Interactive White Boards – the source of all known evil?

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.

Neil's IWB tweet

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.

rachelala's tweets about IWBs

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…”


  1. Very interesting post – it’s you that makes the difference everyday and not the board. I am still amazed though by the capability of the Smart Board – I have one at home for my kids ( who have needs). Yes it can engaging but can also enhance motor control and allow concepts to be writ large in front of their eyes.

    Blog on my friend

  2. SMART Board at home? Loving it! It is an amazing piece of kit right enough. I think the motor control aspect is one that is often overlooked – when I was trying to get my hands on an ‘air hockey’ type app for the SMART Table it got squashed because they wanted to concentrate on the ‘educational aspects’ of the Table rather than the ‘recreational aspects’. I was saying that for my pupils, the level of motor control needed to play the game would have been hugely educational. Ah well.

  3. Enjoyed the post
    We have only 4 IWB’s in the school. Everywhere else is wireless projectors with the staf having Tablet PC’s.
    I agree it IS about the software but also about the culture of use.
    The best use of IWB’s have been in Nursery and lower primary when the boards were set to the pupils height. In fact Bowmore Primary school Nursery Unit Won the The Scottish Education Award for ICT in 2007 for just this.
    In secondry schools the culture of teachers standing at the front and holding on to the Pen is no different front holding onto the chalk. How often did that happen?
    I think the money is better used with Wireless projector and Tablet PC and the money you have left (Which is a lot) you start to give devices into the hands of the learners. Thats when it really does make a difference.
    While I do agree that the culture is the thing which needs to change I passionatly believe that for that to happen the tools must be flexible enough to allow it.
    have a look at this video of another school Where I stole the idea from

  4. Thanks for summing up my thoughts exactly! I feel like I’m constantly fighting an uphill battle against those who misplace their anger — blaming the tool itself rather than the pedagogy. I completely agree that SMART Boards are a tool only, and that with proper training, development and in the hands of the right teacher, they can improve engagement and learning the classroom.

    Having said that, I also believe that “good” teachers are “good” no matter what tools they’re given — a box, a chalkboard, yarn or an iwb. As such, a “good” teacher will also make “good” use of a SMART Board.

  5. A cracking post! I have seen a complete rollout of Smartboards in my school over the last 2 years. I have not done much observation so can’t say for sure how much impact it has made in terms of learning and teaching.

    I don’t the use board that much, I have probably clocked up more time showing colleagues how to use in than actual use during lessons. My own view is that “it’s the software, software, software” that makes it worthwhile for me as a teacher. I use Notebook to create screencasts for pupils. This alone makes it worthwhile for me as learning can then occur outside the room where the board is physically installed. This mobility also applies to my preparation. I don’t need to be in my classroom with an active connection to the board, I can do it happily at the coffee table in my livingroom.

  6. Thanks everyone for taking the time to read and comment.

    Ian –
    Glad you enjoyed the post. Totally with you on the flexibility aspect and the culture of use. Whatever tech you’re using has to be embraced, has to serve the purposes you want of it, has to be easy enough for beginners to use and versatile enough for more advanced users and has to be believed in by the staff who are using it, otherwise it just becomes window dressing. Perhaps most of all, it needs to be the solution that you want for yourself – with that ownership comes a great power. I hear amazing things about the work done in Islay with the wireless projectors and the tablets, but you know yourself that if we took that solution and imposed it onto a different school, staff and headteacher the results would be very different.

    “In secondary schools the culture of teachers standing at the front and holding on to the Pen is no different front holding onto the chalk.” Too true.

    Vanessa –
    “Blaming the tool rather than the pedagogy” – that’s what it boils down to really. And again, I’m in total agreement about ‘good’ teachers using whatever tools they have to hand.

    Sinclair –
    Your use of the SMART Recorder function to screencast lessons on your Fizzics site was just one of the most amazing and inspiring things I had seen in years, so whether you use the Board for anything else at all you’re already miles ahead of the game as far as I’m concerned!!!

  7. I enjoyed this post, H-Blog, and am glad that my original thoughts sparked some conversation. One of the points that I’ve been trying to make in conversations about IWBs is that a lot of the benefits that people attribute to IWBs can be attained with much cheaper alternatives. Take this comment from your strand of conversation for example:

    “Your use of the SMART Recorder function to screencast lessons on your Fizzics site was just one of the most amazing and inspiring things I had seen in years, so whether you use the Board for anything else at all you’re already miles ahead of the game as far as I’m concerned!!!”

    I completely agree that screencasting lessons for students to refer to later is responsible practice. It allows for differentiation and remediation—keys to student success.

    But you don’t need an IWB to screencast! I use Camtasia—a $179 USD software application to do the same thing. (And Screentoaster is a free web application for screencasting.)

    That’s why I really do think that IWBs are evil! When leaders are spending thousands on tools that provide benefits that can be gained with cheaper alternatives, we’re wasting monies that can be used in other ways in our schools.

    I wrote again recently about what I’d buy instead of an IWB. Your readers might be interested in it:

    Thanks for pushing thought on this issue. It’s an important one.

  8. Wow! The Tempered Radical himself, here on my blog!

    Glad you enjoyed the post Bill – I have certainly enjoyed a number of yours! – and I totally agree with you that it is an important issue.

    First of all, I want to say that I am by no means an unthinking zombie worshipping at the altar of the IWB. As I pointed out in the original post, it took me time to come to appreciate what could be done with a SMART Board and SMART Notebook, and it was only once I appreciated the software behind the board that this came to be the case. Whilst it is first and foremost a powerful tool for content creation, I have lost count of the ‘other’ things I have used SMART Notebook to do – word processing, desktop publishing, editing pictures, creating videos, exporting files in various formats; the list goes on and on. And it is this versatility and ease of use in the software that is the SMART Board’s main strength for me.

    That doesn’t mean that I think everybody else has to feel the same way about the same things. As I point out in my post, I don’t believe it is the IWB that defines how it is used in (or out of) the class, it is the software and the pedagogy as interpreted by the individual practitioner. To that end, if Sinclair is able to come up with a way to use a hardware and software solution that he already has at his disposal to create a screencasted lesson without any need for sourcing or purchasing additonal kit, then that works for me. Whilst I accept that it is true that you don’t need an IWB to screencast, the same way that it is true that if you have a SMART Board then you have no need to buy Camtasia. Similarly, if a teacher in my school finds a way to use a tool from the SMART Lesson Activity Toolkit to create an engaging and effective learning resource rather than subscribing to a website that offers similar tools on a subscription basis, then that works for me too.

    I also pointed out in my post that I thought you had misplaced your anger by directing it at the board, and in your own comment you seem to back up my assertion (excuse the added emphasis):

    “WHEN LEADERS ARE SPENDING THOUSANDS ON TOOLS that provide benefits that can be gained with cheaper alternatives, we’re wasting monies that can be used in other ways in our schools.”

    Again, it seems to be the administrators that you are pointing the finger at rather than the board. And to be fair, I share a lot of your concerns over this particular issue. I had a look at your list of things that you would buy instead of an IWB, and I love what you have on it, and especially that you have held some of it in reserve. If given the choice, would I spend the money on a SMART Board, or come up with my own list? That’s an interesting debate, and one I remember having with Ian Stuart a while ago. But I’m not talking about what we should be going out and buying – I’m talking about what teachers have in their classrooms right now without spending any more cash at all. I wouldn’t leave all that SMART Board potential lying unused any more than I would leave a pile of netbooks lying around unused – it’s our responsibility after all to use the tools we have to best effect for our students.

    I think overall we are in broad agreement about the way IWBs are currently used in many schools and how they are brought into schools as well, and the differences we do have are simply a matter of perspective. Thanks again for your original post which provided the impetus for this one. I look forward to continuing to read your posts!

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