You cannot eat one potato chip. You have to have more. Technological innovations hyped to transform teaching and learning are like potato chips. No district, no school just buys one. Laptops, tablets, and Interactive whiteboards (IWB) are typical examples. Consider the history of this high-tech classroom device.
Beginning in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, schools purchased interactive whiteboards by the truckload. British educators jumped on board this technological innovation with great enthusiasm especially after the government underwrote the buying of the technological innovation. In a glowing, enthusiastic article (2010), a writer described the results of the government largesse.
At St. Matthew Academy, a school for 3- to 16-year-olds serving a group of depressed London neighborhoods and similar to “turnaround schools” in American cities, IWBs have become fixtures in every classroom, with an eye to keeping students engaged. Assistant Principal David Cregan says that the boards are used for everything from mapping concepts—where students fill in an onscreen matrix with their ideas—to reviewing past lessons, where students unscramble letters to discover key words or ideas to launch a classroom discussion.
In the U.S. IWBs enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s.While there are different kinds of IWBs with accompanying software and pens to use, many districts outfitted entire schools with IWBs costing somewhere between $3K-5K for one in each classroom. In Silicon Valley, where I visited many classrooms, I saw some teachers use these devices imaginatively with much student participation and others to basically illustrate a lecture with video clips and Internet links.
Overall, then, IWBs beginning in England and arriving in the U.S. two decades ago have come and stayed. They are still around. While sales of IWBs expand in other nations, particularly in Asia, sales have annually decreased in the U.S. Declining sales track the hype cycle so familiar to American educators in love with new technologies.
What Problems Do Interactive Whiteboards Intend To Solve?
Apart from the glitter of a new technology aimed at teaching and learning, district and school administrators saw IWBs as solving the ever-constant problems of student motivation, engagement, and academic achievement.
IWBs gave teacher total access to information on the Internet and new tools to expand their repertoire of lecture, whole group discussion, small group teaching, and students’ independent work, thereby enhancing existing teaching approaches. The theory was that IWBs, then, by engaging students would remedy partially or wholly those ever-constant problems faced in classrooms.
What Does Use of Interactive Whiteboards Look Like in Practice?*
A Philadelphia high school English teacher describes her use of the IWB:
I have been using an interactive whiteboard for several years, and honestly, I like having the board available. The software that comes with the board offers me a nice way to organize and save the work we do each day. If we mark up a document during a lesson, I can save it and refer back to it the next day. Often, I use the board to share information for mini-lectures, to demonstrate activities, or to show video clips or images to enhance my lessons.
Does that mean that none of my teaching is student-centered? No way. I am often at the board for a total of five or ten minutes and then my students are working together in small groups, or we are engaged in class discussions about the literature we are reading. I sometimes return to the board to troubleshoot when a majority of my students are stuck, and that makes life easier for all of us.
Over the course of the past few years, my students have used the interactive whiteboard to showcase their learning through presentations. And when we are editing and writing as a class, we can share documents in real time. In other words, the students get to direct the learning.
The interactive whiteboard is a tool that lends itself to direct instruction, but it does not dictate that all the instruction needs to be teacher-directed.
From an article on a 4th grade classroom using an IWB.
Teaching artist Lisa Rentz worked with a classroom teacher on the group story-writing experience. Students read the book Circle Unbroken and then used it as inspiration for an original group story. “[The teacher] and I used the Smartboard to take notes, viewable by all, of the students’ ideas, words and decisions, as we went through the story-writing process– brainstorming, developing characters, commencing the plot, dialogue and word choice,” said Rentz.
Because the notes were on the interactive whiteboard, they were able to save them, print them and use them for outlines and handouts. “The Smartboard pages were printed out every day as the story grew. Each night I typed up everything for handouts the next day, and then resumed with the board until the conclusion of the story, which the students wrote individually,” said Rentz.
Do Interactive Whiteboards Work?
Sold as a way of increasing student motivation, engagement, collaboration, and academic achievement while altering how teachers teach to the whole class and small groups, research results, as one has come to expect in education, are decidedly mixed. Early enthusiasm that such devices–like laptops and desktop computers–increase students’ test scores shrunk as studies showed, at best, mixed results–including meta-analyses of the research. See here, here, here, here, and here.
Similarly, on results for increased student engagement and more collaboration, studies initially showed some gains but, again, the results are, at best, ambivalent. See here.
Why Do We Now Hear So Little Today about Interactive Whiteboards?
One answer is simply the hype cycle and what happens to many technological innovations.
Where to put IWBs in the cycle might be in the “Trough of Disillusionment,” “Slope of Enlightenment,” or “Plateau of Productivity” I cannot say since the evidence is sparse. Readers will have to decide, given their knowledge and experience with this once highly touted innovation.
Another reason often given by observers is that implementation of the device was hampered greatly by complicated software accompanying IWBs and the lack of one-to-one staff development for the innovation.
I would suggest another possible reason. It lacks much evidence, however, other than what I have observed, heard from teachers, and know about the history of classroom teaching. IWBs inherently reinforce teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, demonstrations, frontal teaching) at a time when the rhetoric among educators and school practitioners is student-centered instruction (e.g., much student participation, collaboration, and student choice). The clash between rhetoric and practice often goes unspoken and seldom noticed. After all, teachers adapt innovations to their lessons once the tinsel wears thin on an innovation and for those teachers who swear by their IWB, it is another tool in their kit of ways of getting students to learn.
And then there is occasional teacher reaction that may or may not mirror what many teachers felt and thought about IWBs purchased by administrators for use in their classrooms. Here is Bill Ferriter, a North Carolina public school sixth grade teacher’s response to IWBs.
I’ll admit that there aren’t many topics I’m more passionate about than interactive whiteboards in the classroom.
Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg.
I gave mine away last summer. After about a year’s worth of experimenting, I determined that it was basically useless.
My hunch is that IWBs, like sister technological devices over the past century, enjoyed its moment in the pedagogical sun and faded into a quiet niche within teachers’ repertoires as much as the slate blackboard was in the mid-19th century and the whiteboard in late-20th century classrooms.
*I looked at various YouTube presentations by teachers and consultants on using IWBs in lessons. Nearly all that I watched were sponsored by companies that sold the product. For readers who want such examples, see here and here. A few came from non-company sources. See here