Where I Stand: IWBs

Interactive White Boards, that is. Those technology pieces which are popping up in classrooms all over the world as part of the "modernization" of schools. Let me go on the record. I'm not a fan.

My own district invested heavily- IWBs are now in every classroom in the district and are the focus of the only regular professional development being offered in the district. Since I've gained a reputation as the1 "tech savvy teacher" people are often surprised when I'm critical of them. This post is mostly a way for me to sit down and sort through my thoughts on the matter in the hope that it'll help me when I'm explaining my position to my shocked colleagues.

My story

I was notified that I would be receiving an IWB last fall. I didn't necessarily feel that it would improve what I do in my classroom, so I told the powers that be that I didn't really need one. From my perspective, I was trying to save the district a little money. While it wasn't quite so blunt, I was effectively told I didn't have a choice in the matter: I was getting an IWB.

Once it was installed I started playing around with it. I decided since this thing was already installed, I should try to find ways that it can improve the teaching and learning in the room2. I spent several hours importing existing slide decks, creating new slide decks, learning all the fancy moves, searching Promethean Planet, and so on. I even attended a training session offered at our school.

Perhaps I started out with a biased view that negatively affected my exploring, but in the end I felt less confident about the power of IWBs than when I started.

Things they aren't:

Collaborative. I don't get it. I've often seen and heard people describe them as a means to improve collaboration between students. The ability to collaborate on an IWB is hampered by the fact that only one person can use the board at a time. Since most of my classes are 20+ students and there's only one IWB, I struggle with how this can be used collaboratively. Maybe if I had 4-5 IWBs in my room I could make it happen. Most classrooms have had a large-form presentation technology that allows for limited simultaneous use for some time now (hint: chalk/white boards). At least on a whiteboard I could have 5+ students writing at the same time.

Student-centered. IWBs have been touted as helping to create "student-centered classrooms3." I couldn't disagree more strongly. If anything they help reinforce teacher-centered instruction by keeping the focus of the classroom at the front of the room- providing support for large group lectures at the expense of decentralized student groupings. Having students come to the front and drag tectonic plates around doesn't make it student-centered. Many people have pointed to the student-voting systems (ActiVOTE, etc.) as a way to make the technology more student centered. Sure, it's an improvement but, (1) it still promotes teacher-centered instruction, (2) they're not free, and (3) if the saving grace of IWBs are voting devices, couldn't you just do away with the IWB?

Proven effective. I'm not saying IWBs can't do cool things and perhaps even inspire otherwise technophobic teachers into trying out new things. However, many people4 cite Marzano's study as definitively proving IWBs significantly improve student achievement. I disagree, but don't take my word for it: Read Jon Becker's five-part peer review of the study. He knows much more about educational research than I probably ever will.

Transformative. There's been a lot of talk about how technology can transform the educational system through connecting students to information and experts and empowering students in their own learning5. As mentioned earlier, IWBs reinforce traditional teacher-in-the-front instruction. A side effect of this is that they stifle transformative technology from being implemented and promoted. IWBs are often touted because they can be adopted immediately without requiring any restructuring of instructional styles6- which seems to be in direct opposition to many people who justify them as promoting "21st Century skills."

Things they are:

Expensive. OK, so many technologies are  expensive (laptops, LCD projectors, etc.)- what I'm mainly concerned about is the dollars spent vs. improvement in learning. Most of the benefits in going from overhead projectors to IWBs seem to be focused around the LCD projector's ability to project what is on the computer screen. I haven't found much the IWB can add to instruction that I couldn't do with just an LCD projector. Laptops, in my opinion, offer opportunities for more instructional flexibility, student empowerment, and true-to-life experience than IWBs, and thus are preferable (see next).

Only found in classrooms. Unless our students become teachers, it is unlikely they'll ever use an IWB again after graduation. Laptops, on the other hand, are ubiquitous. Teaching students how to use laptops to follow their passions and fuel their learning are skills that can carry over after they leave school.

Things they shouldn't be

A public relations tool. Too often school boards and higher-ups see the shiny, fancy technology that are IWBs and see it as an easy way to improve the public perception of the school. Simply dropping an IWB into every classroom doesn't improve learning, and they shouldn't be sold as such.

Dismissed. While I'm obviously not a big fan of IWBs, I find myself getting upset when I hear teaching simply dismissing them without first looking into what they are and how they might be used. This probably has little to do with the IWB itself than the attitude it betrays. The reason behind my dislike IWBs (at least I tell myself) is because I've spent time investigating their pros and cons- not simply because they're "different" or "new."

Your opinion?

Many of you have experience with this issue and have differing opinions. If you are a big fan, please explain your position to me. I'd really like for IWBs to be a game-changer, I'm just not seeing it right now.

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  1. I'm ready to be a tech-savvy teacher instead of the tech savvy teacher.     (back)
  2. I mean, the Kool-Aid was already in my cup, I just needed to sip it, right?     (back)
  3. Try some Google searches to find multiple examples of this.     (back)
  4. Local administrators, Promethean, other IWB zealots.     (back)
  5. Pardon the gross oversimplification.     (back)
  6. for example, see page 5 in the preview of The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution. I'll admit that IWBs as an easy way of getting teachers to use technology might be their biggest benefit. I'm just not sure it's a cost effective method.     (back)