This started life as a general post about technology but I realised that it was actually about whiteboards: a show down, more or less between what we shall, for the sake of argument, call “normal” whiteboards, and “interactive” whiteboards. These are not good designators: “interactive” boards are increasingly normal, and “normal” boards can be extremely interactive. However, they will do for now, until I can come up with a better distinction.
“Normal” whiteboards (non-digital?)
The definition of technology which I use is a very broad definition. Pens are technology, writing itself by any method is technological. And nothing unsettles me more than teaching without a normal, well sized whiteboard and a bunch of pens. I get seriously uncomfortable. I’d say my ESOL teaching “style” has moved in the last five years or so from a teacher and outcome driven “delivery” model, to a more “explore and discover” model. Language is not there to be passed on, as such, but to be explored through exposure and analysis. Certainly, based on my own experiences, “chalk and talk” in an ESOL class is much less effective than “discover.” And I like to draw from and connect to learner experience and interest. And for me, a regular whiteboard is a better facilitator (at the moment) of this: it takes no preprogramming, is easy to develop effective use of (something which I realise we should spend more time on in ITT courses), doesn’t drop out of alignment, doesn’t crash, works in a power cut (during daylight anyway!) and all those things.
Interactive whiteboards (Digital?)
I should start this with the reflection that this is single object which has transformed the way I work the most since starting. Simple matching activities become more interesting in teacher led feedback, you can get students to work with live text, and accurately recreate the same image on the board which the learners have in front of them. The are just so many different things they can do.
It’s worth mentioning that there are, at the moment, limitations. I say “at the moment” because the technology has moved on very quickly. I can remember using early IWBs and finding it very challenging to write on, with clunky software and an unreliable pen tool (it was an early Promethean board, I think). My first proper experience with one was a Smartboard (incidentally you can always tell what people are most familiar with when they talk about IWBs: some people call it Smartboard as a generic term, some just “that board thing” which implies they are mainly familiar with the Promethean boards). Brief pros and cons: love the pens on Smartboards, love the touchscreen facility (you don’t even need the pens if you don’t want them) and a much much much more intuitive set of software, including generally excellent text recognition. Problems with Smartboards: just one big one: alignment. Promothean boards are,in my experience, single board+projector units and so rarely go out of alignment, and the pen writing function is clearer and sharper than Smartboards ever were. However, the software is bloated, non intuitive, and, well, a bit rubbish. The flip chart software is the most inappropriately named software ever: called “ActiveInspire,” it is active almost to the extent of hyperactive (what seem to be twenty different options appear when you select a bit of text, for example, and simple handwriting recognition is buried in a menu, like everything else seems to be), and it is about as inspiring as an Excel spreadsheet showing student data for 2008. it goes wrong because it tries too hard to do too many things and doesn’t do any of them terribly well. To be totally geeky, it’s like the difference between Nokia’s now defunct and over complex mobile operating system, Symbian, and the elegant and intuitive iOS.
Either way, they have a little way to go before they could become complete replacements for a whiteboard for me. I want a more responsive touchscreen, preferably with iPad-like multitouch capabilities (which, I should add, is actually available, just not widely, or cheaply). I want to be able to turn, pick up a pen and write, not wait for ten minutes while it all boots up, and not just use a bunch of preprepared slides. That’s what PowerPoint is for. And at the moment, IWB technology doesn’t lend itself to quick notes, drawing daft pictures to explain vocabulary or grammar. But, says the not-actually-a-teacher-tech person, what about Google Images? Unfortunately, that only really works for clear concrete concepts with some universality to them – it’s worth exploring the concept of “prototypes” here. Even concepts as apparently universal as tree and vegetable can vary from culture to culture: what pops into your head as a typical vegetable? A bland bit of clip art or photo is also much less fun (for which read memorable and motivating) for the students than watching their teacher, pictionary style, trying to sketch out a concept using their own limited drawing skills while trying to explain and support it.
So for me, I’d rather have the “normal” board than the “interactive”. In effect, a perfect IWB would be, more or less, an iPad writ large, including the famous absence of an off switch. Do that and I might swing the other way.