The other week, in the middle of some severe essay trauma, a tweet from the inspirational Neil Winton of Perth Academy came floating by in my Twitter feed (I had Brizzly running in a background window, and was clicking in and out of it to give myself a wee break from writing. Or to distract myself from writing, whichever you prefer). One of Neil’s tweets catching my eye is nothing unusual, but this one really grabbed my attention.
Strong words indeed. But a viewpoint that appears to be shared by an apparently increasing amount of educators – I have personally spoken to a sizeable number of teachers who have no interest in and no time for Interactive White Boards, or anything connected to them. In fact, at times it appears to go beyond having no interest – there appears to be a genuine animosity towards IWBs from some quarters that can at times border on the evangelical. On the other hand, of course, there are a number of teachers who appear to believe that Interactive White Boards are the saviours of the universe, and the one true path to cosmic enlightenment.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between?
Now, I think it’s only fair to make two confessions up front, namely that:
1) I have a fairly positive attitude towards IWBs, and have been known to leap quickly to their defence if I feel they are being unfairly maligned.
2) My personal experience using IWBs is exclusively limited to SMART Boards
Following the link in Neil’s tweet I found myself on a blog that I’d never seen or heard of before – intriguingly titled “The Tempered Radical”. The post in question was entitled “Wasting Money on Whiteboards…” and I started reading with a ready-to-be-offended attitude. The blogger, Bill Ferriter, started off by telling us how he had ‘given away’ his board as he had found it ‘basically useless’. However, the majority of his post – and indeed the comments following it – seemed less inflammatory and fairly well-reasoned (Bill also followed up his original post both here and here. Well worth a read, if you get a chance). I think, however, that the target of Bill’s self-confessed rant, as well as that of many of the critical comments in response to his article, was misplaced.
In the main, both Bill’s post and the comments it generated had major issues with what we might call blanket rollouts – that is to say schools or local authorities (districts) that decide to install a specific number of IWBs into schools and classrooms regardless of whether they are wanted or what impact they might have on the learning and teaching there. As well as the actual costs involved, Bill points to the opportunity costs – what could have been purchased with the same amount of money. Whilst these are valid points, surely they have nothing to do with IWB technology itself, but rather are to do with how our schools are being funded and administered? My own school uses SMART Boards, which has proven to be problematic as we are part of a “Promethean authority”, that is to say that all the schools within our authority are meant to use Promethean IWBs rather than any other brand. A decision has been taken somewhere, using some kind of criteria that is perhaps not educationally based (would it be fair to assume that cost might come into it?) that every school in our authority then has to accept, regardless of what they feel is best for them educationally speaking. Surely this is - to use Neil’s words – counter to CfE? That is perhaps a rather large discussion, and should be saved for another time and place.
Reading the reactions to Bill’s post, as well as the Twitter Edchat about IWBs he mentioned in his post, it was interesting to see that a number of people were responding with the tech-neutral position that I was inclined to adopt myself. That is to say that IWBs (or indeed any technology, technique or tool used while teaching) is not in itself either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather it is how the teacher goes about using it that causes it to ‘become so’. In the case of IWBs, when I first saw one, it was being used purely as a large monitor with regular Microsoft applications, which could be touch controlled as well as mouse controlled. Not exactly the epitome of interacivity, yet some teachers were making very good use of it just like that. The next time I encountered an IWB it was being used as a large touch screen monitor, but for more web-based bespoke learning and teaching applications, and once more some teachers were making a very good use of it. My own personal use of an IWB in the classroom started during my probationary year, and tended to follow the large touch screen monitor approach spoken about above. Occasionally, we would use the IWB to write on but that was about as far as it went.
So, to review. Valuable as a teaching tool? At times, and for some teachers/students. Embedded in classroom practice? Again, perhaps for some teachers/classes, but only in limited ways. Worth the money? Hmmmmmm. Doubtful. I remained to be covinced as to exactly how useful a tool these IWBs were.
And then I started working in the school I’m in now.
Talk about an eye opener. On my very first visit, I saw more being done with their SMART Boards than I ever had before. When I started my job, I got to see a number of different teachers in a number of different classes using their SMART Boards. All sorts of weird and wonderful things were happening, and the children were all so engaged. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and even asked them what software or application it was that they were using, and how much it had cost. They just looked at me like I was stupid.
“SMART Notebook. It comes with the board.”
I couldn’t believe it. The same software that I had only ever used if I was looking to write something on my IWB, and you should have seen the things that it could do. And for children with a huge range of additional support needs. Children who just couldn’t make the conceptual leap between clicking a button or pushing a switch and something happening on a screen were able to make that connection because they could touch the screen and cause the reaction that happened on it. Notebook activities could be highly personalised for individual classes or even pupils, using text, sound, video, animation or web content all from one ‘document’. And the pupils were driving the IWB activities forward too “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this, or that?”.
I began pottering with Notebook myself, and by now have achieved (I hope!) some level of competence with it. During this time I have used my SMART Board and Notebook software to deliver learning activities across all curricular areas. I have used it to collaborate with other teachers and other classes, and have even helped pupils use it to work together. I have used Notebook to administer moderations for SQA Access 1 and 2 units, as well as using the built-in recording function to create a video record of the moderation that can be used as evidence. I have created content that utilises the SMART Response ‘clicker’ system (formerly Senteo) to collect and analyse data, and have helped our Pupil Council start using this technology to cast their votes anonymously.
Now, the question behind this is why have I used Notebook to do all these things? Firstly, because Notebook is easy to use. Once you learn to use it (and I mostly taught myself) it is intuitive, quick, easy and versatile. And I still feel like I’m only starting to get to grips with it, especially as it continues to develop. Secondly, ease of access – it is on virtually every computer in our school, and is available to download for use at home for SMART Board users (a product key is provided for this purpose). Thirdly, and probably most importantly, is because the pupils I work with absolutely love working on the SMART Board. They find it hugely engaging, and are far more willing to ‘have a go’ on the SMART Board than they are on a more traditional paper-based jotter or worksheet task. Does this mean that the SMART Board is the only teaching tool I use? Of course it doesn’t, and neither does it mean I would keep using it if it didn’t meet the needs of my pupils (for instance, I found another way to deliver a set of activities that had been planned using SMART Response last year as the class were unable to make the connection between the clickers and the board, and also found the interfaces too confusing). And if they took the SMART Board away tomorrow I would still be able to teach. But that’s hardly the point - I would have to be a fool not to take advantage of such enthusiasm from the pupils wherever I found it.
Now, you may have noticed that I have answered a question about IWB hardware by referring to IWB software. This was no mistake, and I make no apologies for it, because I truly believe that the software, its functionality and what it enables us to do with the IWB are at the heart of the debate about the role that the IWB has to play in the modern classroom. Back on Twitter, someone else summed it up in a far more elegant way than I could ever have managed.
I think that sums it up in a nutshell. When it comes right down to it, the IWB will make no difference in class on its own, whether it’s in one room, ten rooms or every room in a school/district/country. It is, after all, just a tool, and the impact of any tool on learning and teaching comes down to how it is used. Whilst I have had the privilege to witness some absolutely fantastic work being done with SMART Boards both within and outwith my school, and have also been lucky enough to take part in a Content Creation Seminar with some extremely talented colleagues from across Scotland, I have also witnessed some work where the IWB has added nothing to an activity, and indeed in extreme cases where it seems to be getting used in an almost tokenistic, gimmicky manner. The IWB is not to be blamed for the second observation any more than it should be credited for the first – each teacher, each class, each pupil, each situation will call for a different approach and it is up to the skilled and professional educator to adjudge best what that approach should be. Solutions should not be ‘forced’ upon a practitioner, pupil or school any more than they should be withheld from them.
Finally, then, we come to my response to Neil’s original tweet and Bill’s original post, and it’s quite simple. Don’t blame the board. IWBs are only a tool, and it is us who make them what they are and not the other way round. IWBs will neither entrench nor challenge traditional orthodoxies, it is up to each one of us to do that, and to decide how to deal with the technological hand we have been dealt to our pupils’ best advantage. To use one of my favourite quotes from a wise man: “It’s not about the tech, it’s about the teAch…”