Whiteboards again

I think I can trace my general indifference towards interactive whiteboards to an observation I carried out about four years ago. The teacher, who has since gone on to great things, was using an interactive whiteboard. She had the students completing some sort of matching task on the board, with the students coming up to move a word to its matching image on the board. Yes, I thought, very flash, but what on earth are the other students doing while they watch one of their colleagues stand up, waaaaaallllkk to the front of the room, fumble with the IWB pen, drag it into position, then waaaaaaaallllk back again, and sit down. The other students not involved in this rather tedious activity were just sitting there, watching other people do something. I’ve seen it since then too, on more than one occasion, and watched the students either agog with awe at this amazing technology, or, more likely, a bit bored.

First up, I’ve got to admit that this wasn’t the best way to be using it, and in the discussion afterwards the teacher and I both acknowledged the entire absence of pace, energy and only the most token of polite engagement from the rest of the class. There are things you can do to enable students to engage with the IWB.

You can have students working in groups then sending up representatives to work on the board. This is especially possible with new developments in IWB technology which enables two students to write at the same time, although I have to admit I’ve never been able to make that work properly,

You can have one student come up and be the board user, although I hate the idea of having a “special” student coming up to do something like that, as if it’s a prize for swottiness, a bit like being the milk monitor.

You can get the whole class to cluster round the board, so that the board works like a large multi user iPad. This is probably only going to work with smaller groups, but it’s a nice idea, and probably my favourite. I’ve had classes work on a text as a whole group before.

It is possible to have the class come up one at a time, but this only really works if the rest of the class are currently engaged in something else, rather than watching the board. I did this once where the students were doing a reading task, and as the students finished, I sent them up to complete the answers on the board so that the rest of the group could check the rest of the answers later.

But that’s more or less it, really, in terms of getting the students to interact with an interactive whiteboard. It actually doesn’t matter what kind of activity it is, because the nature, the size and the position of an IWB means that the types of interactions with it are severely limited, and in fact the most striking use of an IWB would be in the hands of a teacher who has the confidence and experience of using it.

I have to admit, I’m not one of those teachers. Or rather I am one of those teachers, but somehow I haven’t really warmed to them. I quite like using it for drag and drop type stuff, like checking a paper based matching activity, for example, or for revealing and hiding bits of text or images, that sort of thing, but that’s kind of it, really. There are other aspects to it which I find tremendously useful. Things like being able to flip through PowerPoint slides without having to stand by the computer – a small thing perhaps, but it changes the way you work with PowerPoint in a classroom context. Things like being able to have a pdf or word document up of the task the students have been doing and being able to write into it as if it were a piece of paper (and this being much much easier than it ever was on an OHP). Being able to control a video or audio recording without using the mouse. Things like being able to look up a word quickly using image search and then paste that image into a file which the students can quickly access via VLE, although this is being rendered less useful now by the fact that many learners now have Internet access via a smartphone. Why google it for them when they can google it themselves?

And it is that last point which may well end up killing the “interactive” part of the interactive whiteboard. In some lessons, where the students have their own devices, the whiteboard is nothing more than the teacher’s device and the students have control of theirs. Certainly mobile web services like Socrative and PollEverywhere have pretty much killed those awful clunky voting systems that took stupid amounts of time to set up, given their negligible impact on the classroom. That said, some sort of IWB app where the board content also appears remotely on students devices, and can be manipulated from that end would be terrifyingly interesting to explore. It probably already exists, and if it doesn’t the development teams at Promethean and Smart Technologies are probably busy trying to crack it.

I don’t care, particularly, that students don’t interact with the IWB: I think it’s a lot of fuss for minimal positive impact, and often a massive negative impact on pace and engagement. Things would be much easier, of course, if I didn’t have to face the very real prospect of someone who knows little or nothing about using an interactive whiteboard, or worse someone who is so entranced by technology that they can’t see any drawbacks, criticising me for only using it as a projector screen when that was a clear and conscious decision given the size and nature of the class, and the focus and methodology of the lesson. That, however, is a more general point: no observer ever has the right to say that anyone should be using any resource or indeed any technique unless that observer can say precisely why and how it would have made the learning in the lesson better. (Thats probably a whole other blog post right there).

As for my old fashioned whiteboard? Take that from my classroom over my dead body, and I mean that. It’s very telling that the most common way I use the IWB is simply as a digital version of a regular whiteboard: i.e. a surface to write on. This is often not out of choice, but rather because classroom designers now tend to place the IWB centrally in most classrooms, and certainly in the ones I use, it is the most visible display surface in the room. I would still swap an interactive whiteboard for a massive regular one, possibly more so now that this can be augmented with student-based handheld devices like phones and tablets.

I love the ease of use, the smooth writing, the comfortableness of a whiteboard. I love the flexibility of a big white space that can be divided and played with as much as you liked with very little preparation. I love that you can get ideas and content from students as the lesson develops, and you neither have to type it laboriously or leave it scrawled on the board because the interface and the handwriting recognition on the IWB sucks. I love that you can get five or six students writing on a board all at the same time. I love the way that you can build a lesson across a single large whiteboard and then at the end of it see the way that the learning evolved across the lesson. And I love that know almost everyone has a small digital camera and can take pictures of the board in case they missed something.

If I was in charge, I would have two boards, roughly 8ft by 4ft, next to each other with the IWB recessed into the wall so it doesn’t obscure the other. That would be about right for me. I may not love the “interactive” touch screen stuff of the IWB, but I have come to get very used to having PowerPoint on hand, being able to play videos and manipulating texts that the students have as handouts. I’m not sure how easily I could give that up entirely: I’d miss those things most. But given the choice, put a gun to my head, and I think I would go for the old fashioned board. Just.



  1. This may not be an immediately helpful comment – because it doesn’t answer the question “what can a teacher do with a whiteboard?” – but it does answer the more general question, “what can be done with a whiteboard?”. The obvious answer is – “run software on it”. The whiteboard is just a hardware infrastructure. Its utility lies in the software layer. And teachers have never been given the education-specific software that they need in order to make ed-tech work in the classroom. Which is why the endlessly repeated “its not about the technology” aphorism we keep hearing is so ridiculous.

    Actually, there is another bit of the hardware infrastructure which is also missing, which is networking with individual devices. What is happening in the plenary environment should not be seen as something separate from what the children are doing individually. The whiteboard should be networked with what the children are doing on their own devices, controllable by the teacher. That cuts out the waaaaalk and adds pace. And what I think is more significant than the waaaalk is the handing over of the plenary space to the child, who rarely has the presence to keep the attention of the rest of the class, in a productive sense, for long.

    How do you use the network facility? Maybe simple screen-sharing (“have a look at what Sarah has done”) – but maybe a more sophisticated multi-player software in which the individual students send contributions to a plenary version of the work/simulation etc they are doing. None of this software exists – because the orthodoxy is to look to teachers to find innovative uses for bits of kit dumped on them from a height – maybe with a bit of generic operating software attached – and of course teachers are completely incapable of doing that.

    There is nothing wrong with the principle of polling – so long as it is embedded within a valid pedagogical context. Look, for example, at Eric Mazur’s peer mentoring at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5qRyf34v3Q#t=1562. But give teachers a generic polling software, and they cannot generally modify that to use it reliably in a pedagogically meaningful way, any more than they can develop software that makes use of the hardware they have been given. We have to develop high level, pedagogically-specific tools which can be used out-of-the-box. And we never have. Which is why we have so much white-elephant hardware lying around in our classrooms.

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