The Wonders of Interactive Whiteboards


No cutting-edge classroomis complete without one.

WhiteboardsBENJAMIN HAZZARD remembers the first time he saw an interactive whiteboard. His seventh-graders had been chattering as usual, joking around, not paying much attention to anything except their own adolescent obsessions and amusements. Then an IT consultant walked into the room with a Smart Board. Hazzard had no idea what it was. The consultant wrote “Hello, class” on the board and then converted his script to text. The class fell silent, awed. Soon, even the most obstreperous students were politely raising their hands, waiting patiently to step up to this magical new device and try it out.Hazzard thought, Whatever this is, is good.

Good indeed. Today, 40 out of the 53 schools in Hazzard’s former district, the Lambton Kent District School Board in Ontario, Canada, have interactive whiteboards. And Hazzard, now an educational consultant, says teachers, seeing their students more engaged than ever, are clamoring for more. Grades have gone up; suspensions have gone down. At one point, Devine Street Public School, where Hazzard used to teach, actually had more suspensions than students. But this past year, it had only 20. And the learning community has widened: Hazzard shares whiteboard lessons with 1,500 teachers on his ownpodcasts.

Does all the credit go to the boards? Hazzard says, “It isn’t about the boards; it’s about the learning that is happening. Theboards are a conduit to the curriculum.”

Jen Phillips would surely echo that sentiment. Phillips teaches sixth-grade math and science at Euclid Middle School in Littleton, CO. She’s worked with Smart Boards for four years and was the key mover behind the effort to equip every classroom in the school with an interactive whiteboard. She uses one to show her students deep-sea photography when they’re studying oceanography; to draw shapes and identify angles when they’re studying trigonometry; and to import virtually anything from the Internet and to edit and manipulate it. Phillips has also seen students blossom, not only as a result of learning more efficiently, but also from helping teach classes and even train teachers in the technology. “It’s created a unique partnership betweenteachers and students,” she says.

Developed by Smart Technologies, the Smart Board is one of several interactive whiteboards on the market today. What can you do with it? For starters, you can write, erase, and perform mouse functions with your finger, a pen, or anything with a maneuverable, firm surface. You can write in digital ink over applications, Web sites, and videos. You can capture your work or save your notes directly into different software applications. In the latest version, 9.5, you can even download the software onto a PC. That means teachers can create and prepare lessons at home, and students can review lessons anddo work at home.

Another good thing is that Smart Boards—interactive whiteboards in general—are relatively easy to use. Testament to that is found in Kellie Gaffney’s classroom at Liberty Elementary School in Flower Mound, TX. Gaffney taught her students— kindergarteners—how to calibrate the board. Gaffney uses her Smart Board every day, for literature, for phonics, even for tutoring. Her assessment scores are continually rising. And her students are now so savvy, they pretend they’re the teacher. “Theycan use it on their own,” she says. “They want to go do it.”

‘An Appliance in the Classroom’

One major player the interactive whiteboard world is the Numonics Corporation. Numonics was a pioneer in such technologies as a “pencentric” whiteboard: The teacher touches the board surface with an electronic pen, and all program functions are transferred to the pen.

It isn’t about the boards; it’s about the learning that is happening. The boards are a conduit to the curriculum.
Benjamin Hazzard, Sarnia Education Centre

Numonics brought in teachers to identify online resource files that were then incorporated into the product. The company licensed a clip-art library with about 3,000 images and incorporated that into its product as well. CEO and President Al Basilicato says Numonics was also first tooffer free online, instructor-led training.

Being in touch with teachers is a passion of Basilicato’s; he talks to them all the time, attending technology shows every month. He believes that the easier the product is for teachers to use, the more effective it will be. “If I was a school,” he says, “I’d want to know, ‘How are you going to teach my teachers? Tell me about the warranty on this product and how stable anddurable it is.’”

The latter issue is a priority with Numonics. The company’s pencentric boards have formica surfaces, while touch-sensitive boards typically have polyester surfaces. And Numonicsoffers a limited lifetime warranty.

Michael Dunn wants to keep things easy for teachers too. The CEO of PolyVision, Dunn calls himself a “software-agnostic.” He specifically doesn’t want to bundle software into his whiteboards because he feels that school districts shouldn’t be locked in to any particular program. Instead, PolyVision offers teachers credit to buy their own software—a program for every board they purchase. “The whiteboard,” says Dunn, “is really just an appliance in the classroom.” Still, it’s a pretty fancy appliance: PolyVision’s whiteboards are mobile and self-calibrating. And they come with remote controls— the Walk-and-Talk series—so teachers can roam around the classroom and maintain attention. Aside from all that, teachers can write, save, print, stream cable TV, access the Internet, project from a DVD/VCR, and display PowerPointpresentations.

Dunn is concerned that other countries— the United Kingdom, Mexico, China—are outstripping the United States in adoption of whiteboard technology, which is why he focuses on hardware. “How we teach, and not what we teach, must change in the US,” he says, “if we are to have our studentscompete in a global economy.”

It’s the Software

Robert Martellacci represents the other end of the hardware-software scale. He believes that the software teachers use with the whiteboard, not the board itself, is the more critical component. A consultant with RM Educational Software and the president of Mind- ShareLearning, Martellacci says he wants to provide“a tool set that reallymirrors what a teacher doesin the classroom.” RM producesmuch of the educationalsoftware that isbundled by companies suchas Smart and Numonics.RM’s Easiteach, used in more than40,000 education institutions around theworld, comes with content packs for Englishlanguage arts, math, science, andgeography, all of which have been correlatedto individual states’ academic standards.For example, the RM MathFramework Edition curriculum consistsof more than 2,000 math activities—aligned to state standards—including lessonplans, homework, games, and evenassessment. New Easiteach versions,including one for Macs, are coming outthis summer.

Two more software products used with whiteboards are ActivStudio and ActiVote, both of which are produced by Promethean. The pencentric ActivBoard is antiglare and durable. ActivStudio has a new graphics engine, with drag-and-drop capability, a customizable color palette, a reset button, and a voting button, which allows the teacher to poll students on questions for immediate whole-group assessment. That’s where ActiVote comes in: 32 handheld voting keypads give students the opportunity to fully participate in a lesson, providing and receiving immediate feedback.

But after all the discussions of software vs. hardware, US vs. UK, polyester vs. formica, the bottom line on interactive whiteboards is found in what Kellie Gaffney noticed outside her kindergarten classroom. “When students walk by our room,” she says, “they gaze sideways and walk slower. When teachers use these boards, the students know it’s going to be a fun day.”

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.