Whiteboard hardware battles, what do they mean?

Merlin John’s website has a review by Chris Drage of the new Promethean 500 Pro Series Interactive Whiteboard.

Now the review is thorough and does a good job of evaluating the technical capabilities of Promethean’s new offering. Although the reasons Promethean decided to call it the ‘pro’ board are somewhat puzzling, unless of course they are going to rebadge their existing boards as amateur, which seems unlikely.

So the review is a sound piece of work. The reason I have decided to write this is that once again the education community is in danger of missing the point when it comes to Interactive Whiteboards. The point was missed first time around when the boards were seen as a vehicle to present flash (often literally) pre-prepared content from publishers rather than as part of a toolkit which a teacher could use to create a learning space. Currently the IWB manufacturers are moving further into the multi-touch and multi-user world with the new 800 series by SMART offering multi touch gestures and 2 users working simultaneously within the software (with either touch or pens).  This indicates a potential arms race as all of the manufacturers work to add as many touch points as they can to their boards to entice buyers and outdo the competition.  But the real pedagogical issue at stake here is definitely not about the number of users or touches, it’s about what you do with the users or touches, in education terms, once you have them.

Promethean are currently celebrating their 4 touch points, but I’ve not seen much in the review or in the promotional literature which makes a proper evidence based case for why having 4 students interacting on the board is going to make a substantial difference to learning outcomes.  Let’s start with the question of what they students will be doing; just what activity are they pursuing? It is true that any experienced Activinspire user worth their salt could create some drag and drop games or magic paper type activities and having more than one student being able to work on these at any one time does present some limited advantages over single touch boards.  But if you can find me a teacher who is going to use this feature regularly (say once a day minimum) and purposely set out to design activities to take advantage of this functionality, then I would be extremely surprised. No correction, I’d not be surprised I’d just not believe you and honestly, I don’t think teachers will use these features. They may be more likely to use them in Primary but I don’t see many secondary lessons designed so 4 students are at the front interacting with the board.  What do the rest of the group do during this time, they can’t watch the students working on the board because a line of kids blocks out the image, so just how does the teacher create a pedagogical design to exploit this function and balance it with teaching the rest of the group. By way of explanation of this point, find me a teacher who can currently use the Promethean or SMART software to even 60% of its full potential and I’m quite surprised, expecting them to use this technology to its full is not realistic so once again we have the potential for a gimmick which looks great at BETT, enticing in the sales literature, and is of zero use in the classroom.

Interactive Whiteboards as a category of technology have been coming in for quite a bit of criticism lately, and were described by one speaker at the NAACE conference in March as ‘an outdated technology’ as if they really are due for the scrap heap (once all the relevant WEEE directives have been settled of course). But contrary to what I have written above I believe that an Interactive Whiteboard is essential for any teacher, for reasons which do not live in the hardware itself (hence hardware advancements are not that important), but are all to do with the software. The major manufacturers have worked hard on their software, perceiving correctly that amongst discerning users this is what can give them the edge on the competition. And the result are software platforms which are very well suited to the kinds of work which teachers do (because only good suggestions from teachers made it into the features of the software). In particular the software allows for the rapid and easy aggregation of data and multimedia from various sources so a lesson does not need to be completely prepared in advance and delivered without deviation from the script as so often happens when PowerPoint is used in classrooms.  Good whiteboard software allows teachers to extemporise, even wing it a bit, pick up on interesting avenues and explore them, drag resources from the net in real time, and crucially create a shared meaning on the board as some parts of the lesson are created in front of the class.  Take the board away and you take the software away and the teacher then falls back on the woefully inadequate features of PowerPoint and their whole approach to lesson planning is strait jacketed by a software designed for business presentations rather than teaching.

So advances in hardware are not exactly unwelcome and there is bound to be further innovation, but the new shiny hardware is no way as important as it seems. Until more teachers use the software and the boards fully, then extra functionality is wasted.  Think of a racing driver driving regularly at the limits of his or her car who is then handed a improved car with better suspension, better brakes and a slightly more powerful engine. They will immediately record better laptimes and soon push that new model to its limits. But put that car in the hands of someone who drives only occasionally and they would not exploit its full power because of their lack of mastery of any previous models. Unfortunately with whiteboards in the UK, many teachers are Sunday drivers or never get their cars out of the garage..  True advancements in IWB usage will come from CPD to get teachers exploiting the technology to its full potential.

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

8 thoughts on “Whiteboard hardware battles, what do they mean?”

  1. “Encore, encore”.

    Well said Matt. ditto VLEs, ditto ANY technology being used in education right now. We must all ask ourselves ‘how’ the technology might help the learning activity/environment, not how the activity/environment might fit the technology.

    As you say IWB’s are sometimes frowned upon as outdated technology but they are in fact under used and poorly planned for technologies. That’s not the technology’s fault.



    1. David, thanks for the comment. I guess if I can’t write a half decent analysis of IWBs after 4 years of working with them in both a commercial and pedagogical sense, then it would be a bad show. But I can see that the next round of IWB adoption is in danger of going wrong in the ways I outline in the posting… ‘think pedagogy not technology’ as we used to say, eh?

  2. I have been using Promethean’s ‘newer’ IWB’s and ActivInspire for over a year now and train colleagues in my department in its use. Some still use the boards as glorified monitors others have taken to them like ducks to water. You are right, the software is important unfortunately it is difficult for most users to understand and quite primitive in some aspects. I use a variety of software to create pre-formatted and partially completed materials (depends on what I am teaching and the length of the lesson). I also use it in the same way I used a normal whiteboard – mind mapping, brainstorming etc. The good thing about it is that I can nip off the lesson plan to the internet and contextualise what we are discussing – qwiki’s are great for that http://www.qwiki.com/q/#!/Interactive_whiteboard
    Used well IWB’s are a useful addition to the teacher’s toolkit – care still needs to be taken is it appropriate for the session?

  3. I love the analogy Matt, I see this range of ability on a daily basis in my work in schools. To extend the analogy, it can be useful when a young driver (a student or student teacher) is encouraged to show the normal driver what can be achieved once a few practice laps have been completed.

    1. yes thanks for the comment Richard. Not too sure of the driving analogy when I cooked it up in my feverish little head, but I think it stands up quite well to scrutiny (but like all analogies will break apart under the weight of its own pretensions if pushed too far). But driving is natural for so many of us and we don’t have to concentrate when doing it, sot that kind of effortless achievement is probably something to aim at in IWB usage. I would invoke the flow theory of Csíkszentmihályi but there’s no way I could spell that name so late in the day.

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