Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Reasons Why Interactive Whiteboards Are Being Attacked

(Click the image for a larger view.)

I am a teacher. I have great respect for my colleagues around the world and for the profession itself. I chose to share this comic because it is an obvious exaggeration and in no way should be taken literally. It sheds light in a comical way on the ridiculous notion that IWBs in and of themselves are “bad” technology. Technology is just a tool. Hardware and software do not help our students learn in the absence of a teacher. It is completely up to the teacher whether or not an IWB is used effectively in the classroom.
Let me be clear, I don’t believe IWBs are appropriate for every classroom, but I do believe that interactive technologies in some form are.

Below I offer a list of the main arguments against IWBs and my responses. I write this with the background of using interactive technologies in my own classroom and from the experiences I have had using every brand of interactive whiteboard and pad since leaving the classroom.

1. IWBS are a waste of money.

In times of tight budgets, a target has been placed on IWBs for one primary reason—cost. Most IWBs are expensive, and when schools spend thousands of dollars per classroom, it is usually with the accompanying expectation of tangible results from the investment. So when people see IWBs used poorly in classrooms where there was a lack of professional development or where the IWB was paired with a teacher whose teaching style was not enhanced by an IWB, a natural hatred toward IWBs grows because money has been wasted.

To argue that money should not be spent on expensive technology is a very valid point. But, it only goes so far for two reasons:

a) Schools frequently spend money on more expensive technologies when equivalents are available. One example: Mac computers are hundreds of dollars more expensive than their PC counter-parts, yet many schools are all Mac when a majority of student applications can be performed on either platform. I bring this up not to ignite a Mac vs PC debate but because the argument that schools shouldn’t invest in expensive technologies when less expensive alternatives are available is not unique to the IWB debate.

b) Schools spend large sums of money on many technology products that support students but do not directly impact classroom instruction. When is the last time you asked the yearly price of your online school management system, lunch account system, synchronized clock/intercom system, etc. When we need to save money on technology, the first consideration should not be a one-time hardware purchase that directly impacts students in the classroom.

2. Other technologies perform the same functions as IWBs.

The crux of this argument is that a tablet and projector can offer the same functionality as an IWB. IWBs and the tablet/projector combination each offer a way to control the computer screen remotely.

Most of this argument I agree with. I often recommend to schools to that they start their interactive content integration with pads and projectors rather than leaping into IWBs. It is simply a more cost effective solution. But, there are three considerations related to this point:

a) Some students have difficulty with hand-eye coordination. If you are using an interactive tablet, which is much more cost effective than a tablet pc, you write on the tablet but view what you have written on the projected image. For younger students and some special education students, this is extremely difficult. If you are using a tablet pc, which includes a display, the cost of current options which allow functionality beyond basic “e-readers” are nearly equal to the cost of an interactive whiteboard.

b) The following difference was first introduced to me via Chris Betcher’s book: The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution, but it is a phenomenon I experienced firsthand in my classroom. I began teaching with interactive content in my classroom with a projector and a wireless mouse. I would pass the mouse from student to student to answer questions and solve problems projected on my board. When I shifted to an IWB and students began to come up and physically interact with the content up close, there was a difference in how the students engaged with the task at hand. Remotely manipulating items from their seats with the mouse creates a gap between the students and the content. When the students came to the board and were able to physically touch the content, the hardware barrier between the student and the content was blurred, and the students seemed to be controlling the content directly versus controlling the content via the mouse. Because this difference is not easily measured it is difficult to argue, or even to describe, but it is an important distinction that is not without merit.

c) There are valuable tools for content interaction and content creation found in the software provided with interactive whiteboards. While there are several online interactive whiteboard space applications, none are as robust, particularly in terms of content creation resources, as the software provided by IWB manufacturers. The advantage to using portable pads produced by IWB manufacturers is that you still have access to the manufacturer’s software.

3. IWBS promote teacher centered instruction.

Ah, yes. This argument and its associated phrases “chalk and talk” and “sage on the stage” promote the idea the IWBs somehow are designed for teacher use only. There are four reasons this argument doesn’t ring true:

a) For some teachers, yes, I agree. They will use the IWB as a teacher centered instructional tool. But those teachers are already teacher centered instructors. (See the comic above) It is not the tool. It is the teacher operating the tool that determines if it is used effectively.

b) According to research, introducing technology into the classroom requires teachers to rethink their curriculum. (The research is summarized in this blog post: Justification For Teaching With Interactive Content) Teachers go through phases in their use of interactive whiteboards. Initially, they may use them as glorified projection screens with power points for whole class lectures. (And I concede that some teachers get stuck here.) But other teachers go on to use them for group projects, center work, team problem solving, student project sharing and a host of other student-centered instructional strategies. Teacher collaboration fostered by the introduction of technology also has the potential to introduce teachers to new instructional strategies they may not have discovered independently.

c) Direct instruction should not be eliminated from the classroom. Teaching students concepts through lecture isn’t innately bad teaching. Some concepts still need to be directly taught, particularly in elementary school. It is only when that becomes your primary means of teaching that issues arise.

d) The fact that even with multi-touch functionality or multi-user software only 1-4 students can interact with the IWB at one time is part of the teacher centered argument. To me this is the same as arguing that only one student at a time can speak an answer to a question aloud. The same instructional strategies we use to insure all students are involved in class can be used with the IWB. Pair and share, writing answers on wipe off marker boards, and coming to consensus in small groups, are all strategies that can be used to engage all students. These strategies have the potential to be more successful with the added motivation of being chosen to use the interactive technology if you actively participate.

4. There is no proof IWBs are effective.

This argument is that IWBs should not be used because there is no research to show that they raise student achievement. (I have seen the Marzano study, but after considering peer reviews of the study, I personally don’t feel this particular study can be held up as evidence.)

There are three issues with this argument:

a) When asking for evidence, it is often assumed that increased standardized test scores are the measurement that should be used to show effectiveness. In fact, this is the only standardized method we currently use to measure effectiveness, and as teachers, we understand that this one method of assessment is not adequate. So, how can we measure the ability of specific technologies to improve student achievement? There isn’t a good method currently, and I invite you to read Doug’s insightful post as to why it is nearly impossible to measure: Trick Question

b) IWBs are seen as ineffective by some because they do not revolutionize education in a significant way. Expecting one piece of technology to revolutionize the way in which we teach our students is unrealistic. Furthermore, enhancing common practices is still a valuable use of technology. Once again, I invite you to read Doug’s explanation of this technology value: Enhancing Common Practices

c) Effectiveness can be defined in ways other than student achievement and test scores. To a classroom teacher increased enjoyment in teaching, increased student motivation and more enthusiasm towards learning are significant achievements that are difficult to measure. They are valuable outcomes in and of themselves and should not be minimized as they are also contributing factors to raising student achievement.

In the end, it is my belief that it is not the tool but the content and the way the teacher integrates that content into classroom instruction that ultimately determines the end value of an IWB in the classroom as discussed in my previous post: Interactive Whiteboards Alone Are Not Interactive Most teachers lack adequate professional development on how to create and find quality interactive lessons and on how to integrate the technology effectively into classroom instruction. This is a huge contributing factor to the climate of distaste for IWBs, and I understand the frustration. Unfortunately, it has manifested itself in an attack on interactive whiteboards.

I offer that instead of making blanket sensational statements that all IWBs are bad, our discussion should center on helping teachers choose or advocate for interactive technologies that best fit their individual needs and helping them use those interactive technologies—in whatever forms they take--effectively to the benefit of their students.