For the last ten years, electronic whiteboards – such as those produced by Promethean and SMART Technologies – have been standard items on any classroom refit and usually enthusiastically received by staff and students (see Smith, Higgins, et al. 2005). Every day when I drop my children off at primary school, they walk into rooms where the electronic whiteboard is up and running. Any parent who arrives late and has to take their child into the classroom is likely to see them all performing a 5 minute exercise routine following instructions on the board! For examples see this Pinterest site or the Activityworks website, the latter includes some explanations of why some people believe this approach is effective.
My observations of whiteboard use in schools is very different to that in universities, where the boards now usually sit switched off (in some cases hidden behind larger projection screens)! Even in areas for group work – e.g. booths where students sit around a table with a laptop and an electronic whiteboard at one end – more often than not the whiteboard is unused. The question is why?
This is a technology that showed a lot of early promise. A study by two staff at the University of Pittsburgh published in 2012 has caught the attention of SMART (in that they add a link of dubious legality to it on their website). Jang and Schunn watched the way groups of engineering students interacted with/were constrained by the technology. The authors contrast what they term “individual tools” such as a computer or a person’s notes, with “shareable/collaborative tools” such as an electronic whiteboard or a physical prototype. Their results suggest that students who used collaborative tools from the start, and continued to use them throughout the project, were more likely to deliver. There’s a bit of circularity here, and I don’t feel you can unpick whether the availability of the boards increased communication, or if it just shows that people who were already experienced at group communication made good use of the available collaborative tools. SMART certainly hope you take the former view as you can see in this infographic they published summarising the findings. Opinion remains divided – e.g. this 2010 study by Torff & Tirotta suggests that some of the motivation-enhancing effects often associated with electronic whiteboards are overstated.
From my personal experience of using the boards, I have come across a couple of problems (ignoring the high cost of these devices):
- They are usually poorly placed in rooms (particularly “meeting rooms”) , meaning that many people sit with their back to the board and have to turn away from the rest of the group to see it. This has the effect of inhibiting conversation, or favouring their use in small groups. The worst example of this is putting them at one end of a table in a booth, making them essentially off-limits for everyone but the two people nearest the board.
- They are often too small, making the content hard to read and annotations blocky. Too often they are not as good as a plain whiteboard, failing even at the first substitution stage. If you are trying to project a high resolution image, often projectors aren’t up to the job – with neither the resolution or the contrast. Solutions that can make use of an LED or plasma TV can give much better results – digital versions of microscope slides can finally look as good as old Fujichrome slides!
- Pens and the erasers can go missing, and the on-screen tools you can drive with your fingers are always a bit clunky.
- Most boards only support one “touch” at a time. This means two people can’t really draw at the same time – which is something I’d hope would be a key part of collaboration. Users accustomed to navigating with multi-gestures on their phones and tablets will find the electronic whiteboard a frustrating experience. Suppliers are catching up, but I still think the model is wrong.
- The boards can do strange things with other USB devices connected to the same computer (e.g. blocking voting system dongles or some slide remotes). Collaboration tools should play nicely together in my opinion and not restrict you to the tools built into the board.
- The required software can be a bit flaky, and some versions are not as backwards-compatible as they should be. Furthermore, the developers seem to write the code where the tools are deployed using helper apps that launch on start up, do they really expect staff to always shackle their laptop to a whiteboard?
- Finally, and in my opinion the worst feature, is that they only work when you stand in front of them. If you fix them at a height where most people can reach both the top and bottom of the screen, then you probably won’t see much if there is someone sitting between you and the board. It is difficult to use them without turning your back on the rest of the room. Yes I have seen setups linked to an interactive tablet, but this still needs tethering via USB and so is rarely passed around the table. Perhaps in response to this failing, some boards are now available as “tables”. Whilst the videos of people flicking through and rotating photos look slick, I’m not sure this really is the action most conducive to learning in a tutorial or seminar setting. If the table becomes the screen then you can’t put things on it – what good is a meeting if there is nowhere to put your coffee cup? How will you take notes?
Despite this list, I have seen people use them and use them well. By capturing a carefully designed “board-centric” activity, the focus of participants can shift from trying to record what is happening, to actually making things happen. That has to be a good thing. They also allow annotation of figures on the fly, which can help address any issues that were not anticipated when you prepared the materials.
Whilst I was initially attracted by the large number of page templates, I think there is a danger of over-preparing the session. Students need to be free to contribute to the session and take it in a direction that, whilst still meeting the learning outcomes, may not be exactly what you had planned. I find that if I have spent a lot of time preparing particular slides, I am more resistant to deviating. That is wrong.
I think the answer is probably to stop trying to write directly on the board. There have been a lot of advances in educational technology since the first electronic whiteboards were designed. The two key ones for me are the rapid growth and availability of wireless networks and tablets. Technologies such as Apple’s Airplay (sharing content from an iPad or Mac newer than mine via an AppleTV) are very slick and free you from the constraints of a single app/program (no matter how good it is). Connection is literally child’s play which should encourage staff and students to have a go. Rather than ask a student to come up to the board, or try and pass them a tethered tablet, surely it is better to get them to take control of the screen from their device. If someone wants to suggest a minor change, pass the tablet. That said, I think this model may be more suited to “serial collaboration” unless the app you are sharing support live collaboration (e.g. a wiki).
The cloud is also changing things – if someone takes a picture with a phone or tablet (perhaps the result of a particular experiment, or something that illustrates a point they want to make), how easy is it to get it displayed on-screen? Do you need to swap devices, or is there some common repository (be it Flickr, Dropbox, OneDrive or iCloud) that you can use to facilitate instant sharing?
If we do decide to replace electronic whiteboards, it might mean we can finally get rid of switches like this one that are just asking someone to see what happens if you do!