Forum Friday – Electronic Whiteboards – What Works?

Every Friday I try to showcase a particularly noteworthy conversation or resource from the Tech Savvy Ed Forum. There are many terrific resources that I don’t have the time or the ability to explore that are written about on the forum, as well as some interesting debates/discussions about what makes for good practical use of educational technology resources. Since my district recently passed a technology bound issue with the voters this week, I thought I’d post an interesting discussion about how to effectively spend money on electronic whiteboards; what works, and what doesn’t. Rick started the conversation last October, while trying to figure out whether the Cadillac of electronic whiteboards, a Smartboard, is the best buy, or if a competing product might be better.

Sales people will try to convince you that their hardware/software is something that you can’t live without. You never know until you have blown your budget.  That being said, and it may vary from rep to rep, our sales rep for Ebeam gave us a unit to try, free of charge, for a month last June. Took me 5 or so hours to get a feel for it (not an in depth understanding) and then we took it and put it to the test with every grade, K-6 before we decided to buy.

Since I don’t work on the purchasing side of technology tools, I was surprised that a sales person would loan out a demo unit for an entire month, especially in a school setting. Granted, it was probably mostly summer time, without students, but I was still impressed. Perhaps it’s just e-Beam’s way of trying to get a leg up on the hugely popular Smartboards. Then again, BionicTeacher doesn’t think that electronic whiteboards are even the answer, if you’re already in a one to one environment:

If you’ve got laptops in every student’s hands it seems like projectors and software ought to get you that type of interactivity w/o more equipment. They also want to buy those clicker response systems but again it seems with wireless internet and laptops all you’d need is the software.

But why stop there, Falconphysics pointed out. If you’re going to personalize the learning tools, shy bother with expensive laptops, when a simple desktop whiteboard and markers will do?

I’d rather have student use individual white boards (yes, actual low tech with markers and such) that they could hold up for me to see.

Now, the techie inside of me says “YES, YES, YES, let’s get the interactive whiteboards AND the laptops!” That makes learning both personal and social at the same time. It’s easy to work independently, but also to share ideas with the whole class on the whiteboard. But the teacher inside of me says, “let’s look at what we really need to do, and not want we’d like to do.” Most of the time individual whiteboards work just fine for most math and science classrooms. I had a blast in high school physics working with whiteboards and feverishly trying to figure out an equation before anyone else could. It was also nice to pass around work and simply make corrections and/or notes on other people’s boards without too much difficulty.

Once Andy, a tech person from Alaska, joined the forum, he brought his self-proclaimed “tech snob” attitude into the discussion (I love ya’ Andy, just having fun with you).

We’ve got a projector in the hands of every core teacher now (32 classrooms) and a few spares for elective teachers to check out. Given that multimedia 1) reaches some kids that don’t otherwise get reached, and 2) can impart certain information to almost all students more quickly and clearly than other traditional methods, and 3) the tools are there……good teacher computer, projector, software, and a wealth of material, I now say that a teacher that is not moving to incorporate this tool as a regular part of what they do is not meeting their obligation to stay current.

Or have I become a tech snob???

Now, I don’t think Andy’s a snob, but it’s nice to see such a progressive attitude towards adopting newer technology as a tool for differentiation (his reference to reaching all kids). I think that’s what really is the focus of any technology spending, especially something as large as an interactive whiteboard. There has to be an instructional need first. Make sure the teachers are so savvy and aggressive, that they’ve used up all of the resources at hand and want to push their teaching farther. That’s when you can really start talking about which interactive tools are better than others, instead of debating how many of them to purchase, or where they should go without the a clear purpose for how they will be used.


  1. Our school got its first Smart Board a few months ago (a gift from a family!). I was tapped to be the first teacher to learn how to use it in my classroom (middle school math) and I was concerned at first that it would only become a flashy, electronic dry erase board. Granted, I do go through a fair number of Expo markers over the course of a year, but surely not $1200 worth! However, I’ve had GREAT success using the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives from Utah State University. I’ve had to work at it, but I try to incorporate one of the manipulatives into most of my lessons. What I truly like about it is that my students can also access the same site at home, and can work at their own pace and time. Sending traditional physical manipulatives home would various challenges (cost for sufficient quantities, loss of small parts, opportunities to get off track with what the manipulative was designed for). Thus, I’ve been pretty pleased with using the Smart Board as a way to have students actively participate during class.

    At the same time, there are challenges. When one or two students are up at the board using it, the rest of the class is only passively watching. Also, since I’m a math teacher I don’t know how well I can recommend specific strategies to teachers in other subject areas.

    For our K-8 school, we’ve found some particular niches where the Smart Board works well, but I don’t see us rolling it out to a high percentage of classrooms unless we can justify it pedagogically.

    I need to jump over to your forum to read more from other folks!

  2. It has been interesting to me that math in particular……and being a science person I have to say, I LOVE math teachers (they make the science people look so popular and witty at cocktail parties)….math teachers look and say, “I’m not sure that would really make a difference in my classroom”, and then you get them to use it for a week. Suddenly I can’t keep up with what they’re doing.

    And I think a key thing is, they’re not really changing what they are doing as far as subject matter….they’re not changing how they teach…..they’re changing the tool, and the tool is leveraging what they have been doing (we have some math teachers that can do great with charcoal on a rock…..I don’t want them to change themselves). Math is so abstract…..and I think those of us that are OK with it forget how abstract it is to the 7th grader that doesn’t do well at math….it is so abstract that having the “big visual” of bouncig dice or flipping coins or an electronic spinner (all standard fare with electronic whiteboards) helps them get it….helps them get across the divide from the concrete they sort of understand, to the abstract they have to understand.

    And, in reference to my quote that Ben used……I want to emphasize “starting”. I think it’s completely unfair to say to a teacher, “You need to be using this every day by the end of the month”, and I would never say it. I do think it’s fair to say, “This will make a difference in what your kids learn, as you learn to use it”, and expect them to MOVE that way, incrementally.

    I expressed concern to someone I consider a great leader about the fact I was a new teacher in a group of experianced and excellent teachers…..”I don’t know what I can bring to the table…I don’t know that I belong here” I said. “We’re all in differnt phases of being good teachers”, he said. “Some of us are becoming good teachers.”

    Been there ever since 8>).

    And I think it is critical that we allow everyone to become a good teacher.

  3. I had the wonderful opportunity to be involved in the tech design and purchasing process of our new junior campus. One of the items on my list was a SmartBoard. I initially wanted to install one in each of our labs, but I wasn’t convinced the technology was what I needed. And when the funds started to run short I decided to skip the SmartBoards.

    One of my fundamental concerns at the time was that I was convinced they should be placed in the lab full of computers. These labs I knew would become bottlenecks of student traffic from various classes due to the progressive nature of our fabulous staff. I did however take the time to download the SmartSoftware and take it for a test drive a year later.

    After putting together several math lessons on trig I presented them to my class using a tablet instead of a smartboard as the means to interact. The lessons were such a huge success! At the same time I several of our classes were moved to the music room due to overcrowding. That is when I got the idea to install a SmartBoard in the music room with a ceiling mounted projector, connections to the DVD/VCR machine and to the stereo system for surround sound. My principal was graceous enough to allow me to do this and the rest is history!

    I and several other of my math collegues teach math from that room and love ever second. My lessons are all set up and the interactivity of the pen/text combination allows me to modify each of my lessons depending on need. I just erase my pen work and start fresh each year. I can also access our government’s interactive FLASH math lessons on line for addition support.

    With the system we have these are some of the uses we have found:

    1. We can scan worksheets, textbook pages, tests and other material with our networked scanner and fill them in with our students in lessons or reviews just like you would do with an overhead and overhead marker… without the mess or squinting. (Covers all subjects)

    2. We access the wonderful resources provided by SmartTechnologies made by other teachers around the world on specific topics.

    3. We use the entire system as a large theatre for educational videos or on the rare occation fun videos… though you cannot use the interactivity function at this time.

    4. With a mic attachment we can record our lessons in avi form and e-mail to students who are away or just store them for review. I have even pre-recorded my entire lessons for my subs when I have to head off to conferences.

    5. Teachers have scanned in a story and as the audio track to the story is being read they highlight key sections or figures of speach for later reference in a lesson. Each student refers to their own textbooks a the same time

    6. Students use the system to present digital projects on powerpoint or moviemaker.

    7. I have used the whiteboard to create notes though I find I rarely use it for this.

    Those are a few of the functions we have used this system for. I would like to hear how others have used their SmartBoards in their schools. And as you can see the Music Room has become heavily contested for in terms of use. I can’t see myself going back to teaching without one. In fact if I ever transfer to a school where there is no SmartBoard in the class I teach I would not hesitate to buy one for my personal use… then after I converted the masses I would sell it to the school. 🙂

    In the future I would like to place more of these whiteboards in other classrooms, but the budget right now says no. I also think that a good old whiteboard and dry-erase markers have many advantages over the carbon footprint of systems like these with respects to our environment.

    – Thanks

  4. SmartBoard with Tablet PC with wireless video on the projector……it just ROCKS.

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