Interactive Whiteboards: Medieval Educational Practice?

This evening I was enjoying some down time, using the Flipboard app on my iPad to get caught up on some blogs. This rare and semi-blissful time was rudely interrupted when I stumbled across a post by Gary Stager about the needless investment schools are making into interactive whiteboards. Having recently made such a significant investment at Broxton Park School, I read on with a sick feeling creeping into my stomach. Just to give you a taste for the quality of his rant, I share with you one of his more intense passages:

IWBs and their clicker spawn are a terrible investment that breathes new life into medieval educational practices. Aside from producing an illusion of modernity, interactive whiteboards are a pre-Gutenberg technology; the priest chants while the monks slavishly take dictation on their tablets. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and teacher supremacy. At a time of enormous educational upheaval, technological change, and an increasing gulf between adults and children, it is a bad idea to purchase technology that facilitates the delivery of information and increases the physical distance between teacher and learner.

In utter panic, I recalled how, as a math teacher, I began my Smartboard adventure with using the graphics as virtual manipulatives, so I didn’t have to fumble around with transparent bingo chips or tiles on the overhead projector. I found myself being able to explore concepts more deeply, utilizing a much more visual approach. I could show the students why we need a common denominator to add and subtract fractions. As a language teacher, the students and I would look at a piece of writing and collaboratively edit the work, guiding their thinking with comments and questions so they could develop the self-reflective tools necessary to being a good writer. I am certain Stager would scoff  at such a medieval, sage-on-the-stage, teacher-centered practice, but I still naively believed that the teacher sometimes had something to offer the students.

But fear not, fellow Luddites, for I quickly discovered a way for the Notebook software to engage my students in a different way. There is a recorder feature in the software that allows students to record their work, both visually and with audio. Students could think out loud about what they were doing, and that gave me great insight into the gaps in their thinking and their misconceptions. I learned so much about math, just from watching them work and hearing them talk.

Now I’m onto Twitter, blogs, wikis, and cell phone technology to promote student engagement and interaction in the classroom. Stager correctly argues that there is free and open source software that can do the things that I described, but I don’t think I would have moved in that direction without having started with a Smartboard and, more importantly, the Notebook software that comes with it.

Nonetheless, I appreciate Stager’s argument, and the responses to his post. He is right. It’s not the stuff that we buy that will suddenly make our schools relevant and engaging. That part is still hard work, and we will do that work at our school. We should occupy as little as possible, if ever, the role of the chanting priest, mindlessly drilling rote memory activities. But I think there is still a place for sharing something cool at the front of the class, with all eyes watching.

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    • Mike Hubick
    • March 1st, 2011

    Agreed Kathy,
    I think you are on to something here for sure. It never has been about the technology but rather the way it is being used. He presents an interesting argument however. I could see how this would play out as described in many classrooms. It really does come down to one part committment to engage students in learning, one part understanding how the technology works, one part understanding how the brain works blended together with a healthy pinch of good old creativity. I hope that any IWB in any classroom does not become the central focus like TV’s have in most living rooms. The magic has always been in teachers observing learning and through reflective practice and intuition leading students (and sometimes following them)to undiscovered learning.
    Keep the creativity in the creative process of learning.
    Mike

  1. I see both points. I think technology is a tool that you can use – but it is how you use it that matters. I had a IWB last year, and barely used it – i found that programming it for it’s best use was so time consuming that i couldn’t. Most other teachers i know use it as a screen – writing the occassional note on a ppt slide. This year I have a tablet to write on, and I find it much more effective. Combined with online applets I can do everything I wanted to do with a IWB, for a fraction the time and price. So I don’t think they are “necessary.” I think if you are going to use it and engage it in a meaningful way – then awesome. Invest! And if you aren’t – then spend the money elsewhere. But I don’t think you can make a blanket statement as to their benefit. Every teacher is different. So I’d say remove expectation from either side (positive or negative) and do what’s best in the interest of each teacher/class, on a class by class basis.

    • Thanks for your response, Alyssa. I appreciate that we would want teachers to have access to the tools that make sense for them. However, for right now in the early stages, I sense that we need to have a standard set of tools in the classroom that all can access. That will give us a chance to explore what we all can do. I often hear from teachers that the sheer mass of tools available can be a deterrent. Blogs, Twitter, wikis, cell phones, tablets, iPads, iPods – where do we start? However, I definitely look forward to growing into the personalized approaches of which you speak.

  1. July 7th, 2011

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