The Interactive White-Board

25 Jan

picture taken from mtbethel.blogs.comA recent article in the Washington Post argued that Interactive Whiteboards, far from encouraging new methodologies in line with 21st Century Skills, in fact reinforce old habits of teacher talks, students listen. If this is the case then they hardly justify the expense. Only rigorous academic studies will tell us whether this is true of best practice or not, but it seems to me that we need an understanding of what it is that we are trying to achieve with the Interactive Whiteboard.

A useful way of seeing things is to consider Harvard Business Professor, Clayton Christensen’s notion of the difference between disruptive and sustaining technologies. A sustaining technology is something which might improve practice, but does not radically alter current practice. A disruptive technology, on the other hand, institutes radical changes in the way things are done. If all an interactive whiteboard represents is an improvement on the blackboard, then one might doubt the wisdom of the current levels of investment in putting them into every classroom. This is the nub of the argument put forward in the Washington Post article.

However, I believe that seeing things in this way somewhat misses the point. I need to start off by saying that I use the interactive whiteboard in every single lesson I teach. As an ICT teacher the ability to be able to display the contents of a computer screen up large in front of a class is crucial. For many years I taught computer literacy without such a tool. I drew computer screens on a traditional whiteboard, I printed pages of screenshots, and posted documents brimming with screenshots over the network for students to download. I suspect that the cost of the paper used alone might have paid for the interactive board in the long run! My teaching methods were pretty traditional, my aim being to model for students how to achieve certain effects in different software packages. The classes were task-based in that I was getting my students to create documents, spreadsheets and so on, but my interventions were based on the notion of modeling the thought processes behind my use of each application. To do this effectively I really needed to demonstrate my actions on a screen large enough for a class to see, and to verbalize my thought processes as I was doing so. While they were working on their projects I would constantly circulate answering queries and making suggestions.

It seems to me that teacher talk is misunderstood. There is a tendency to see it as necessarily bad. Teachers are expected to be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. And this is all very well. Of course we need to be encouraging problem-based collaborative tasks as a way of engaging and encouraging real student learning in a 21st Century sort of way! But we neglect at our peril the role that the teacher should be playing in teaching students how to tackle these tasks. The role of the teacher in modeling behavior and thinking is crucial in developing the kinds of critical thinking skills we all pay lip service to. I don’t believe that guides on the side can do this work effectively: teachers need, if anything to be meddlers in the middle, showing students how to achieve the kind of collaborative and problem solving tasks we feel they need to be doing in order to prepare for a world of work in the 21st Century. By modeling our thought processes, we also provide students with the meta-cognitive skills that they need to be able to monitor their own thought processes.

The interactive whiteboard becomes an indispensable tool in doing this. It allows a teacher to show a video clip or a diagram and discuss it with a class. In conjunction with a visualizer, it allows a class to discuss the editing process in a meaningful way. It allows a group of students to make a meaningful presentation to the rest of the class of whatever work they have done. In conjunction with a Twitter feed, or a back-channel website it allows students to ask questions from the privacy of their desks, or through a Moodle platform, for example, for polls or quizzes to be answered at the end, or beginning of a class, and the results displayed for in-class discussion.

To my mind it is not that there is any one thing that particularly sets the interactive board apart from the chalk board, it is the multiplicity of different uses, and indeed the ease of use and ability to encompass such a variety of uses within a single space. In short, it is not the amount of teacher talk that is the problem, or the fact that the interactive whiteboard can be used in ways not too distant from the traditional chalk-board, but the ways in which teacher talk is used, and the ability to encompass a variety of disruptive technologies in the same space as the chalk-board that sets it apart, and in my view makes the expenditure well worth it. It is also the versatility and spontaneous nature of what can be done that recommends its use.

To my mind what sets a good teacher apart from a bad one is often the ability to change the lesson to suit the class, to go beyond the routine of learning and seek out experiences that are needed at that moment to expand or explore a thought. The interactive whiteboard is just so superior at enabling this that I believe its totality rather than its parts creates a technology which is disruptive in the sense that it offers new affordances derived from its ability to draw upon the interconnectedness of networks to allow for spontaneity: for teaching metacognition and critical thinking in ways which have simply not been easy to do before. The interactive whiteboard challenges us to create a new pedagogy which goes beyond chalk and talk, but does not leave students to their own devices either.

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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Interactive White Boards


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