating to student performance in the classroom,” she said. “Kids want an energized, multimedia learning experience.”

One in three classrooms will have a whiteboard by 2011.

Teachers and kids like whiteboards a lot, writes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. But research shows students don’t learn more.

In many districts, the technologies have simply been plopped into teachers’ classrooms with minimal or no support. Little wonder that they are not being used as effectively as they could be.

Some teachers have learned how to use whiteboards creatively and well, he writes. They should be identified, funded and asked to teach their colleagues how to use technology to improve learning.

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  1. I use the SMART board in my classroom not to its full potential, but essentially as a large projector for two reasons:

    1) Even though the terms of service specifically say that districts should give the software to teachers to install on their home computers as well, my district won’t install it on anything but one of their machines, and I only use my own laptop. The district supplied laptops are out-of-date and loaded with crap; I won’t rely on them for real work.

    2) I did manage to get a hold of the driver software that I found on their website. The software required 3 constantly running background processes sucking down system resources to run a simple input device. This is unacceptable crapware, and I won’t allow it on my machine.

    I end up doing a large number of my lectures/lessons as Keynote presentations. It takes a bit of time to typeset the equations in LaTeX. It does, however, give me nice big and clear writing. It also makes it much easier to put up tables and graphs. It allows me also to animate visuals, and quadratic equations are always better with flames.

    The students seem to focus pretty well on the board. This also allows me to move around and keep my eyes on my students, only stealing a glance to click the remote to bring up the next line of the equation.

    I enjoy having the device and find it useful. Seeing one put in every classroom while we’ve been on a wage freeze for over half a decade, however, is a little grating.

  2. I do more and more with mine every year. I’d say being able to put the information up while I wander around the room is one the top reasons I like mine. That and the ability to use interactive grammar sites (my kids love Free Rice).

    I can also put up information while kids are working on projects and they can click around websites (the only computer in the classroom is mine) — especially for novels set in unfamiliar places (The Stranger, Persepolis, Dracula, etc.).

  3. “Some teachers have learned how to use whiteboards creatively and well, he writes. They should be identified, funded and asked to teach their colleagues how to use technology to improve learning.”

    In other words: load the people who are good at it up with more work. Even better! Take them out of the classroom and make them an administrator! And have them harass the teachers who would rather use other modes of teaching until they capitulate.

    There is a movement in college teaching that some refer to as “teaching naked” – not using PowerPoint, not using the high tech gizmos, going back to lecture and discussion and just a chalkboard. I admit it sounds tempting at times.

  4. What is up with calling these “white boards”? They aren’t whiteboards. Interactive whiteboards, fine. But you can’t drop the adjective in a world where 99% of all schools have “dry erase boards”, which are universally known as whiteboards.

  5. SuperSub says:

    For me, the main way I evaluate new technology is whether or not it makes my job easier.

    Online gradebooks? Check.
    ELMO units? Check.
    Online homework and assessment sites? Check.

    Interactive whiteboards? I’m a techie so I would love to have one to satify the need to have shiny toys, but I’m not sure it would make my job easier.

  6. Cranberry says:

    My kid claim it depends on the teacher. Some teachers use the smartboards very well, and others don’t use it at all, or use it poorly.

    I am impressed when a teacher uses technology well. One of my kids’ teachers was able to capture the day’s math review work, and send it to the class as an email attachment. That makes sense.

    On the other hand, some teachers use it to show movies frequently. I do not personally consider the addition of frequent videos an improvement. If you show footage of the unrest in Thailand, and discuss the events with the class, wonderful! If you show “Finding Nemo” during class time, not wonderful.

    The cost of adapting to a new classroom technology is underestimated. I’m not speaking of the school’s technology budget. I’m speaking of the instruction time the students lose, while the teachers learn how to use the gadget. My eldest child lost a great deal, in my opinion, because that grade was the grade which was the first to have smartboards, and the first to have the curriculum torn apart to match the state frameworks.

  7. I love Smartboards (agreeing with Cal that “white board” is a misnomer). What makes them great is that you can do things on Smmartboards that you can’t do any other way. For instance: When you put the math problems on the Smartboard and kids come up to show their work, you can save all that for review later. Or email it to the kids who were absent. It’s great for the music teacher because she can bring up a screen with staff lines. I had a kindergarten teacher who used it to show a space shuttle launching as her students climbed into their refrigerator-box-rocket-ship. I know an eighth grader who used it to create an interactive game that let his fellow classmates race to cross the US-Canadian border if they correctly answered questions about his speech on the Underground Railroad.
    Having said all that, if teachers don’t use it– like anything else– it’s money wasted.

  8. A technology should be evaluated not based only on whether it is useful or not, but on where it is *more useful* than other things that could be accomplished with the same amount of money. Unfortunately, too many decisions in all parts of our society are driven by what is cool and fashionable. Education is not the only field susceptible to this, but it seems to be one of the most egregious. See Michael Schrage on sparkly tools.

  9. I had one for the last 2 months of this year. Some pluses:
    * high contrast was easier to see
    * easy ability to save notes, post on website
    * formulas were easier to distinguish with multiple colors
    * backgrounds (periodic table, grid) were very useful
    * ability to run simulations in science was useful
    * could replace the overhead projector for most things

    * took up almost all the writing space – when the system was down, couldn’t write on the board (using regular markers was not possible)
    * tech support could take days, even weeks to fix
    * still mostly passive learning
    * required a lot of prep time for lessons
    * I didn’t feel that I fully exploited it, but didn’t have more time to learn the ins and outs of the board

    Next year, I’ll have a SmartBoard, and plan to work hard to learn and use the features, including recording what is being done on the board, step-by-step (useful for teaching math skills)

  10. Holy cow! I had no idea there were $3,000 “smartboards” in so many classrooms. I find it hard to believe that it could possibly be $2,980 better than a plain, old $20 whiteboard.

    My geometry teacher, back in the day, used a pretty optimal solution: an overhead projector with a roll of acetate film. She would draw the stuff on the roll and advance it as she went. Whenever she had to refer to an earlier diagram, she would just roll back to it. It allowed her to sit and be facing the class rather than have her back to it. Total cost in today’s dollars, about $100. Ability of students to actually see teacher create the content as she went: priceless.

  11. Isn’t there an old saying about the best school being a log with a teacher sitting on one end and the student on the other?

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    What makes them great is that you can do things on Smmartboards that you can’t do any other way. For instance: When you put the math problems on the Smartboard and kids come up to show their work, you can save all that for review later. Or email it to the kids who were absent. It’s great for the music teacher because she can bring up a screen with staff lines. I had a kindergarten teacher who used it to show a space shuttle launching as her students climbed into their refrigerator-box-rocket-ship.

    And yet … at my job we don’t have Smartboards. We do have:
    (a) common dry-erase whiteboards, and
    (b) projectors

    *) We use the projectors to show presentations (usually powerpoint).
    *) If we need to break away from the prepared presentation, we use the whiteboards.
    *) If we need to send the presentation to someone who missed it or just wants to go over it in more detail, we e-mail the PPT file.
    *) If we need to capture the whiteboard results we use the camera in a $200 phone (which everyone except for me seems to have).

    Am I missing something that smartboards can do that we don’t/can’t do with a projector, dry-erase whiteboard and digital camera? I’d like to think that a $3K Smartboard provides something that we don’t get for the ~$1K in technology provided by the dry-erase board, projector and digital camera, but I’m coming up blank.

    -Mark Roulo

  13. Diana Senechal says:

    There are several separate issues here. One is whether the teachers are comfortable with the technology. Another is whether the technology in question is the best tool (at a given cost) for the purpose. Another still is whether we should depend on props, as handy as they may be.

    It is good not to be daunted by the technological tools. Once you have learned a few, it is very easy to learn others–the “user” skills are not all that involved. Some of the challenge in the classroom is purely logistical: getting things hooked up properly, making sure the interactive board is calibrated, etc.

    As for the best tools, they may not be the newest or glitziest, as David Foster points out. There are far too many companies pushing their wares on schools, and schools and teachers have every right and responsibility to be wary. Wariness of such marketing is not the same as fear.

    Finally, there is something to be said for not depending on technology–for being able to sit with a book and need nothing else. Not all the time, of course, but perhaps more of the time than we allow. And writing with pen or pencil on paper involves a different kind of thinking from writing on laptops and interactive boards. You are forced to wrestle with the words when you can’t delete and move them at will.

  14. georgelarson says:

    Do teachers prefer use of a smart board or being paid $3,000 more that year?

  15. Mike Curtis says:

    I’ve been teaching high school math for over a decade. My experience has been, that up to and including 1st year Algebra, math can be effectively taught and assessed with no more technology than a dirt floor and a stick. Using scientific calculators, Power points, and teachers manipulating quadratic graphs across a smartboard screen using their finger/cursor, do not help students learn…instead, they distract students from learning/remembering how to solve mathematical problems for themselves.

  16. I’m the only teacher at my school, maybe even my district, with a chalkboard.

    I’m afraid the day might come when chalk won’t be for sale–just like typewriter ribbon and Polaroid film.

    I like the dark green. It gives me a good feeling.

    Portraits of Washington and Lincoln are on the wall. There’s the American flag. A globe of the world sits on a cabinet. My desk is made out of real wood.

    There are no computers, except the one I’m forced to take roll on.

    I have a wastepaper basket, not a recycling bin.

    Gosh, they used to want to get rid of me because I was a radical. Now they want to get rid of me because I don’t recycle.

    Times sure change.

  17. Ruth Joy says:

    I agree completely with David Foster— technology should do something that can’t be accomplished at all or as well in a simpler (and cheaper) way. That’s why I’m a SmartBoard fan. For instance: When kids are engrossed in a project– say, figuring out a math problem– and the period ends, you can save all their work and pick it up the next day. You can’t do that with a blackboard.

  18. Mark Roulo says:

    You can’t do that [save all their work and pick it up the next day] with a blackboard.

    How about with a roll of butcher paper?

    -Mark Roulo


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