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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.

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