Hardly A Blank Slate

In the classroom, the visual element of a lesson plan is critical to students' understanding of material. Mere decades ago, teachers' primary visual aids were flash cards, chalkboards and slide projectors, but today there are a wide range of technologies that can bring every subject to life. In fact, there are so many electronic educational options that it can be overwhelming to instructors hoping to complete a presentation without any "technical difficulties." Fortunately, there is one interactive visual tool that can serve as a hub for all visual media in the classroom-the interactive whiteboard.
In recent years, the electronic whiteboard has been elevated from the status of mere novelty to an extremely utilitarian position in the classroom. Serving as a writing surface, projection screen, image capture device, web access point and animated or still graphics display, this device has become a teacher's aid in K-12 and secondary schools alike. Technology savvy students of all ages benefit from the interactive features of this presentation tool, and teachers garner inspiration from its many capabilities. All in all, interactive whiteboards are making the classroom a more interesting place to be in a growing number of schools.

The challenge of capturing and maintaining the attention of students who live and breathe video and multimedia material in and out of school is significant, to say the least. But to take full advantage of that attention and cause the educational process to evolve is a remarkable feat, one for the likes of interactive whiteboards.

"There seems to be some evidence that whiteboards change the nature of interaction between teachers and pupils," stated Phil Bannister, who works for the Evidence and Evaluation Directorate within Becta, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. Bannister was referring to a classroom study conducted in the U.K. between 2002-2004, when interactive whiteboards were still very new to the classroom. The results were apparent from the get-go, however. "Observations of the nature and the frequency of talk within the classroom during lessons which used interactive whiteboards revealed that there was actually a faster pace of teaching during those lessons. There was a higher level of interaction between the teachers and pupils during those lessons generally. They also found that teachers asked a lot more open-ended questions of the pupils, and when the pupils responded, the teachers engaged in a lot more discussion of the pupils' answers. They would also repeat questions to really probe their understanding more. There is potential there for reshaping some of the ways in which pupils learn."

Becta and educators in the U.S. agree, 21st-century students require a classroom experience which reflects the experiences they have with technology outside of school, not only because it will enhance learning, but because it will prepare them for an evolving workplace. Right now, it appears as though electronic whiteboards are at the center of that experience. "It's very well established that electronic whiteboards have a motivational effect on pupils," Bannister elaborated. "There seems to be great power in the fact that it's a real focal point for the entire class. It enables a range of media to be integrated within the teaching and learning experience. You can display text, audio, video, animation, and interactive programs. The ability to integrate all of these media fairly seamlessly into a single lesson is something to which pupils really respond."

If electronic whiteboards are to meet all these expectations, they need to be employed in a very interactive way. Becta's research suggests that it is when students are invited to use the displays themselves to either manipulate objects or do their own presentations that they really respond to lesson material. A case in point is the integration of 200 SMART Boards at Yokomi Elementary in the Fresno Unified School District in California. When Yokomi, a brand-new magnet school for science and technology, opened its doors in August 2005, teachers were well-trained on how to make the most impact with the gleaming new electronic tools in their classrooms.

"Technology really is something that children are very comfortable with," observed Steve Gonzales, principal of Yokomi Elementary. "The SMART boards allow them to absorb material very visually and interact with it. We've also noticed that it provides teachers and students a basically limitless amount of ways to present curriculum. They can scan things from a textbook onto the SMART Board, download streaming videos, teachers and students can create aspects of the curriculum to be modeled and taught and so forth. It really just provides a limitless opportunity for the delivery of curriculum in an interactive way."

Utilizing grants from the SMARTer Kids Foundation to improve the learning experience of students with limited English skills, Yokomi Elementary worked local SMART reseller IVS Computer Technology to implement an integrated system which includes a SMART Board, digital projector and surround sound setup in each of the school's classrooms. Teachers wear wireless microphones and utilize the technology to assist students for whom English is a second language. "The focal point in the entire integrated system is the SMART Board," Gonzales said, adding that a majority of ESL students name Spanish as their first language. "Teachers who have a large concentration of Spanish-speaking students use the SMART Board to access publishers' websites where they publish material in various languages. That way, students who are learning English can get language support visually and aurally through the sound system, even though the teacher may not speak Spanish."

Yokomi Elementary is just one elementary school which has integrated the touch-based SMART Boards into its curriculum. While there are no definitive patterns for the types of interactive whiteboards employed in K-12 schools and higher-education environments, there are some factors which make one type preferable to another. Touch-based whiteboards like those produced by SMART Technologies, Team and PolyVision are perfect for the type of interaction common in kindergarten through third grade education. However, all of these manufacturers can be found in every type of classroom, all the way up through secondary education.

Alternatively, pen-based systems like the ones available from Hitachi Software, GTCO and Promethean are popular with instructors accessing advanced material. "In pen-based systems, the pen not only functions as writing utensil, but also functions as a mouse," explained Jack Stewart, Northeast sales manager for Hitachi Software. "The pen can access anything on your computer, hard drive or network. The pen can be used for navigation of an OS, or as an input device with handwriting recognition or onscreen keyboards. A third utility the pen provides is common to almost all whiteboards, and that's annotation. While everybody does navigation and input everyday with a mouse and keyboard, annotation is pretty new to end-users."

The annotation capabilities of interactive whiteboards play a role in all areas of education, whether it's basic whiteboard annotation where users write on a blank pane, or capture annotation where they write on an image. A third type of annotation is just emerging, in Hitachi Software's products in particular, and that's telestration, or annotating on top of video.

Annotation is popular from a position directly in front of an interactive whiteboard or via remote control, says Mike Dunn, CEO of PolyVision, adding that users can also save, print and perform all the basic functions via remote control. This type of ease of use is crucial to the success of interactive whiteboard implementation. "If it isn't simple and intuitive, the teacher's not going to use it," Dunn emphasized. "There are a million things that get in the way of the long-term use and adoption of these products. It isn't about the first 30 days, it's about the use and adoption over the life of the product. For that reason, school districts need to involve teachers-and not just the technology-savvy teachers-in the buying decision. They need to focus on the real functions that teachers will use and which will contribute to a higher rate of adoption and in turn a greater return on investment, which is measured in student grades, student satisfaction, graduation rates and teacher retention."

Having secured their place in the center of many classroom environments interactive whiteboards are branching out and becoming even more integral to student participation. Becta's Bannister pointed out that teachers are integrating many peripheral media sources, including digital video equipment and Podcasts. Even bigger than these add-ons is the implementation of interactive voting systems, Bannister said. "The whiteboards are in place, the digital projectors are in place, the software is in place, but this puts a new spin on things. It gets the pupils more involved."

Interactive Whiteboard Selection
With so many options in electronic whiteboards, there are a few things worth keeping in mind when selecting one for the classroom environment. First, check for operating system compatibility. Next, check to make sure the whiteboard is compatible with other equipment in the room-including existing electronic whiteboards. Many use proprietary communications protocols, and so won't necessarily talk to other boards. Software compatibility is also an issue, in terms of distribution of content. Watch out for proprietary formats, and make sure that JPG, BMP, PDF or HTML are possibilities if content sharing is an objective. One other consideration is security of content. Some whiteboards communicate via secured images rather than open exchanges between common office software programs.




Kirsten Nelson is a freelance content producer who translates the expertise and passion of technologists into the vernacular of an audience curious about their creations. Nelson has written about audio and video technology in all its permutations for almost 20 years; she was the editor of SCN for 17 years. Her experience in the commercial AV and acoustics design and integration market has also led her to develop presentation programs and events for AVIXA and SCN, deliver keynote speeches, and moderate and participate in panel discussions. In addition to technology, she also writes about motorcycles—she is a MotoGP super fan.