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.


  1. As you mention, it is so critical to focus less on the technology, and more on how it is utilized by the classroom teachers. Teacher training needs to be paralleled with technology adoption to ensure effective implementation.

    I personally think interactive whiteboards can be very effective, though sometimes I wonder if they should be a current focus. Are there technologies out there that would provide schools with a higher ROI?

  2. Thank you for responding to "Why Smartboards Are A Dumb Initiative" ( but I still think Smartboards are a dumb initiative that result in a waste of thousands of dollars that can be more effectively used by putting equipment in the hands of students. Here is my response to each of your points. I appreciate the attempt but still believe you fail to make the case for putting money in an ineffective gadget rather than in the hands of students.

    Visit to read why.

  3. Emily: From reading many of the posts written by the contributors to the Innovative Educator blog, I have concluded that their animus toward IWBs is because they are on the on the hook by certain segments of corporate America to push the "sexier" gadgets being currently manufactured by Silicon Valley companies, which would include any smartphone device or "iFad" device from Apple. Emily, your points defending IWBs are sound. These teachers acting as shills for corporate America are ruining our profession and it's up to those who recognize purposeful and pragmatic uses of tech (without the pop culture inspired hoopla that surrounds it) to counter their influence and wrestle education away from corporate interests.

  4. Great post Emily! Your arguments are logical and make a lot of sense. Your'e right, IWBs will only be as effective if a good teacher makes them effective.

    THanks for sharing.


  5. The only thing that is dumb about Smartboards are the unimaginative who use them.
    The capacity of a smartboard to be used as a stand alone tool, as a direct instruction tool, as a group learning tool, as an interactive media tool, as a communication tool, as a collaboration tool, as a presentation tool, as an editing tool, as a display tool etc make smartboards really smart technology. For many not so wealthy schools they provide a relatively cheap option (compared to a host of PCs or laptops and the accompanying infrastructure)to the delivery of technology into a classroom. Time for teachers to get smart and use the boundless possibilities that the technology offers.
    Also I don't get this sexy image thing that people are talking about - do you mean popular and inspiring? What's wrong with that?

  6. I've been impressed with the possibility of the technology integrated into the BoxLight digital projectors and a few others. They project an IR beam and basically turn any surface into an interactive white board. No need for a specialized board or projector. This innovation could provide a much more versatile solution for 1/3 of the price of a IWB.

  7. Great post Emily. Your arguments make a lot of sense. We can say the same thing about many new technologies or strategies that come into the classroom. They are certainly only effective if the teachers using them put the effort into finding more about how to use them effectively, or are provided with support to do this. Of course, there will be some who use it as an overhead projector - just like there are some who use thinking skills ineffectively. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

  8. Thanks for this thoughtful post. The group I most like using IWB technology with is our youngest learners. In my job I assist teachers in learning to use technology to differentiate instruction. I have used both systems - projectors with laptops (no IWB)and IWBs. Using the IWB with young children and children with disabilities in my experience is more natural than having to go to the computer. We are finding that having children use the board helps make their thinking visible - both learning breakthroughs and misconceptions - in a way we weren't seeing before. The joint focus on the board by the class or a small group while a child is using the board is also very powerful. My best lessons or activities (small or large group)are the ones that I can conduct from the back of the room or group while the kids are interacting with the IWB.

  9. danielespejo, thanks for your comment. I agree that utilization should be the focus for implementations. So many PD sessions only cover software navigation and operation rather than teaching lesson integration and interactivity design.

  10. The Innovative Educator, thanks for your comment. I feel you fail understand some of the points I make as evidenced in your response, but I have read enough of your comments to understand that you are set in your anti-IWB beliefs.

    I was offended by your assertation that I am advocating for IWBs with the underlying intention of wanting to or needing to work for one of the companies in the future, and I also believe that calling IWBs a "dumb" initiative is insulting to those who are already using them effectively.

    However, I do appreciate the underlying intention of your anti-IWB agenda to advocate for schools to spend their ed-tech money wisely by weighing the pros and cons of all options.

  11. marksrightbrain and Chris, thanks for your comments! I appreciate the compliments.

  12. Hi Glenn,

    I have seen the BoxLight projectors and think they would be a great solution for some classrooms. Could you help me out with the pricing comparison, though? I have heard the quote before that they are 1/3 of the cost of IWBs but I haven't figured that out. They are around $1700 correct? A mimio IWB + projector is $1250. A 77" SMARTboard is $1485. You can add your own projector for $500. I realize IWBs with attached projectors are more costly, but even the more expensive models run $3000-$3500, which makes $1700 still only 1/2 the cost. What am I missing?

  13. Pam,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and for echoing the sentiment that the tool is only as effective as the teacher using it.

  14. Anita,

    Thank you for your comment! I appreciate you sharing your first-hand experiences. In many of the anti-IWB articles I read, the examples given are from high school classrooms. My expertise is solely in elementary school settings, so I am very interested in your observations that they work best with younger learners because that has been my experience. Thank you also for making a point to highlight the fact that students are using the board, not just the teacher.

  15. Help me out with the logic behind 1a...

    Schools already use other technologies that are not at all cost-effective, so there's a precedent?

    or maybe it's...

    Schools already use other technologies that are not all cost-effective, so what's one more set in the grand scheme of things?

    I don't get it.

  16. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for the question. I can definitely see how the point could be read in a "we're already wasting money in other areas, so what's a little more wasted on IWBs" kind of way. That is certainly not the thought behind the idea. It was intended to point out that it is not necessarily "wasted" money because it is more expensive. Technologies are expensive because of their components, durable construction, or creative applications. You are getting the quality you pay for. In otherwords, cost doesn't make a technology tool innately bad. So, when there are several alternatives available, as there are for computers, it is important to examine all of the pros and cons, not just the sticker price.

  17. IWBs expensive? Hmmm. I'm not sure how one measures "expensive", but I'd look at it this way... Let's assume that in a typical "modern classroom" it's a given that it will have a projector. I don't think anyone would argue that a projector in a classroom is a waste of money?

    Let's also assume that this projector is actually installed permanently, rather than just set up on a desk each time the teacher wants to use it. After all, if it requires time and effort to use each time then it won't take long for the novelty to wear off and teachers top using it.

    So, assuming we are installing the projector, this means we need a ceiling mount or a short throw projector mount on the wall. It will need to be wired of course, so an electrician will be needed to run cables, install powerpoints, run AV cabling, etc. You'll need a set of speakers on the wall too, and these will need to be hooked up. Cable runs to the ceiling can be tricky depending on the size of the room, the height of the ceiling and the access to existing power, but it will need to be done right because the end result has to meet code.

    So, by the time you run power, pay an electrician, buy speakers, buy a decent projector, add a wall plate with proper AV switching to allow a laptop and its video and audio feeds to be plugged in (or alternatively, include the cost of a permanently mounted PC), and the cost of our room is getting up to around, what? $4000-5000? Add a bit more if you want to use a tablet PC, if you can still even buy one these days!

    These are the costs to do it right. You can do a dodgy job of this, but if you do it right then this is in the ball park. (and I've been an IT Manager in several schools that have gone down this path and these figures are quite conservative - wait till you try to do this wiring in a heritage building and see how they blow out!)

    Oh, and you can expect the bulb on that projector to need replacing every 12-18 months at a cost of around $500-$800. Either that, or many schools I know are simply just replacing the entire projector every 18-24 months.

    All this is without even considering the cost of an IWB. These are the costs that would be incurred just to have the projector on it's own, or to have it there to try and use with a Wiimote Whiteboard (Good luck with those by the way!... They work ok, but I hope you have a lot of patience and technical savvy!)

    Now, just for fun, let's add the cost of an IWB... let's be extravagant and say it costs you another couple of grand. Now let's consider that, as a large screen technology, it's a tool that can be of some shared benefit to everyone in that class, since they will all be able to see it, use and touch it (and no, perhaps not all at once, but over time they all get to experience it) Then lets consider that the IWB would get used for at least part of each day... typically if a teacher knows how to leverage the technology they might use it for 70-80% of the day, but let's assume they just use it for 50% of the time. And let's assume that the IWB will last for at least 6 years... there's no moving parts, nothing to break, and from my own personal experience with IWB I would expect them to last at least this long (many of ours are nearly that old and still going strong.

    Now do the math, and tell me what other classroom technology lasts 6+ years, gets used for a significant part of each school day, and benefits every student in the classroom, and costs less.

  18. Continued...

    Yes it would be nice it every kid had a laptop, but unless yours do, then that's not even a valid argument. I'd also make the case that just as a personal computer is very much a great tool for learning, an IWB is a great tool for teaching. If there is still room for explicit teaching, leading students through ideas and concepts that they might not discover on their own (trust me, that bottom Year 9 class is not going to discover algebra on their own without some guidance from the teacher!) then an IWB makes a lot of sense. As a tool for bring rich media into a classroom, of having a window to the world, of having a portal to exploring unexpected questions, or being a flexible tool to help visualise difficult concepts, of being a place where ideas can be captured and shared and discussed and manipulated, with both teacher and student able to explore ideas on a large communal digital space by talking and pointing and dragging and manipulating, that all in the room can be a part of... If an IWB is not the ideal tool for doing all this, then I'm keen to hear what is.

    After daily use for 6+ years, helping make sense of ideas with every kid in the room, if you can find a more efficient use of the $2000 it cost to include the IWB then I'd suggest you buy it. I think once you sit down and work out what that bit of hardware has actually cost you when you spread it out over multiple years and multiple users, I think you'll find it hardly what you can call "expensive".

    There might be reasons to dislike IWBs, but they mostly have to do with poor teaching, not the expense of the hardware. And the poor teaching that you see with IWBs? Don't kid yourself... you'd get just as bad teaching even without them.

  19. Great post, Emily! I feel like I've been shouting the same sentiments from the rooftops for years :) It's become one of those debates that people tend to create an identity with (akin to "I'm a PC" or "I'm a Mac")

    All I can say is that I had access to an IWB (either in my school or in my own classroom) for 4 out of my 5 years of teaching, and it was FANTASTIC. Sadly, as you point out, you can't quantify enthusiasm, lessened classroom behaviour issues and eagerness to learn. As such, many of those that are anti-IWBs keep pointing to the age-old question "where's the proof?" [side note - I have an old blog post that discusses one snippet of proof]

    Are there good teachers without IWBs? Yes. Are there poor teachers with them? Yes. I have said it a million's the teAch, not the tech.

  20. Vanessa,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I agree it is an issue where people on both sides are digging in their heels. Thanks for the link and for the great quote "It's the teAch not the tech." Don't worry, I'll credit you!;)

  21. Just as an aside re IWB costs - my rough calculations suggest that it costs about $50 per student per year to have a reasonable IWB set up in a classroom (over 4 yr period). That's about 25c per school day per student - chicken feed!
    No one ever talks about the $80 000 a year that can be often wasted with an underperforming, incompetent teacher at the wheel - which equates to about $13 per student per school day. Food for thought.

  22. You're so right! I too wrote a post on this very subject for much the same reasons as you. A Technology needs to be used in a context well. Think TPACK. You need to not only know what the hardware is and what tools it has but how to integrate that tool with the content you teach and the teaching methods you use - That's the only way to make any technology have an good impact on teaching and learning :)

    Here's what I had to say:

  23. I teach 6 classes of each grade level in music Pre=K to G2. I can not imagine not having an IWB. It has allowed me to individualize instruction, be more creative in my teaching, embed video and audio files, keeping all resources in one place to name some the many advantages. This makes for less distraction in teaching. Visuals are available for those learners who need them. Students are able to compose on the spot. Individual and class assessments are easily stored.

    Master music teachers use their preparation time creating colored text charts outlining the lyrics of the songs that each class is learning. These charts not only help to teach the song but also show musical rhythms, pitch direction, form as well as other literacy characteristics within the text. Teachers also create magnetic pitch and rhythmic manipulative as well as burn cds of materials for every unit of teaching. As material differs from year to year, teachers are in a constant state of time consuming laminating, printing, burning and formatting. With the addition of interactive white boards in the music room this process is greatly simplified. By using the IWB notebook application, music teachers can keep their planning solely to their computers, cutting out the need to copy and laminate every material taught. CDs are turned into mp3 playlists and activated from the board. Manipulative pieces can be created on a computer and used by both teachers and students alike.

    Beyond simply being a time saver, the IWB board allows music teachers to more accurately archive student work, for example when writing songs or creating rhythmic ostinato, by saving each class’ work on the computer. The boards aid in planning as each individual class could pick up where it left off as their exact work was saved.

    I found students do not get enough opportunities to read and write music. With the addition of the interactive white boards, music classes use a variety of methods to incorporate this into their teaching including writing music as a class using iconic graphics, creating the notation themselves on Finale. The instant gratification then of seeing their creation in a published form, and if using Finale or Sibelius, hearing it played back is vastly influential to the students’ work and may be kept throughout the year and leads to guided and independent student compositions.

    I have the ability to be more focused on my class. Often when singing with CD’s or recording student work music teachers most be going back and forth from a stereo system or a computer. With the white board, all work of this manner would be focused on the board, thus keeping the class more engaged.

    Students have the opportunity to learn in a variety of ways. Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences are easily addressed using the IWB.

    These are only a few reasons why I find the board invaluable in my teaching.


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