To IWB, Or Not IWB? That Is The Question

This is one of those posts that started out as a comment on someone else’s blog. Namely Wes Fryer’s post: “No, just having IWB’s does not make learning engaging”

(IWB = Interactive Whiteboard) ActivBoard, Smartboard, Mimio, TeamBoard, Starboard, and others.

Here is my comment to “No, just having IWB’s does not make learning engaging”:

Hi Wes – I agree wholeheartedly. The ability to be interactive is there, but IWB’s are not inherently interactive. Designing lessons that are truly interactive takes a lot of work. I’ve spent upwards of 5 hours on one 45 minute lesson. It’s not a sustainable situation unless you can share the load with others. I have an ActivBoard in my classroom and they have done a good job of putting lessons shared by other teachers as online downloads for just that reason. But it is still time consuming because you have to find a lesson that fits what you want and then view it yourself, and continue until you hopefully find one that fits, and then you often have to edit it to make it match exactly what you want from it and/or to be useful to your group of students. Now that is true anytime you use lessons designed by someone else, even out of a book, but it still discourages teachers from utilizing IWB’s in ways that are truly powerful consistently. Perhaps that will change over time as more lessons are available and more expertise is realized by users.

On the other-hand, IWB’s are great in what they are good at inherently. That is being bright and colorful and and generally cool. In addition the maps and measurement tools and audio / video capabilities that are easy to use are very valuable. You can pull up a map or photo or web page and write on it, make the writing go away, run the internet (or any application) from the board and more. Because you have the board you automatically have a video theater in your classroom.  One of my favorite features is archiving notes and brainstorms that you can return to, add to, change, edit anytime you want. You filled the board with notes and you still need to continue? No need to wait while someone copies everything and then erase, just go to the next blank page and go on. Then save and come back anytime you want. I love using it to design video projects. Its a huge storyboard.

“Gateway drug?” – I’ve often heard that whether or not IWB’s are the best bang for the buck, they just might be the way to FINALLY bring technology integration at some level into the classroom – and build some basic teacher tech competency. And it seems to make sense. I often bemoan how many teachers are unaware of even the simplest uses of applications. I think if there was a way to have every teacher watch a demonstration of sending an attachment on an email it would be a revelation for almost half of them. Teachers are really out of the loop on using technology (not all their fault BTW).  Having an IWB in your classroom, the theory perhaps rightly assumes, means that teachers have to at least learn how to use the computer attached to the IWB at a certain base level. Starting it up, opening the software, saving files, accessing tools, using tools and more, all help users become a bit more familiar with the basic uses of computers.

Then besides the whiteboard software you have other applications at your fingertips. Pretty much any application on the computer can be used right from the board, including the internet. You would assume (or not) that eventually the teacher would have a reason to access the internet to use a web site or watch an online video or whatever, and so again basic competencies are being built and hopefully over time the teacher-user will see the value in technology integration and the rest is history. My school district seemed to hope this to be true, at best the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned, but most teachers in my district that have IWB’s have not had them very long either.

I have not included all uses here, but the bottom line is that there is lots to like about IWB’s.

So what are the downsides of IWB’s?

Well cost for one. IWB’s cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 dollars generally (by the time you get a computer to make it go and all) so to put one in each classroom in your school … well you can do the math. Some say the money would be better spent on laptop labs that could move around the school, digital cameras, iPods (now with a still and video camera built-in), and other hard and software. And they have an excellent point. Others point out that dumping laptop labs in schools is a waste because way too often the training is poor to non-existent, and teachers don’t or aren’t allowed to change the pedagogy to use them effectively. I would mention that-  this is SOOO true, but the same is true of IWB’s.

My district so far has put IWB’s in classrooms and not mandated training (they offer and provide it – but don’t mandate it), and because teachers are being asked to do so much more right now with data, including uploading and downloading it and analyzing it and new curriculum pieces that all involve trainings (and I could go on) that if the IWB training isn’t mandated and the time provided for it, it’s an area I can save time on, something I control and I choose not to (I’m not saying I agree, it’s just the reality). If this continues we will be in the same place we’ve been almost every time large tech rollouts have happened. Tech first, training and pedagogy second (if at all) and we again prove that tech has no place in education. (You’d think we’d learn – ironic, sad and very frustrating).

Other downsides. IWB’s can be used as just glorified whiteboards, slick, but a very wasteful use of resources. They don’t require the user to make any changes to pedagogy, so they can easily do the same old stuff but claim they are integrating technology (so it must be good right?) which gives technology integration a bad name.

I have probably only accomplished to muddy the waters here, so I am relying on you to fill in the gaps, and things I forgot and clarify things (I know, a cop out on my part, but I’ve already spent too much time on this)

I will say I love my ActivBoard, but I also have 1:1 laptops in my classroom (I hope again soon) so I don’t use or think about my IWB the same as someone that does not have 1:1. I should also point out in the name of transparency that Promethean named me their “Teacher of the Month” awhile back. But love it or not, are IWB’s worth the investment? Like I said above the jury is still out for me, since my school district has invested in them a lot, I really hope I’m saying yes they are in a year or so. What about you? What do you think?

Learning is messy!

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16 Responses to To IWB, Or Not IWB? That Is The Question

  1. Cathy Nelson says:

    I have a friend who is an instructional technology director, and when they visit the schools where every classroom is outfitted with an IWB, and see first hand it being used as an overhead projector, they return to the class at the end of the instructional day, remove the overhead projector, and mandate that the teacher attend a three week after school refresher on effective use of said IWB. While that comes across as harsh and negative, he boasts that the teachers are scrambling to ensure they are using them effectively. The school librarian says as the overheads break, she has not had to replace any, and she celebrates because she does not replace projector bulbs (tech does) but is spending a lot of her budget money formerly spent on overheads on other instructional materials. I’m still not sold, but at least this district is making sure their investment is protected through training, albeit at times coerced training.

  2. Mark Ahlness says:

    Brian, these things sound really cool. It sure is interesting, the debate folks are having over their use. I’ve never even seen one. Anybody listening who thinks the digital divide is no longer an issue?

  3. Brian,

    Since IWBs came out as I was leaving the classroom, I found myself asking these same questions: do they really change instruction? Or are they glorified mice?

    The answer became a blog post on McREL’s blog: http://mcrel.typepad.com/mcrel_blog/2009/07/do-iwbs-change-instruction.html.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually the software, not the hardware, that seems to have the most impact on pedagogy. If IWBs evolve into interactive walls, desktops, tables (which I think they will), teachers need to know how to utilize this environment.

  4. Barbara Barreda says:

    Brian for me it was question of money. How to best use limited funds and priorities. I decided no IWB for now. We went 1:1 with netbooks instead and it seems to be the right decision in terms of student engagement and ALSO in terms of changing teaching and learning.
    Like all tools 1:1 and IWB can be expensive show pieces- we worked hard to insure the 1:1 did not become expensive paper and pencils which is = to IWB as overhead projector….

    Will we ever get IWB? I am not sure if we need them in a 1:1 environmen tand especially with lesson delivery software like dyknow. Ultimately I am about changing school….IWB seemed like an interim step…. we decided 1:1 was the ultimate goal and so that is where the money went…

    So if you go back to 1:1 how useful will the IWB be? Also when you are 1:1 do you have a lesson delivery/class mangement software you use?

  5. Chris says:

    Brian,
    The insight regarding training is excellent. This is such an important piece. When you provide an IWB to a teacher that doesn’t have basic skills, I feel as though we are wasting resources. If they haven’t taken the time to learn how to send an attachment or how to save something, what makes us think they’ll learn how to use an IWB effectively? We are currently “shoving” boards in rooms where they are only used as glorified overheads. Is it completely their fault if we don’t provide training? I agree completely that they have great potential, but there is more to that than just installing it. We’ve addressed the availability of the technology; we need to provide the ability to change pedagogy. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Dierdre says:

    Hi Brian,
    I also have an ActivBoard in my room and access to a laptop lab, so I think I have the best of both worlds. As a tech rep for my school, and a master’s student in educational technology, I have witnessed many many teachers use their IWBs as glorified projector screens, which is sickening based on the money spent. However, I also know that these teachers are just as frustrated due to the lack of available and meaningful training. I’m currently developing a short online course for beginning users of the IWBs to show them how to use the software IN ORDER TO increase student learning (not just how to use the functions of the software). We’ll see how it goes! :-)
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I’ll likely be citing you in a master’s paper soon!

  7. Pam Thompson says:

    Hi Brian. You’ve raised some very salient points about IWBs & their use. I think time & training are major factors in this debate. I agree that creating interesting, interactive lessons is extremely time-consuming, and not too many terachers I know are willing to put in that many extra hours, especially if they’ve been provided with little training.

    I think the jury is out on this one, and may be for a little while. Meanwhile, lots of schools are putting them throughout the school for reason of equity, or not wanting to look as though they’re behind neighbouring schools.

  8. Lisa Butler says:

    I was lucky enough to get an ActivBoard this year. I had to agree to 3 summer training days and monthly follow up meetings. I was still learning at the beginning of the school year, but the students have benefited from seeing me play/learn. The board is not as intimidating – they are more willing and eager to interact with the board. Sometimes I wish I had 1:1 laptops in my room, but I feel like the scaffolding is so much stronger with an IWB. I can easily monitor the students learning and guide them when there are misconceptions. In an average class period, over half the students are up at the board at some point (it will be even more effective once the dual pen is installed). I am also a traveling teacher; for 3 of my classes I use an ActivBoard and 1:1 laptops. However, having 75 students sharing GoogleDocs with me so I can monitor learning is sometimes counterproductive. I check them on a regular basis, but that is time I could create engaging/enriching flipcharts for the IWB. I completely agree that using an IWB for its full potential is a huge investment of time – normally that is how I spend my weekend. I have used and adapted resources from Promethean Planet as well as submitted some. Am I exhausted? Yes. Is it worth the time? Yes. This is the first year I can remember when students are so engaged they are asking for the conversation or the activities to continue outside the classroom.

  9. jdornberg says:

    The bottom line is who is using the IWB more– the teacher, or the students? I heard a story about a teacher who only wanted to know if he could show and control his powerpoints on the IWB. He wasn’t worried about any of the other possibilities.

    Or if the board is used only to write on (either by students or teachers) then it really is nothing more than an expensive whiteboard.

    I do know many teachers who now say they couldn’t go back to teaching without their IWB.

  10. Joe Elcano says:

    Your blog and the responses are very insightful. Here is my take – for what it is worth. I would go back to the classroom to use an IWB. I think it would be right up my alley.

    That said, the others are right. Putting one in every classroom is a mistake! What, aren’t I the one that is encouraging this? Yes! Here is the trade-off. If we only put them where teachers will really use them, then what happens when a teacher changes rooms or a new teacher enters the school system? Good answer? You be the judge.

    I think Lisa is very insightful when she suggests that IWB’s are less intimidating than other technologies. I can tell you that teachers do take to IWB’s much easier than classroom laptops or iPods. And yes, they are the ones that use it as a glorified white board. But not all of us are techies. It that is how we get them to take the first baby steps into the world of technology, then so be it! And by the way, you will not know the affect of putting so many IWB’s in the district for four or five years. That is the time research says it takes for most teachers to move beyond the ‘glorified white board’ stage.

    Finally, we must just accept that technology is expensive. If we stop at IWB’s, then we are not doing our students justice! Only one student can interact with an IWB at a time. We must include at least voting response units. I think iPods or Computers make more sense. But talk about a time and PD commitment!

    Still our drop out rates are rising and our test scores are dropping as this generation finds education less and less engaging and relevant. We have no choice but to make the investment. Even if it means baby steps this year!

  11. Brian,

    Great post. I’ve been mulling this over. Lots of folks have hit me up for my take on this and, frankly, I’ve struggled with forming an opinion.

    My first reaction was, “Ha! ActivBoard failed at selling into the corporate market so they dumped them on the schools. Go figure.” Honestly, I’ve never encountered an IWB in a conference/board room unless it was at a school. And in my travels, I hittup the conference/board rooms of many of the Fortune 1000, including some of the top high tech brands.

    After seeing one in action, my opinion changed. These don’t necessarily belong in the business conference room. They do, however, have a place in an educational setting. It’s new. It’s different. And it unleashes the potential for creativity,

    Like most situations with tools and technology, the effectiveness comes down to the use. I expect there will be some IWB masters that bring the interactive instructional environment to a new level. We’ll think of these folks as artists more than mere teachers. And anchoring the other end of the spectrum, there will be folks that can’t shed their Luddite convictions and the IWB will sit there unused.

    For perspective, I remind myself that I used to bring guns to school. But we had a gunsmithing class in my school. And I took BASIC, Pascal and Fortran. They were considered foreign language credits. I never learned French, German or Spanish. Different times, different perspectives.

    After reading the comments to your post I’m firmly swayed in the direction of supporting this direction. Less because I think IWBs are THE solution, but more that they represent a direction that has immediate merit and long term value.

  12. Alison says:

    Brian I totally agree with you. For the students to be engaged the teachers in addition to having an IWB, they must also be creative and put some thought into their lessons.

  13. Daniele says:

    I agree that the jury is still out! I am a student teacher right now and have been in classrooms with SmartBoard and ActiveBoard. In both situations it didn’t seem like they were being used to their full potential. They were being used as a surface to project what was on the computer, which could be done without the IWB being there. But at least the computer was being used! One teacher didn’t even use it because she didn’t want to take the time or effort to learn how.

    I think that if teachers were mandated to take a class that the results would be better. Teacher would know how to create Flip Charts and use the many other resources offered by interactive white boards to engage ther students in learning. One solution I have seen is that the school district hired some teachers specifically to create Flip Charts for the math curriculum. These are what my master teacher uses. She likes it because she didn’t have to take the time to create them not to mention all the time she saved on not having to learn how to make Flip Charts!

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  15. Marietta Marquis says:

    The point that stuck in my mind was that effective, quality lessons take time and thought. This would be true whether or not you were using an IWB fro instruction or not. Most of the students that I work with are At Risk students and English Language Learners. My biggest focus is student engagement and tapping into their prior knowledge. At least 80% of the time there is very little schema for me to tap into so I have to put it there. I have found no better way of doing that than using technology; especially in this economy when money and time don’t permit field trips and more hands-on experiences for my students.

  16. Stacie Bolton says:

    I love my IWB. I find that it has enhanced the learning of my students. I use it not only for lesson presentations, but I also use it for centers in my classroom for math and language arts. All the classrooms in my school have IWB but not all are used. There are quite a few teachers out there that have not crossed the digial divide. I have always been up on technology. Before I became a teacher, I worked as a Network Administrator and Database Designer. My undergrad was in CIS. I have always found in the classroom that students are savvy on the ways of teachnology by the time they get to the upper elementary grades. Technology is the wave of the future and it will not stop because someone refuses to cross the divide. Preparing our students for the future is our job and that includes our responsibility to bringing technology to them.

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