Bored with Boards

By Sheyne Lucock, ICT Director for Building Schools for the Future (Barking and Dagenham LEA)

The introduction of interactive whiteboards into schools across the UK has been rapid, but many moan that teachers are using them just as projection screens, making them expensive white elephants. This could be because there was never any serious attempt to match technology to pedagogical needs, rather an expectation that teachers would adapt their teaching to use the technology, regardless of how appropriate it happened to be.

‘Traditional’ teaching technology such as blackboards and more recently dry-wipe whiteboards enable teachers to do the following: writing and re-writing; drawing and re-drawing; highlighting, and annotating. However they have always been a backward facing technology in that the teacher and pupil has to keep turning to face the board in order to write or draw on it. The class has always suffered from interrupted sight lines due to the teacher keeping moving in front of the board, and the restricted visible area because the user has to reach all of it. In this latter respect the dry-wipe whiteboard was a poor replacement, in some respects, for the roller blackboard where the ‘active display’ could be rolled up for everyone to have a clear view.

Many innovative teachers, prior to the onslaught of computers, switched to using an overhead projector (OHP). This had the same benefits as the white and blackboards in that the teacher and pupil could write and re-write, draw and re-draw, highlight, and annotate, and had the added benefit of being able to re-use the content as the acetate sheets could be saved. However, it had some significant advantages that made it a much better match to effective pedagogy. It was a ‘forward facing’ technology in that the teacher and pupils could use it while facing the class. It was easier to ensure uninterrupted sight lines as the teacher and pupils remained static instead of moving around in front of the screen, and there was a large visible area on a projection screen that was usually mounted high enough for those at the back to see all of it. In the light of these advantages, few of the teachers using one regularly would have seen any reasons to give it up and go back to using the traditional boards, other than issues with power leads (which shouldn’t be underestimated).

The interactive whiteboard was only a partial improvement upon the OHP in pedagogical terms in that it re-introduced many of the undesirable characteristics that the OHP had eliminated. We saw a return to interrupted sight lines due to the ‘backward facing’ technology, a restricted display size and poor visibility of the lower part of the board (unlike the old fashioned roller blackboard). It even managed to introduce a number of new disadvantages when compared to the OHP, in that there were health and safety concerns around the projector beam (Becta whiteboard health and safety guidance), accessibility issues for disabled users and a high price tag. It would be reasonable to ask why, in the light of all these negative characteristics, whiteboards should have been adopted in schools at all.

Partly this is due to the ‘wow’ factor of what could be described as an illusion that teachers and pupils can actually write on the board and move objects around as a result of some special technology, creating the impression of a ‘magic’ surface. In reality the interactive whiteboard is merely a larger version of the tablets or slates that had been used for computer graphics for many years. The interactivity is a property of the software running on the attached computer, which would update the display in the same way in response to a wide range of input devices. The ‘magic’ effect is produced by doubling up the touch sensitive surface as a projection screen, but this leads to both of them being unsuitable for the task of teaching.

A far more pedagogically appropriate solution would be to keep the touch sensitive surface and the projection screen separate, allowing both to be fine tuned to the needs of teachers and pupils in a classroom. By using large projection screens and wireless slates, the teacher could remain forward-facing, the display area could be much bigger and positioned where all of it is clearly visible from the back of the classroom, and there would be fewer interrupted sight lines as the slate can be used anywhere in the classroom, not just by standing in front of the display. The interactivity remains the same in both cases, the cost becomes substantially lower, wheelchair users (for example) can use the technology with ease, and there is less chance of anyone entering the path of the projector beam. Not only that, but the slate can be passed easily and quickly around the class, enabling more pupils to take part in moving the lesson forward.

You will find that interactive whiteboard manufacturers will offer a wireless slate as an additional extra option, once you have already spent a lot of money on the board, but rarely will they offer the slate as an alternative in the first place. If they do, then they will charge a considerable extra premium on the price. Teachers should challenge the suppliers to come up with the best solutions for the everyday problems in the classroom, not just the ones that make the most money.



Filed under Building Schools for the Future, Education, ICT

7 responses to “Bored with Boards

  1. Spot on Sheyne, There is not one shred of evidence that IWB’s have had any positive impact on learning and yet when I challenge Heads in the BSF programme they get very defensive and insist “they have improved teaching”?

    I am with you on this one!

  2. I’m a teacher in a Year 4 class (8 and 9 years old) in New zealand. We have a bluetooth slate and an IWB. The slate is passed around and used by students and teacher alike. The board/software supports up to 9 slates at any time and I’d dearly love a couple more. The IWB itself is used mainly by students as another learning/activity station.

  3. I have to say I have the same concerns as those detailed above, have been studying all sorts of alternative uses to IWB skillsets, and will continue to do so. I am not aware of any teachers who have a mirror opposite their board and a wireless mouse so they do not have to turn away from the pupils, for example.
    While the vast majority of IWB users would sing their praises, I do wonder how many have made the jump from ‘giant computer screen’ (where just a projector would be needed) to a whiteboard that genuinely is interactive.

  4. What is written here isn’t wrong but it’s not the whole truth. IMO IWBs are a White elephant. We have them in every room, installed before I arrived as Head of ICT. Our teachers have foundation level training written into their contracts. But only the new employees.

    To my mind a slate won’t fix it. What is required is pedagogical discussion. What makes the learning interactive when using n IWB? Not the skills but the structure of the material on the screen. The method in how that material is positioned and emerges and incorporates classroom thoughts. It is something to do with scaffolding the learning process. Something connected to making it engaging for the audience. I have some links I will post from my computer later that might help anyone interested in this topic.


    Particularly second link is good on pedagogy of interaction.

    It’s a worry when even someone of your position will not be listened to by BSF people. IWBs have become a standard part of the classroom build and partly I think this is because it gets a computer in every classroom which facilitates electronic registration amongst other things. School tech is often driven by admin (the MIS) rather than teaching and learning. We are still a long way from this but with the increasing numbers of teachers using tech well, and understanding how it adds value to the classroom, I believe this will change. The more weight people like yourself can add the better.

    Fundamentally, you are right. IWBs are set up wrongly. In there early days I wondered about pursuing lectern style touch screen monitors projected onto the wall away from where the teacher is located. Cheaper than an IWB and addresses a few of the issues you raise. My experience of slates is that they are not yet good enough. Currently I’m thinking about using collaborative whiteboard services available on the web so a tablet PC or similar could be used in the classroom to share the board, the result could be saved and embedded online for all to use later. One thing is for sure IMO, we are not yet at the model that will prevail once all barriers of proprietary tools are removed.

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  7. Unadulterated words, some authentic words dude. Totally made my day!!

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