Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ten Questions You Should Ask Before Purchasing Interactive Whiteboard Content

SMART Exchange, Promethean Planet, mimio Connect and the eInstruction community are great places to start searching for the content you need to teach effectively with your interactive whiteboard; however, many times you will need resources in addition to or different from the user generated content available in these libraries. In fact, 88% of educators said they would use IWBs, or would use their existing IWBs more often, if more digital content were available according to the “K-12 Technology Tools and Trends 2009” report produced by Simba Information and Market Data Retrieval (MDR).

Inevitably, as schools continue to invest in interactive technologies, more and more companies will be offering interactive whiteboard content. Creating quality, interactive content outside of the software provided with IWBs is an expensive endeavor, so most of these resources will not be provided for free. Those that are at no cost will typically be found on web pages filled with ads-- but that is a topic for another post.

So as the amount of paid content grows, how do you know what interactive whiteboard content you should invest in?

Here are ten questions you should ask before purchasing interactive whiteboard content:

1. Are these resources already available in my IWB software?

This may seem like an unnecessary question, but there is content currently available for purchase that includes spinners, dice, currency, flash cards, and a host of other activities and manipulatives that are already located in interactive whiteboard software galleries. The gallery in most IWB software is quite extensive. Take a few minutes to browse through all of the options available to you before investing in outside resources.

2. Are these resources already available online?

NLVM, Shodor, and Illuminations provide many free online and downloadable interactive manipulatives. Yet some paid content still includes base ten blocks, arrow cards, rulers, clocks, fraction bars and pattern blocks—all tools that can be freely accessed online. If you were to remove these manipulatives from the package, how much content is left?

Familiarize yourself with the content available on free educational sites to be sure you are not paying for an activity that has a similar version available online for free. I am aware of one content provider who is selling content packages that contain activities they already provide on a free website. (Note: It is important to differentiate between free content that is ad supported and free content that is advertisement free. Sometimes it is of value to pay for content that duplicates activities available online if the content online is surrounded by advertisements.)

3. Are these resources like a textbook online? Could I create these resources myself?

If content looks like it is a scanned .pdf from your textbook, is similar to a Power Point slide with some simple text and images, offers no functionality beyond drag and drop, or looks like something you could create in your IWB software, you can save your money and most likely find comparable content free on any IWB community site.

4. Are these resources limited in number or comprehensive?

Some interactive content packages are grouped in large grade level bands. For example, a math pack may include 100 lessons for K-5th grade. Look closely at the number of lessons that pack includes for your specific grade level and consider the number of topics it covers. If I am a first grade teacher, only 20 of those lessons may apply to my classroom, and they may only address 6 of the 15 math topics taught in my curriculum.

Since a single classroom includes students of widely varying abilities, it is important to have access to materials at other grade levels. Determine whether the content you purchase is comprehensive and will allow you to choose materials from different grade levels or whether you are limited to the content for your specific grade.

If content is limited, investigate whether the content resource points you to additional interactive activities either within their program or on the web. For example, if you use two decimals lessons from their content but aren’t finished teaching decimals, does the resource continue to assist your efforts?

5. Can my students access these resources?

In addition to accessing content for whole class instruction with IWBs, some web based solutions also allow students to access content on computers. This helps teachers to make a connection between whole class instruction and individual student learning. Some online content providers add increased value by inviting students to access content at home for further review and exploration. Offline programs may also allow individual student access, but the program must first be installed on each computer.

If student access is included, consider whether or not the content will still appeal to your students after experiencing it during whole class instruction. Is the activity engaging and are the questions randomized so students will still feel challenged during subsequent visits? Or does the program provide enough content options for each topic that the issue of repetitiveness is eliminated?

6. Who created these resources?

It is important to consider the source of content we use in our classrooms. Find out whether the resources you are considering were created by educational publishers, teachers, or a software company. As a classroom teacher, I believe educational content should be written by teachers with classroom experience and degrees in education, not computer programmers or graphic designers. They are certainly needed as contributing partners in programming and creating quality resources, but the writing and design should be performed by education professionals.

7. Can I search these resources by state and national standards? Can I search these resources by my publisher-based curriculum?

At the very least, a product should provide a way for you to view which state and/or national standards are aligned to each of their resources. At the very best, a product will provide a way for users to search and find content aligned to each specific state and/or national standard.

A hard to come by but very useful time-saving feature is the ability to search and find resources aligned to each unit/lesson/chapter in specific publisher-based curriculums.

8. Do these resources include voiceovers?

Voiceovers add value and increased functionality to interactive content. They help to differentiate instruction and to engage auditory learners. If voiceovers are present in paid content, they should sound professional and preferably offer the option to be turned on or off depending on the needs of your specific classroom.

9. Is there support for the content and are updates provided?

Content installations often don’t go as planned. You will have questions as you begin to use new content, and there may be connectivity issues with web based solutions. At a minimum, you should expect a basic level of technical support via phone and email. You should place even more value on content from companies that go beyond the basics to help you integrate the content into classroom instruction or to assist you in locating specific resources via phone, email, and newsletter support.

Updates are a known part of content development, so you should expect updates to your content at least once a year. If the content is installed locally on your computer, find out if the company provides regular updates. If so, how do you know when updates are available? How are those updates delivered, and is there an additional charge? If the content is web-based, will updates appear automatically? How often are updates provided? How will you know what has been updated? Is there an additional charge?

10. How is this content delivered, and what program does it require?

Content will typically be either web-based or installation-based. Web-based content is delivered online. This means content can be accessed on any computer with an internet connection via a web browser. Some advantages include no installation, automatic updates, quick response to technical issues within the content, and easy student/teacher access from any computer anytime.

Installation-based options require installation on your school’s server or on individual computers where the content will be used. Access to this type of locally hosted content is not dependent on an internet connection.

As with any type of software, basic computer operating requirements should be explored. Many content providers offer a free trial which should be taken advantage of to test how the content performs on your specific hardware.

Beyond the basics, you should also consider whether the content requires a specific program to operate. For example, if content is created in SMART Notebook software, that software must be installed on every computer on which you will want to access the content; and if you change IWB software or use multiple brands of IWB software within your building, the content will only be accessible by teachers with access to SMART Notebook.

Always take advantage of free trials offered by content providers to facilitate your evaluation, but keep in mind that the trial may only offer access to a portion of the available content. Contact the content provider or attend an online demonstration for a more thorough evaluation of both the content and the company.

Click here to download a handy .pdf that places the ten questions to ask before purchasing interactive whiteboard content in a table format to assist with your personal evaluations.

What questions do you ask when evaluating interactive content for your classroom?