Classroom Tech | Viewpoint

Interactive Whiteboards: Truths and Consequences

Can interactive whiteboards be used effectively in the classroom to help improve student academic achievement? Maybe, but not by themselves.

Do interactive whiteboards lead to achievement gains? Does any specific technology? Whiteboards impressed me as little more than glorified slates back when I'd first learned of them--nice tools for presenting lessons with computer resources using annotative capabilities--but over the years I haven't given them much more further thought.

However, upon reading a recent article in the Washington Post (McCrummen, 2010) on the millions of dollars schools are spending to purchase interactive whiteboards and other technologies in their education reform efforts, I became intrigued by vendor claims that such products promise to improve student performance. But just what kind of performance does this mean? Let's examine some truths and consequences on interactive whiteboards, principally in regard to key questions for integrating technology into instruction and expectations for a technology to be effective.

Truth 1: Another Slate
The truth is that the interactive whiteboard (IWB) is the newest advancement in a whole line of slates introduced over the last few centuries, all seen as tools for educational reform. Educators are told that their "schools must embrace the technologies that are the media of modern life," as Stephanie McCrummen (2010) pointed out. However, new tools in the evolution of educational technology have often been met by resistance to change. You might appreciate some interesting quotes noted in Carolyn Campbell's slideshare. Historically, children transitioned from writing on prepared bark to writing on hand-held slates. But critics cried, "What if the slates broke? We're losing the art of preparing bark!" Then blackboards for broad classroom displays were introduced and green boards, the latter of which was touted as better than blackboards for reducing eye-strain. Whiteboards requiring use of dry erase markers became the next best thing because they eliminated health problems due to chalk dusk and were cleaner to use. The newest advancement of the slate is also being met with mixed reviews (Thomas, 2009), but IWBs have become popular and not just in the United States. What's so great about them?

Truth 2: Prized Features
Much has been written about features of IWBs that appeal for teacher-led instruction. The IWB is a touch-sensitive display that connects to a computer and a projector. It is both an output and input device. You can see all images as you would on a computer screen. You can write on it with electronic pens and use your finger as a mouse. As with content on a computer, you can save and print annotated output, recall it and revise annotations. Some models allow the sequence of events in a lesson to be saved in video format. This latter has the advantage for reuse and is helpful for learners who might have missed a lesson or wish to review. Content can be shared with other educators and parents. Accessories are available, such as wireless slates, that allow teachers to move about while having access to the IWB and student response systems (known as clickers) that enable teachers to get instant feedback for quick assessments. An added plus are IWB resources provided by vendors, such as those found at the Promethean Planet and Smart Exchange Web sites (Branzburg, 2008; Curwood, 2009).

Truth 3: A Medium with Potential
Sometimes schools jump on a technology bandwagon just to be considered "innovative," as McCrummen (2010) pointed out. However, a technology should be implemented because it will serve a role in learning. The truth is the IWB's role is that of a medium in instruction. In The Great Debate: Effectiveness of Technology in Education (Deubel, 2007), I reminded readers that it's not the medium, but instructional methods that cause learning. I also provided questions that Joel Smith and Susan Ambrose posed to help educators think in a systematic way about how and when to incorporate any new pedagogical strategy, including media, into instruction. For any implementation to have a chance of making a difference in learning, you need to be able to answer "yes" to one or more of the following questions:

  1. Is there an educational need, problem, or gap for which use of new media might potentially enhance learning?
  2. Would the application of new media assess students' prior knowledge and either provide the instructor with relevant information about students' knowledge and skill level or provide help to students in acquiring the necessary prerequisite knowledge and skills if their prior knowledge is weak?
  3. Would the use of new media enhance students' organization of information given that organization determines retrieval and flexible use?
  4. Would the use of new media actively engage students in purposeful practice that promotes deeper learning so that students focus on underlying principles, theories, models, and processes, and not the superficial features of problems?
  5. Would the application of new media provide frequent, timely, and constructive feedback, given that learning requires accurate information on one's misconceptions, misunderstandings, and weaknesses?
  6. Would the application of new media help learners develop the proficiency they need to acquire the skills of selective monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting their learning strategies? (Some call these metacognitive skills.)
  7. Would the use of new media adjust to students' individual differences given that students are increasingly diverse in their educational backgrounds and preferred methods of learning?

IWB features alone indicate that one might answer "yes" to some of the above (perhaps questions 1, 5, and 7), indicating IWBs have a chance to help make a difference in teaching and learning. If you need more convincing, the former British Education Communications and Technology Agency (Becta, 2006) provided a set of examples in multiple content areas of teaching elementary grade learners interactively with whiteboards with specific statements of the role that IWBs played in each. However, what is the nature of that difference?

Truth 4: Limited Research Base
In spite of those desirable features and a potential rationale for purchases, the truth is that while the research on IWBs is growing in academic journals (Thomas, 2009), little of it has clearly linked any of those machines to improved academic achievement, as Larry Cuban pointed out (McCrummen, 2010). That's not just opinion. Smith, Higgins, Wall, and Miller (2005) reached a similar conclusion, stating more strongly:

Although the literature reviewed is overwhelmingly positive about the impact and the potential of IWBs, it is primarily based on the views of teachers and pupils. There is insufficient evidence to identify the actual impact of such technologies upon learning either in terms of classroom interaction or upon attainment and achievement. (p. 92)

Much of the evidence is anecdotal, and improved student performance appears to be in terms of increasing learning in the affective domain rather than the cognitive domain. Robert Schroeder's (2007) review of literature on IWB-use in primary and secondary schools in the United States and the UK revealed that students and teachers valued the IWB for its versatility, multimedia capabilities, its impact on motivation, reinforcing concentration and attention. Students liked the "fun and games" when learning and felt the IWB affected their self-esteem. The IWB takes whole classroom instruction to another level because it potentially heightens students' emotions and encourages greater participation owing to students being able to directly interact with materials on the board (Schroeder, 2007). In her math study, Valerie Quashie (2009) found students held a common view that the IWB somehow made learning a particular topic easier, a perception that might influence retention.

Teachers have referred to the IWB appeal to reach students via a variety of mediums. They note the appeal to kids' multiple intelligences particularly for visual-spatial and bodily-kinesthetic learners that can be hard to accommodate in the print-based classroom. IWBs offer another way to differentiate instruction and also appeal to both higher-level and lower-level learners and to special needs learners (Curwood, 2009).

Such praises might further make schools eager to purchase IWBs. Yet, one must consider Michael Thomas's (2009) view, "If anything the history of [IWBs] to date is still a case study exemplifying the misplaced philosophy driving a lot of IT in education, namely 'introduce first and think about how to use it later.'" In his review of one of the latest books on IWBs, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution, Thomas confirmed "more longitudinal studies are still required," as the academic studies that have been carried out to date highlight "increased motivation in some cases for students but less significant learning gains" (p. 962).

Consequence 1: Usefulness Might Wear Off
There are some consequences to IWB purchases beyond the need for teachers and students to learn how to operate the devices and use all the features. The usefulness of the IWB is a function of quality of the materials used on it (Quashie, 2009). Those materials might be Internet-based, commercial software-based, or teacher-made. If that quality were to be perceived as less than desirable or if an increase in time to prepare lessons were to become an issue, the IWB usefulness might wear off. Instruction is also impacted by the teacher's creativity to orchestrate engaging lessons using technology resources, including not just for lecture and demonstration but also for collaborative group work. This latter, in particular, is a primary consideration when examining vendor claims promising that IWBs will affect student performance.

What about participation? While students can go to the board for interactions, will all students be physically engaged at some point in the lesson or at least mentally engaged with what's going on? The reality is probably not for the long term, if the IWB is used just as an enhancement within a 19th-century, teacher-led instruction scenario. Smith and her colleagues (2009) noted that "although some of the IWB literature expounds the virtues of IWBs in encouraging pupils' verbal and physical participation in lessons it does not necessarily question the quality of that participation." Hence, going to the board might be labeled a surface feature of interactive teaching (p. 95). So, when the novelty wears off with daily use of the IWB/computer combination, will the lessons eventually be perceived as disengaging and rather boring, particularly if the teacher is the only one with the hands-on use? Will you still find students who would prefer to sleep or do other things not directly involved with the activity at hand? What will sustain the innovation?

Consequence 2: Every Classroom Has To Have One
If you decide to purchase one IWB, you will need to purchase one for all classrooms in a building. As Becta (2007) found from its IWB implementation in elementary grades, it's a matter of sustaining the innovation among teachers and for learners as they progress through the grades and from one subject to the next. Even if every classroom had one, you could not assume IWBs will be effective. According to Mark Schneiderman (2004), director of federal education policy at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), "Degree of effectiveness depends upon the congruence among the goals of instruction, characteristics of the learners, design of the software, and educator training and decision-making, among other factors" (p. 30). From the SIIA (2009), also add proper planning and "school leadership, technical support, configured hardware, network infrastructure and Internet access, pedagogy and instructional use," and intensity of use (p. 2).

Consequence 3: Everyone Has To Use It
Suppose the above factors were addressed. You still need to ensure everyone uses the IWBs. As Becta (2007) also found, it may take at least two years for all teachers to embed the IWB in their pedagogy and the same time of sustained use among learners before any impact can be measured meaningfully. However, we know educators' philosophical and teaching perspectives differ and that there are still those who believe what can be accomplished with a piece of technology pales in comparison to what they can accomplish without it. Some lean more toward teacher-centered instruction, and others are more student-centered. Perspectives might range from behaviorism to social constructivism to connectivism. These perspectives matter, as they affect whether or not the teacher will use the IWB. You can only change perspectives through a process of sharing what works.

Consequence 4: IWBs Won't Be Enough
The IWB is just one tool in the arsenal of technology tools that schools can purchase. Even if every classroom had one and everyone were using an IWB regularly, the ultimate consequence would be that IWBs would not suffice to prepare all learners to take their place in 21st century culture. Other technologies will need consideration to meet individual needs across the range of diversity found among learners.

Steven Ross and Deborah Lowther (2009) indicated that given a major goal in today's education is preparing students for higher education and careers, three forms of technology applications show promise for using "technology reflectively and scientifically to make teachers and curricula more effective." These include "as a tutor, as a teaching aide, and as a learning tool." The first two of those help teachers to address individual needs, and the latter can help learners acquire 21st century skills such as "searching the Internet, creating graphs and illustrations, and communicating through multimedia presentations." As a part of tutoring, computer-assisted instruction can provide students with extra practice on key skills and content, provide remediation instruction, provide enrichment activities, and provide alternative ways to teach material for deeper learning. As a teaching aide, tools such as whiteboards enable teachers to better orchestrate their lessons; clicker response systems enable timely feedback to questions that teachers pose (pp. 20-21).

Thus, one-to-one technology initiatives providing learners with their own personal portable devices, such as noted by Learning to Go, One-to-One Institute, and the Maine International Center for Digital Learning, are worthy of consideration. Personal devices used alone or in groups during class time strengthen any use of IWBs, thus transforming education into the 21st century.

Bottom Line
I agree that IWBs tend to lock teachers into a 19th-century lecture style, as McCrummen (2010) noted. The literature is filled with reminders that for any technology to possibly make a difference in achievement, it must be used regularly and become an integral part of learning. IWBs are just mediums that help teachers to present lessons. They do add value for students who are already immersed in the world of media and expect visual stimulation. However, as Quashie (2009) concluded, their interactive features may not be appropriate for every lesson, and it is possible to use IWBs without any interactivity. The teacher's role is pivotal "to make their lessons interactive in order to engage and motivate their students; this can be achieved with, or without, the IWB" (Summary section).

IWBs "certainly aren't a one-stop solution for raising achievement in your classroom. But under the right conditions, they can help promote student engagement and foster content area learning in a constructivist, learner-centered classroom" (Curwood, 2009, p. 30). We must remain vigilant of vendor claims on the effect of IWBs, or any technology, on student performance. Ask what performance means--affective or cognitive. Ask for proof. Decide your vision of the ideal classroom. The ideal would be a marriage of IWB use and one-to-one initiatives. We need to rely on research results for effectiveness, which at this time indicate that more research needs to be done, particularly in terms of investigating the cognitive and long-term effects of using IWBs in classrooms, as Schroeder (2007) also concluded. However, given limited budgets and that you would need an IWB for each classroom to hopefully sustain the innovation, there are other options that I would also consider for ways to incorporate technology into instruction that would potentially better prepare learners for higher education and careers. Decisions ... decisions....


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