The Interactive Whiteboard - # 1 - Principles and Practice

Perhaps the IWB is the most misunderstood and abused resource since the OHP, particularly when used as no more than a 'Data Projector'.  Don’t we all remember the grotty photocopied typewritten black-and-white transparencies where the presenter had to re-focus the machine, sometimes got the flimsy slides upside down or back to front and finally insulted the audience by reading exactly what was displayed on the screen? And what about the plenary session where someone in the audience wanted to go back to a previous ‘slide’ which the presenter had lost under a pile of scripts and statistics?

Well, all that has changed with the introduction of the IWB – or has it? I still see far too many presentations (invariably non-interactive)which start by the presenter or his/her technician having to find the hard-drive folder containing the appropriate presentation. The game is then given away as the audience are all shown the whole content of the file before finally getting to see the first page in ‘Show’ format.

And then comes the really boring bit, in standard MS template style, whereby the presenter proudly (yes, you’ve guessed it) reads what is on the screen and sends the audience to sleep. The underlying principle of the Visual Aid as being just a support to the teacher’s performance seems to have been forgotten. And, more to the point of this paper, the IWB is still often controlled by the teacher – often from the teacher’s desk and thus negating all the benefits of physical interactivity by which a real classroom performance can be enhanced.

There are few very good exponents of the group-dynamic that can be generated with the IWB and unfortunately the mathematicians, scientists and technologists in schools are not generally the best performers of this craft. In too many secondary schools the emphasis is still very much on technologists hiding behind their equipment and lecturing their students. As I suggest below, we should take note of good Primary Schools’ practice. As with much of classroom practice good exponents of the IWB craft are too busy in the isolation of their own classrooms to realise what is NOT happening in other subject areas. Furthermore, good ‘communicators’ in subjects like English, Drama, Music and P.E. tend not to be in the forefront of technological competence and often (in my experience) do not realise what they are missing.

My stint of six years in Advisory work as a Peripatetic teacher of I(C)T (some 20 years ago!) convinced me that unless advisors have the vision to bring members of both ends of the ICT capability spectrum together and share best practice we will never move forwards. As I have repeatedly said elsewhere, ‘how-to-do-it’ manuals (or even the best of websites) are no substitute for real observation of good practice – You cannot hold the butterfly (of excellent performance) inside a text-book – it is transient or ephemeral – it needs to be seen to be believed.  The message from Maximise as an EPICT-licenced centre, and as CPD providers, is just that.  Skills training, or check-lists of resources cannot replace the discussion, observation and sharing of good practice between like-minded colleagues.

In the early days of the IWB, when the thought of having more than one IWB in a school was just an impossible dream for many, I discovered that colleagues from different subject areas were using the IWB in different ways according to individual teachers' regular styles of presentation.  Not only do teachers need to learn from each other in a school, when looking further and comparing Secondary School practice with that of Primary Schools again I realised that both had much to learn from each other.

The question of Interactivity needs serious consideration - how do we get our students involved?  Who is in control of the screen?  Do we make options easily available to enhance debate or reflection?  Is the screen at the right height for the students?  Do we bother to select colour schemes which improve readability or navigation?

Policy makers need to think through their strategies for the installation of IWBs. Are they just an economic replacement for a class-set of computers?  Should the school decide on one brand only?  I have seen several schools which have struggled with a mixed installation - whereby the software and menuing systems from one classroom to another are different and thus destroying the advantage of 'portability' which is of a major benefit to teachers.  Obviously developments in software mean that one brand might appear more attractive in one year when compared to the competitor's version of a previous year.  However, after several years' use of all the leading brands I personally prefer the SMART board system to either the Promethean or Hitachi equivalents.

At a time when more and more schools are adopting a more positive view of ICT in every subject area, and where new-build projects and refurbishments are recognising the place of the IWB, it is important that policy makers, from the grass-roots up, have a clear view of the place of the IWB in Teaching & Learning.  Short-sighted pressures to use 'Whiteboards' with cheap data projectors would destroy so much of the potential revolution in classroom practice that the IWB can promote.

As hinted at earlier, in my research I identified some 12 different teaching styles or techniques when using the IWB - all of which were evolved from good teaching practice by real exponents of their craft.  What became even more obvious is that each individual subject area could benefit from using and developing alternative techniques adapted from other subject areas. 

For a 7-page paper covering these and other findings please click here.

For technical details of types of IWBs etc click here 

IWBs - Where do we go from here?  Some questions about the future of IWBs  - (1-page .pdf file)

Go to next page for a checklist of good and bad IWB practice.