Interactive Whiteboards – balancing the debate


The debate around the use of interactive whiteboards is one that appears to polarize educators wherever i go – people either love them or loathe them. A couple of posts I read over the weekend have left me feeling that we need some sort of balance in the debate – and certainly some clarity of thought about what the issues actually are.

Take for instance Tim Stahmer’s post titled “maybe the board’s not that smart” in which he expresses his objections. He states:

I came away still not seeing the value of paying all that money (around $1000 plus the cost of the projector) for something with limited instructional purpose.

Herein lies one problem – Tim is regarding the board as an instructional device.

Gary Stager reiterates this point in his post titled Classroom Vice; he states:

My greatest concern about conflating “interactive” whiteboards with modernity is that this new technology creates a fossil record of ancient pedagogical practices. The whiteboards represent a pre- Gutenberg technology that reinforce the dominance of the front of the room. The priest chants from the “interactive” whiteboard while the monks take dictation on their tablet PCs.

Sadly, I’d agree with many of the observations included by these two, I’ve seen plenty of examples of the poor use of these tools – use of drill and practice-type activities, reliance on them as ‘motivation’ devices, and dependence on the templates provided by the developers etc. All true – bust surely there’s more to it?

in the same post, however, Stager states:

I applaud Supt. Vallas for his commitment to 1:1 computing. The portability, functionality and power of a modern laptop in the backpack of a student by definition challenges many of our notions of school.

The assumption here is that, somehow, a 1:1 computing option (presumably laptops for portability) is a better option because they They enable learning to occur anytime, anywhere across subject boundaries; at home and in the community; on nights and weekends.

Now I’m not going to disagree with this in principle, but, like my observation of the poor use of interactive whiteboards, I’ve seen equally poor use of student laptops, particularly where these are viewed as “instructional tools” by the teacher! In a recent research project here in NZ the researcher spoke to me of comments from students who were told to “close their laptops while I’m talking”, or that “schools desks are for books, not laptops”!

Surely the issue is not about the technology but about the pedagogical practice? As long as we have an “instructivist” approach to the use of any technology in our classrooms we’ll face the same concerns, no matter what the technology is.

I’ve seen some wonderfully creative and innovative classroom programmes where students are using laptops as personal tools to create, communicate, and publish. In these classrooms the potential that Stager speaks of is certainly being realised.

Similarly, I’ve seen many instances of creative and innovative use of interactive whiteboards. I was possibly one of the first people in NZ to be using one regularly in a programme I ran at the Correspondence School. It was a professional development programme for teachers and we used a variety of approaches including group work, problem solving, challenges and reflection. The whiteboard was one of the technologies used, usually as a point of focus from individual and group feedback, or for demonstrating a task or something that someone had developed. Participants would move from their seats to interact with the elements of screen, offering ideas and opinions, using the tool set to annotate and manipulate – and at the end of such sessions, the record of what had been done was saved and stored on the course website for access at home or elsewhere for review and reflection.

We didn’t regard the whiteboard as an “instructional tool” (although arguably, at times, this is the way it was used) – rather, it was a part of the repertoire of teaching and learning devices that were selected from as was appropriate.

In some classrooms also I have observed these boards being used with young students in equally creative ways, as this picture from a classroom I visited illustrates:


The interactive whiteboard in this classroom is positioned in one of the learning bays or stations, and students are confidently working as a group, collaboratively using the board to construct a representation of their ideas and thinking using some mind-mapping software. This is quite a contrast to the perception that Stahmer makes in another of his posts where he says that:

Mounting the technology in one place in a classroom anchors the focus to that one place. In many ways it reinforces the space as teacher-centered with rows of students facing one way, the attention on one spot.

We need to move the debate away from regarding the technology as the villain (or hero) and instead focus on the pedagogy here. As long as we see classroom teaching as being about “instructional practices” we’re going to have problems with hwat we see happening with any form of technology.

The problem, as I see it, with interactive whiteboards can be summarised in the following thoughts:

  • they’ve been over-sold on the promise of ‘motivating’ students
  • they’re too similar to previous technologies used in instructivist classrooms (the chalkboard, whiteboard and OHP) and therefore get used with a subsititution mentality
  • there’s an emphasis on the use of pre-prepared templates in the way these are sold and promoted (olften by the manufactuers) which reinforces an instructivist approach, and
  • the fundamental approach to teaching and learning in many classrooms (reinforced by curriculum and exam pressures, timetables and subject silos) means that an instructivist pedagogy prevails!

In the words of Mae West, “it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it!”

10 thoughts on “Interactive Whiteboards – balancing the debate

  1. thanks for this Derek. I have seen IWB’s turn lots of teachers into ‘instructivists’ who stand at the front and demonstrate, or get kids to do it in the name of interactivity.
    The other issue I see is the basic ‘bang-for-buck’ one. It costs about $4k to set one up with a ceiling mounted projector etc (which I suppose is another issue) but what else can you get with this … 6-8 good quality digital cameras, 2 mac laptops/3-4 pc ones … the list goes on. Which option is going to make the most DIFFERENCE for the biggest number of kids??

    As principal this is the question I ask myself.

    You are certainly right about the marketing being directed at the tricky things they can do rather than ways of being used as an instructional tool.

  2. Greg has posted comments similar in response to an IWB post of my own earlier. I think what you say is true in that any technology can be misused – 6-8 digital cameras can be misused just as easily. I would also probably guess that an IWB doesn’t turn a teacher into an instructivist educator – they were probably taught that way prior to the IWB. The trap is now they think that their methodology has ICT credibility just because it’s up on an interactive whiteboard. It’s really important to push the creative, innovative approaches to teaching and the technology should be the enabler, the connector of the learning. BTW, I shared this column via our staff bulletin and received some good feedback – even if one of the best teachers in the school felt like you were referring to her current prowess with her IWB!

  3. Thanks Graham – we’re certainly on the same page -and I couldn’t agree more with your comment that an IWb won’t in itse;lf turn a teacher into an “instructivist”. Agree also with your comments re creativity and innovation. I was talking just today about the power of a group of kids learning about semantic searching using a IWB and Quintura that I blogged about a few days ago. Amazing to see the way they engage with whole body excitement!

  4. Hi Derek, we have a group of teachers (cybercell) in our ICTPD cluster that are looking at the issue of IWB’s this year, they are all proponents of the technology but once again they are looking at creative & innovative use…breaking the 3 foot syndrome! I would be very interested in educators sharing their experiences with us!

  5. I have been teaching for maths for 17 years and have had the use of a Smartboard for the last 2 years. I am a self confessed presenter, I am a talker and I spend a lot of time up the front of the class. This is just my style. My lessons are now more interesting (my survey from last years yr12 class suggest that this is the case) and now that I am recording the boardwork (with audio) my students can revisit the bits they didn’t understand whenever they like. I record the key areas that I want them to be able to master. This just adds a further layer to the myriad of online options they have available to them. I think this publishing aspect helps to promote the independent learning concept even though I am a “chalk and talker” at heart. Teaching is about craft at the end of the day not toys but toys used well can add a lot.

  6. i agree with the whole article. As the AV tech of a large private school and previously working for the comapnies that supply and install the boards i see them as something that is over sold and now im in a possition of trying to work out how to better make use of them. they are being pushed into schools by the staff by the parents and by the governement people believe you need them to teach now. in reality they are an addition to teaching. ive spent months talking to teachers trying to sort out a suitable layout and system to make them more of a addition to the teaching area rather then a focus. at this point im starting to move away from IWB's more towards interactive projectors as they are so much cheaper and in the situation we are using them this gives back a lot of white board space to the classroom. 
    i dont know if this is the answer but its the best result i have had so far.

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