After using interactive whiteboards for over a year now, Pear Tree Education has reached a point where it feels confident to offer some expert suggestions on the use of such technology.
Interactive whiteboards are still fairly new devices. Most North American schools still use regular whiteboards or chalkboards, and even those that have interactive whiteboards have versions which were bottom of the range and were basically out-of-date before they were purchased. That’s because these products are still really expensive!
Considering the expense, educators and schools want to get value for money out of such an investment. Pear Tree Education is no different in this respect. While our SMARTboards are not quite top of the range, they are far better than those you’d find in even prestigious private schools. As such, we want to find as many practical ways of using these boards as possible. Nevertheless, as experienced educators, we knew before making the purchase that an interactive whiteboard would still play the same role in education as that of the regular whiteboard – it is a teaching tool, nothing more. In other words, our desire to get value for money would face the checks and balances of pragmatism.
One of the main appeals of interactive whiteboards is the interactivity of content. However, making interactive lessons is a time-consuming process. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend spending time doing this. Some may argue that you don’t really need to design your own. You can use such sites as SMART Exchange. Indeed, SMART software encourages the sharing of lesson activities via their learning exchange, most likely because teachers wouldn’t have the time to create their own lessons otherwise. However, in our opinion, the quality of these lessons is pretty poor, and they’re obviously designed by teachers with low technical knowledge or appreciation of professional appearance of materials.
There are add-on products (both software and hardware) for SMARTboards, but these are also really expensive. After spending thousands of dollars equipping one classroom, the last thing you want to do is spend another thousand on additional gadgets and software licenses!
Part of my argument for not recommending designing your own interactive lessons is that spending too much time on lesson planning is a waste of time. It leads to over planning, and that’s a recipe for disaster. When I was a newly qualified teacher, I used to design my own lesson materials. I hated the textbooks, because they were unappealing and ineffective. I knew I could do much better. Nevertheless, I spent hours upon hours designing these materials. Despite my confidence in my abilities, there were several occasions when my lessons failed and my students just didn’t care about how much time and energy went into developing the class. While I cared about my students and my teaching, I wasn’t going to waste any more of my time doing this.
I eventually realised the power of organic teaching. By that, I don’t mean unstructured. Every lesson has a basic skeleton and lesson objective, yet it is relaxed enough to allow for the natural flow of the class. This is almost always dictated by the students. Students aren’t robots; they’re human beings. Moods and energy levels vary. Reactions to lesson topics and content vary, too. As such, trying to plan your entire class from start to finish is based on a set of guessing games; one single bad prediction and your lesson plan goes out the window. While an experienced and good teacher can adapt to their students, you can’t suddenly adapt a prescribed interactive whiteboard activity. That would take time alone, which you just don’t have.
Having said all this, all teachers are different, and the interactive building tools are really geared towards creating ‘right answer’-style activities. If your goal is simply to teach course content and then test your students, then designing your own interactive games, quizzes, etc. would be a worthwhile task. However, I’m just not that kind of teacher. Each to their own, I guess.
So where does that leave me?
Organic Teaching & Interactive Whiteboards
Well, strip away the interactive building tools and, admittedly, you’re left with a somewhat primitive device – at least in this point in time. Nevertheless, it’s still so much more useful than a regular whiteboard!
Interactive whiteboards are awesome for organic teaching. I rely heavily on the visual medium as a way to communicate concepts that are normally presented just as text. I find that this makes it easier to understand, and by connecting images with words, students are more likely to be able to remember and explain these concepts at a future time. Most of my drawings and diagrams are fairly spontaneous. I’m explaining something to my students, and because I naturally visualise the concept, I feel the need to present this image by drawing it. It isn’t necessarily anything elaborate, because I want the focus of the lesson to be on student activity, not passivity.
Because of the time spent on these drawings, there is nothing worse than having to erase the image and then wish you still had it later. So with an interactive whiteboard, you can treat it like a notebook with unlimited pages. You make notes, draw images, jot down ideas, and then turn the page. Whenever you need to refer back to something, there it is. And, you don’t have to worry about running out of ink (or dying from the fumes from the pens, either).
At the same time, because you have unlimited pages, you don’t need to overload the page. When I used regular whiteboards, I made use of every inch of the board. While this made for effective board work, I think that white space is easier on the eye and avoids over stimulus. As such, with an interactive whiteboard, you can draw a diagram, label it, give it a title, etc., and then for other notes about the diagram, you can simply turn the page and write that elsewhere. Therefore, everything remains clearly presented. And even if you do find yourself adding a lot of information to the page, you can move it around to organise it effectively.
Next, all of these notes can be exported into various formats, including picture and PDF formats. This is ideal for sharing post-class. You can save the actual lesson in its master, editable format so that you can use it again later, but for the students, the PDF/picture is the next best thing. The only thing worth noting here is that the PDF maker, at least by SMART software, isn’t very efficient. File sizes are far larger than they need be. If you have access to Adobe Acrobat Professional (or something equivalent), you can optimise/reduce the file size without any noticeable deterioration in the quality. The reason for this is that as most of what you produce is in vector format (not pixels), so it can’t degrade.
Inactive becomes active, sort of
Alternatively, you might find yourself working with a PDF file. Rather than photocopy the page, you can simply share the page onscreen – zoom in, etc. Here you can make notes and highlight the document all using the interactive whiteboard. SMART has improved their software so that you can actually modify the original PDF document (whereas previously it created a fairly useless, temporary ink layer over the top of the document that was completely detached). This is a really useful tool to have – just make sure you don’t destroy your original PDF!
While interactive whiteboards don’t connect to the Internet, the devices that connect to them normally do. As such, viewing and navigating around online is a fairly useful functionality. Still, you’ll find yourself doing most of this using the actual computer/laptop, as you need a keyboard for searching. Although interactive whiteboards have pop-up keyboards, they’re much less useful than an actual keyboard, because they pop-up in front whatever you’re looking at and obscure the screen.
There is the multimedia role of interactive whiteboards (gee… ‘multimedia’ sounds very 90s…). Gone are the days of the separate TV/DVD, CD player, overhead projector, etc. Interactive whiteboards replace all of these things, and do a much better job, too. With a computer, you can use presentation software, switch between various audio clips or video clips that are stored on your hard drive or online (blessed YouTube!); whereas, the traditional method would involve removing the CD, inserting the new one, waiting for it to spin, finding the track, etc. And, of course, there was a good chance that the CD player wouldn’t read the disc properly! On the downside, the quality and selection of speakers for SMARTboards is rather poor (read ‘tinny’). Perhaps non-SMART speakers would work better, but there are always compatibility issues to consider; and when things don’t work, who’s responsible: the speaker manufacturer or the board manufacturer?
Of course, it’s not just about you, the teacher
Lastly, consider that a lot of modern teachers also want their students to use these interactive whiteboards, whether it is to write something down, find a webpage, give a presentation, or whatever. Consequently, there will likely be parallels between your use of interactive whiteboards and those of your students. The basic tools will rule the roost, even if you do dabble with the activity builder or SMART Exchange lessons.
Overall, the use of interactive whiteboards is dictated by your teaching philosophy. If your primary goal is to teach course content that you consider important, then you could definitely use the interactive activity building tools provided by the board manufacturer; and, as such, you’ll find that the boards are radically different from regular whiteboards. However if, for you, it’s the teaching that you want to be radically different, then the activity builder approach isn’t for you. It’s just far too time consuming for organic lessons. Nonetheless, using the regular pen tools and multimedia features, you can call upon unlimited resources, make and record unlimited ideas, and make PDF documents fairly interactive.