Only with the right trainingcan teachers use interactivewhiteboards to bring thelearning environment to life.
Tom Reardon knows his way around an interactive whiteboard. Reardon, a mathematics instructor at Austintown Fitch High School in Ohio, uses the device to record his class lectures and offer sample tests that he posts on his personal website for students to download. Last year he created a video-on-demand for students in his AP calculus class to use as a reference for the take-home test he assigns during spring break, in preparation for the state exams.
“I did each of the 50 problems as a mini video on the board, burned them onto a CD, and gave one to each of my students and told them if they got stuck on a problem to watch the video,” he says. “It was like my being in their homes. When they returned from break and I asked if anyone had any questions from the test, no one had any because I had already answered them.”
Reardon says the results were quantifiable. “We did another practice exam, and out of 17 students, 11 of them scored a 5 [the highest grade], four of them scored a 4, one scored a 3, and one scored a 2,” he says. “Those are astronomical numbers. My students went from about 50 percent getting 4s and 5s to almost all getting them.”
Reardon’s work demonstrates the full power of an interactive whiteboard when it’s in the hands of an expert user. It’s because of this potential that school districts across the country are outfitting every classroom in every school with one, throwing their weight behind a technology they believe enhances not only the teaching experience but also the interaction between teacher and student.
“For years we have been trying to digitize kids and measure the impact, but this movement turns that idea around and digitizes the teachers,” says Mike Horan, director of instructional technology for the Sarasota County School District (FL). “It can point directly to a level of engagement students are now bringing.”
Make no mistake, however: Interactive whiteboards are only as effective as the instructors using them. To use the boards to their full effect, teachers must receive proper training. And with all the things an interactive whiteboard allows a user to do— manipulate text and images; save notes for review via e-mail, the web, or print; show and write notes over educational video clips; use presentation tools to enhance learning materials; showcase student presentations—it is essential. School districts are increasingly recognizing this, making training compulsory before instructors are let loose with the technology.
“We have expected teacher competencies, and every teacher must pass tests before they can use the interactive whiteboards,” says Amy Ellisor, technology integration specialist at Richland School District Two in Columbia, SC, where teachers use the original interactive whiteboard, the Smart Board from Smart Technologies.
Ellisor says the district has three tiers of Smart Board training: learning the basics; building lessons in order to show users how to develop and save lessons and promote interactivity; and advanced integration. Teachers take a total of 45 hours of classes, and the courses are taught mostly by fellow teachers. Ellisor says, “We also have on our website the training handouts so teachers who weren’t able to attend a particular class can get access to the PDFs.”
Riverside Unified School District (CA) has about 500 interactive whiteboards scattered throughout its schools. “I can take a great teacher and teach them technology, but I can’t take a good technician and teach them how to be an effective teacher,” says David Haglund, an instructional technology specialist for the district. “If you don’t incorporate instructional and content training, achievement will go down.”
Haglund says his district’s interactive whiteboards were purchased through a federal grant that mandated a portion of the funds be reserved for training in the use of the boards and other technologies obtained with the funding. In this, the first year of the grant, about 40 percent of the money was dedicated to professional development; in the third year, that figure will reach 100 percent. “There are significant findings in research,” Haglund says, “that say if the school district doesn’t provide the proper amount of professional development, then the level of instruction goes down, and not in a small way.”
Engaging the Natives
The fallout from having an inadequately trained teacher using an electronic whiteboard in the classroom, according to Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology at Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, GA, which has whiteboards installed in every one of its 1,500-plus classrooms, is that a lesson “can end up being a big PowerPoint presentation. But what we’re seeing is that when the technology is put into the hands of teachers with training, they get it.” By it, Hobson means the most beneficial and effective way to use an interactive whiteboard: as an instrument to cultivate interactivity in the classroom. “They see that the tools are meant to have kids coming up to the board.”
“We are dealing with digital natives,” says Pat Henry, director of marketing and business development for Georgia-based interactive whiteboard maker Promethean. Henry says that today’s students need an extra level of engagement. “Calling them out of their seats to get them involved is not enough. We need to find what actually creates the interaction, and that is incorporating technology with learning.”
Although data-driven research on the effectiveness of interactive whiteboards is hard to come by, anecdotal studies abound, reporting an increase in student engagement with both the subject matter and each other. And teachers who measure those sorts of things report marked improvement in academic performance by their students as a result of the interactive whiteboards.
The majority of hard data that does exist points to an increase in retention rates and test scores. Spring Valley High School, in Richland School District Two, reports that test scores in its advanced placement biology class, which uses interactive whiteboards regularly, have risen 30 percent more than scores in classes that are not using interactive whiteboards in every lesson.
Plus, says Sarasota County’s Horan, for schools looking to incorporate some sort of technology into the learning environment without breaking the bank, interactive whiteboards are the way to go.
AT WAR OVER WHITEBOARDS
Are they a breakthrough technology, or do they prop up conventional teaching methods? RESEARCH IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
would appear to lend great support to proponents of interactive whiteboards. Results from a yearlong pilot program
in Maidstone, Kent, in which interactive whiteboards were installed in six primary schools, showed that, in part, “the interactive whiteboard is an effective medium for teacher input to the whole class, and for reviewing the lesson. The teacher is able to present from the front, and is better positioned to observe pupils’ response....[It is] an effective support for teacherled group work.”
It’s the “present from the front” wherein lies the rub. It is the crux of the argument for the naysayers of the device, who believe interactive whiteboards are a “crutch” technology that, for all their functionality, only promote the traditional stand-anddeliver method of teaching, with the teacher dictating from the head of the classroom to aisles of seated students, in opposition to the movement toward student-centered learning.
Mike Horan, director of instructional technology at Florida’s Sarasota County School District, says the concern is valid, but a quality teacher who can draw on the full extent of the whiteboard’s features and capabilities is the determining factor.
“I agree that interactive whiteboards don’t really help foster the group method of learning,” he says, “but nothing will accomplish that if you don’t have a good teacher. There is no magic bullet, and if you only look at the service, [their argument] can be true. But the resources [for the boards] dig deeper and evolve how teaching is being done.”
Many teachers are demonstrating that an interactive whiteboard can be used to encourage, rather than thwart, a studentcentered learning environment.
Eric Payne, math instructor at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA, uses an interactive whiteboard to set up games that he can manipulate as the students work together to solve them, thereby increasing student/instructor interaction. “I have games where students go to the whiteboard and have to uncover certain answers and make correct matches,” he says. “I also have organizational-type puzzles where students take turns and try to solve the puzzle. They work together as a team to make this happen. While they are doing that, I sit at the workstation and interact with the game from a remote location. I couldn’t do that with an overhead projector or a regular whiteboard.”
“In my class,” says Staci Gille, a first-grade teacher at Cape Coral Charter School in Florida, “there are design centers the kids rotate into, and the interactive whiteboard is one of the centers. Using it does involve taking turns and paying attention to what the other students are doing. The students are definitely working together.”
Steven Hook, an administrator at Cape Coral, says interactive whiteboards can be used in a way that supports the key tenet of student-centered learning—that the teacher act as more of a guide while the students choose their own paths to problem solving. “Students can utilize all types of information from a number of different resources—they can pull up video clips or sound clips and make a topic come alive,” he says. “This has assisted the teacher in becoming more of a facilitator of learning.”
“When you look at 1-to-1 technologies,” he says, “there are a lot of dollars being spent without a measurable impact—I put effort into it, and I get where? But on the other side, with interactive whiteboards, I’m not spending as much money and I’m getting the buy-in from teachers, who can choose to use resources they had already developed or use online textbooks.”
And, Horan adds, teachers’ comfort level with the technology is high right away. Interactive whiteboards allow instructors not as comfortable with using all the tool’s features to tread lightly yet still deliver a message effectively. “I call this a bridge technology,” Horan says. “Other technologies expect you to reinvent yourself. This enhances what you’re already doing.’”
Like Horan, Richland’s Ellisor touts the technology’s affordability. “You think you can differentiate [results between] one piece of equipment for $2,000 and 20 machines at $2,000 per,” she says. “But that is absolutely not the case because students are getting off their fannies and going up to the board. They’re going on virtual field trips. They’re clicking on interactive games, manipulating the hands of a clock. It connects everyone in the room and the resources that were in the media center or on a whole other continent. This is the type of stimulation they respond to.”
"[Lessons using an interactive whiteboard] can end up being a big PowerPoint presentation. But what we’re seeing is that that when the technology is put into the hands of teachers with training, they get it." —Jill Hobson, Forsyth County School District
Leveling the Learning Field
Interactive whiteboards are now well into their second decade, but as Nancy Knowlton, president of Smart Technologies, points out, their appeal with students is strong as ever. “A lot of teachers tell us they are surprised that students are not to the point of boredom,” she says. “The technology continues to keep them focused and engaged in the classroom. The desire to participate is consistently high.” “The technology really gets their attention, even now when they are accustomed to it,” says Eric Payne, math instructor at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA. “When I started using a board at the beginning of the year, it was obvious how much it caught students’ attention. Even now, with the students used to it, I still think I get a better level of attention from them than I would just writing on a chalkboard.”
Much of the ongoing popularity of interactive whiteboards, educators say, is that they level the field between teacher and student such that both sides are using technology in a way that is equally comfortable to them. “Through the technology,” Promethean’s Henry says, “teachers can talk to students at the students’ level, yet have their own way of delivering instruction that is not foreign to them.”
Forsyth County’s Hobson notes that many teachers benefit from their students’ ease in working in a technology-infused environment. “Kids know how to use the tools; they are unafraid of not knowing,” she says. “The teacher might be a little more hesitant, so the kids coach the teachers, and we have a lot of classrooms where the teachers actually turn it over to the kids. Having the whiteboard has actually increased the use of all classroom computing.”
The interactive whiteboard is also squaring up the field among different types of learners, be they visual, tactile, or special needs, because the board incorporates the sights, sounds, and stimulation that each style thrives on.
“Like any technology, it’s all in how you implement it,” says Staci Gille, first-grade teacher at Cape Coral Charter School in Florida. “There are very different learners in every classroom, and the visual and motion aspects of the boards really appeal to all of them.”
Having that level learning field also encourages students to be more interactive and take more chances with the technology, says Richland’s Ellisor. “They are so stimulated, there is no fear. All of a sudden, the traditional things that tier children go away. This is a comfortable part of their day outside the school. They see it as what is in their world. And that engages them.”
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Charlene O’Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.