Interactive whiteboards – some pros and cons

At my current school we have interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in every classroom. These are a luxury, but I do think they have their drawbacks.

In ‘400 Ideas for Interactive Whiteboards’, Sharma et al (2011:10-11) list these benefits of using an IWB:

  • Teachers and students can use a wide range of multimedia in the classroom
  • They can make lesson lead-ins memorable (using videos, photos, etc)
  • Reviewing language has never been easier’, especially as you can save the flipcharts you create
  • They help with creating personalised content
  • It encourages ‘heads-up’ learning. Teachers can keep learners working at a similar pace, and focused by controlling what’s on the whiteboard. Feedback can be instant too.
  • Audio transcripts can be displayed easily.

This is a fairly loose list of benefits – there are plenty more. However, they don’t mention many problems with using IWBs. They highlight that…

  • technology is never 100% reliable
  • there’s a temptation to use the IWB merely as a presentation tool (teacher-centred)
  • there’s a tendency to overuse IWBs at first

Perhaps most importantly, they stress that IWBs are just another classroom tool – they should enrich the learning experience, but not take over.

Their book is a useful resource for IWB users, but it lacks discussion. Here are a few more pros and cons with IWBs that I’ve been thinking about recently.

A minute to learn, a lifetime to master…

That was the slogan for my favourite board game (Othello, see feature image!), and it applies to IWBs too. OK, maybe not a lifetime…!

I gave one of my colleagues a quick IWB tutorial last term. I explained a few basic tools and uses, and he went away and tried them out. The other day we got chatting about his progress. He said:

‘To be honest, I’ve found that we’re going backwards – these boards make my classroom more teacher-centred. I’m just up therewhiteboards1 talking, presenting. It’s not what I expected’.

This seems consistent with two of Sharma’s points above – perhaps overuse of IWBs and using them just as a presentation tool. However, what the real problem seems to be is that my colleague is a basic user, not a competent user of this tool. At that level it might be hard for him to utilise the board in a variety of ways, and devise more learner-centred activities.

Planning time

My colleague’s problem links to planning time. We do get paid planning time at our centre but, for some less competent ICT users, much of this time gets eaten up making flipcharts. I’d class my skill level with IWBs as just above basic but I can’t do much fancy stuff. Even so, I take a while to make flipcharts. Every teacher here does it, so I feel obligated to. Perhaps some training might help me (and my colleague) become more efficient, and recognise more benefits of using IWBs?

Learner training

I plan activities which allow learners to use the technology. Matching tasks, board races, ordering information on clines, interactive games, etc. When I reflect honestly on these activities, I realise that my techniques in my pre-IWB teaching were perhaps more effective, especially with younger learners. They involved more TPR in general, and used the space around the room a bit better. But if I really try to pinpoint what made them more effective, it was that they were a bit more snappy, hence more engaging. Sometimes the technology slows my classes down, when learners themselves aren’t competent with the equipment. You could argue that this is a positive thing as I’m helping learners develop digital literacy skills, but learner competence with this equipment is something to factor into planning.

Are my learners suffering? Am I becoming ‘deskilled’?

All of our adult lessons come complete with a flipchart. One day, when we had some technical issues, I realised that learners had become reliant on this. I gave instructions verbally, without the additional support of written instructions on the board. Learners struggled with these, and I had to grade my language more, give a bit of a demo, check instructions, etc. We got there in the end!

I realised how these boards had affected my practice. I’d let my instructions slip a bit, as I knew learners had a written version they were more comfortable with. In turn, this had made the learners switch off to my verbal instructions and become a bit complacent.

I’ve adjusted my practice accordingly, but I’m a bit more conscious now of the influence the IWB can have. With my teens we have an interactive course book, but I won’t always use it – I make a point of giving verbal instructions sometimes, to keep them on their toes!

Over-reliance

Sharma et al (2011) inadvertently highlight this issue of IWB over-reliance in Chapter 4 of their book: ‘Creating and adapting your own materials’. They introduce hundreds of ideas for using the IWB in class. A majority of them don’t require an IWB at all, and some of them seem to promote use of a flipchart when there are probably better methods:

whiteboards2

Sharma et al 2011 pg 203

I’m not suggesting this is bad practice at all. It’s just that the activity makes a more of a presentation out of a topic that lends itself to spatial tasks. Sure, the flipchart would be good for clarification, but TPR, realia and gestures (maybe Cuisenaire rods) would be a better form of initial input (in my opinion). The follow up is good though, but none of that needs an IWB.

Sharma et al (2011) is a good resource, and is full of ideas, but it does have a tendency to promote over-reliance. The much better activities it provides are those which can’t be done in other ways, like the ones requiring specific software or multimedia – that’s where an IWB comes into its own.

This idea of ‘principled eclecticism’

I’m not a technophobe, and I do love the versatility of tools like the IWB. I should probably do more to integrate digital technology in classthis webinar next week will help me I’m sure. But when I read about principled eclecticism with regards methods/techniques, I feel the same with classroom tools too. Over-reliance on one tool could be detrimental in some ways, and less effective.

Some questions, please comment!

  • I think my school could offer more IWB training. Does yours? How often and in what form?
  • Do you train your learners to use IWBs or do you find they just ‘get it’? If you do train them, how?
  • Do flipcharts take up much of your planning time? Can you offer any tips to speed things up?
  • What other pros and cons of IWBs are there?

Cheers!

Reference: Sharma, P. Barnett, B. Jones, F. (2011). 400 Ideas for Interactive Whiteboards:  Instant Activities using Technology. Thailand: Macmillan

Feature image: comfortablydomestic.com

9 comments

  1. We only have IWBs in the language labs. To be honest, when I’m teaching in there, I’m more focused on doing listening or pronunciation practice with the lab technology than using the IWB. I’m sure there are ways to integrate the different technologies more effectively, but I have had no training on any of it. Overall, though, like you, I’m a bit wary of integrating technology just for the sake of it or because “the learners want it”! I’m not yet convinced that IWBs would significantly improve my classrooms… but maybe someone will list a load of advantages that show me otherwise…?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. IWB training: Many centres already provide good basic training upon induction, but it often fades away as you want to progress. Ask your centre to contact the IWB povider, who often offers online training, MOOCS, or in-centre training, plus a wide range of micro-learning videos.

    Do learners get it? Yes, better than most teachers, and certainly from the age of seven. The main issue is that the plastic nib ‘feels’ like they are scratching the board, so they let pressure off, and start selecting the text by mistake. Quickly fixed with a bit of instruction.

    IWB takes up planning time? Of course, as does every resource. However, not every other resource is as easy to use repeatedly, or share (and still keep) with fellow teachers. Another little-known bonus is that flip chart pages can be printed to pdf and handed out or shared online (albeit without the interactive factor).

    More Pros:
    Millenials are becoming more visually orientated, yet the vast majority of paper handouts are still in B&W. There are countless times when colour gets the point across, such as selecting different colours for different word forms.

    Turn a settler into a stirrer/great warm up. Try an on-board wordsearch, for teams to find. It’s very fast, very focused and you soon discover who your visual learners are. One plus is that you can hide the words, so higher level students have to find them by dictation alone. Most of the popular TV gameshows have also been adapted for IWB.

    It’s an Interactive whiteboard, and a focus for multimedia contect. If you are still using it as a whiteboard and pen, your centre has wasted an awful amount of money. Getting students up to the board at the start of class makes a big difference to their backsides on seats school day.

    A few minutes with a long-term user can slash prepping time. A lot of actions can be set by selecting multiple objects and then choosing the action, or by copying and pasting an object with an action. Besides, those old IWB hands may have already produced a template.

    Anyone under 25 can pick up more than just the basics really quickly. To quote one trainee: ‘The typing is just like Word. Next page, please..,’

    IWB providers offer a whole host of free resources, including classroom management tools. If you’re going to OneStop English or BusyTeacher four times a week but never to the IWB site, hmmm.

    Cons:
    It’s Not PowerPoint 1. If you think of it as PowerPoint for the classroom, you will continue to use it as a presentation tool.

    It’s not PowerPoint 2. It can actually be faster to produce IWB flip charts, but they are not truly compatible across platforms, even though providers are working hard to integrate other gadgets into the classroom and IWB environment.

    IWB is not only for ELT. There are a hundred actions and a dozen tools you will never use. This just wastes time trying to find the things you need to use every day.

    Flip charts can look too professional! Students like to surpise you with their novel question (which ou have heard a thousand times) and to be surprised by your superior knowledge as you board the answer in a furious scribble. Therefore, set a rule: don’t prepare everything on a flip chart, and leave space for other techniques and resources.

    Computers crash, cables break, projector bulbs blow, board pens ‘wear out’ (even on IWB). It’s worth printing out a thumbnail page plus one copy of some flip chart pages to quickly photocopy, and keep a handy folder of trusted backup materials. The important thing is not to break down as a teacher.

    To conclude, IWBs are not new technology, and I feel it is an indictment of the luddite training & certification bodies who do not prepare new teachers for the realities of the modern classroom, or the mentality of millennials. After all, one of the main aims of an English language teacher is to know more than the students, or at least pretend that we do!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Chris, cheers for a great list of pros and cons there. Your pros are convincing and I certainly agree that training bodies could address use of IWBs more. Having said that, I guess not every teacher will get to use these so it doesn’t necessarily fall into a set or core skills needed by EFL teachers. Still, it’s a steep learning curve if you suddenly have to use IWBs in a new job – that jump from the basics to competency would definitely be aided with training. I’ll ask about MOOCs and online training at my centre tomorrow now you reminded me! A quick question (if you get time to answer): have you used IWBs in most of your teaching jobs? Would you say most schools in your current context (whatever country you’re in) use IWBs? Just wondered.
      You’ve motivated me to try and develop my skills in this area, cheers!

      Like

    2. I don’t mean to poo-poo on your thoughtful response, Chris, but there are some problems with the listed “pros”:
      -“…you’ll soon discover who your visual learners are.” Learning styles are largely a myth. Neuroscience does not back up claims that people learn best in one modality or another.
      -Many pros associated with the use of IWBs cited by research are things that can be done better, faster, and cheaper with different tools WHILE ALSO promoting a more student-centered learning environment complete with student voice and choice, rather than promoting the didactic, teacher centered, lecture style of learning that just about everyone paying attention to school reform agrees we need to move away from as teachers. Almost every technology available for students educationally provides feedback, often with data that can be used to tailor instruction based on individual needs. There are lots of ways to get kids out of their seats besides having them come one at a time to interact with a board that no one else is necessarily paying attention to anyway. Collaborative work, for example, is not only good for getting kids to move around, but is a much needed 21st Century skill. Learning is largely social.
      -Although the suggestion to learn from other teachers and copy/revise existing templates they have created is a good one for saving time, and I truly recognize the demands on teachers’ time, it is not the best for students. Let’s be honest here: goal #1 for everyone is improving student outcomes. Who benefits from time saving tips that copy templates of lessons for students that are without a doubt different from room to room…the students, or the teacher? I would much rather see investments in technology going to things that benefit students, not satisfy teacher preferences. I’d much rather see investments of time going into careful lesson planning for your diverse (and different every year, so don’t use the same files every year, either) student population, using whatever tools are appropriate for THAT lesson, THAT time around, with THAT group of students. Canned or recycled lessons only benefit teachers, and that’s not why we got in this game.
      -The problem with tools requiring a lot of training in order to be used effectively is that it just doesn’t happen in most cases. When it does, it still requires the teacher to actually use the tool in the most effective way, and as you and others pointed out, teachers don’t have time to plan lessons that carefully. Given that planning effective lessons with IWBs takes longer, why not use that time to plan lessons that take advantage of proven techniques and strategies? Ones that help to transition from traditional to 21st Century learning environments? Ones that personalize learning to a greater degree, are based more on student interests, get students to think critically, solve problems, and collaborate? Maybe even ones that are project/problem based? These things are all difficult to implement if you are used to doing things the traditional way, and take time. Personally, I’d much rather see teachers using their time learning and practicing these new methods and strategies that will benefit all students now and in the future than making flipcharts that benefit those who pay attention to the front of the room that day.

      I assume there will be backlash. Fire away.

      Like

  3. IWB training: Many centres already provide good basic training upon induction, but it fades away as you want to progress. Ask your centre to contact the IWB povider, which often offers online training, MOOCS, or in-centre training, plus a wide range of micro-learning videos.

    Do learners get it? Yes, better than most teachers, and certainly from the age of seven. The main issue is that the plastic nib ‘feels’ like one is scratching the board, so young learners let pressure off and start selecting the text by mistake. Quickly fixed with a bit of instruction.

    IWB takes up planning time? Of course, as does every resource. However, not every other resource is as easy to use repeatedly, or share (and still keep) with fellow teachers. Another little-known bonus is that flip chart pages can be printed to pdf and handed out or shared online (albeit without the interactive factor).

    More Pros:
    Millennials are becoming more visually orientated, yet the vast majority of paper handouts are still in B&W. There are countless times when colour gets the point across, such as selecting different colours to different word forms.

    Turn a settler into a stirrer/great warm up. Try an on-board wordsearch, for teams to find. It’s very fast, very focused and you soon discover who your visual learners are. One plus is that you can hide the words, so higher level students have to find them by dictation alone.

    It’s an Interactive whiteboard, and a focus for multimedia contect. If you are still using it as a whiteboard and pen, your centre has wasted an awful amount of money. Getting students up to the board at the start of class makes a big difference to their backsides on seats school day.

    A few minutes with a long-term user can slash prepping time. A lot of actions can be set by selecting multiple objects and then setting the action, or by copying and pasting an object with an action. Besides, these old hands may have already produced a template.

    Anyone under 25 can pick up more than just the basics really quickly, to quote one trainee: ‘The typing is just like Word. Next..,’

    IWB providers offer a whole host of free resources, including classroom management tools. If you’re going to OneStop English or BusyTeacher four times a week but never to the IWB site, hmmm.

    Cons:
    It’s Not PowerPoint 1. If you think of it as PowerPoint for the classroom, you will continue to use it as a presentation tool.

    It’s Not PowerPoint 2. It can actually be faster to produce IWB flip charts, but .flp are not truly compatible across platforms as yet.

    Things break. Things always break. Things have always broken. There are more cables, bulbs and electronics in IWBs than in much other classroom equipment, but often these are quick fixes. The important thing is for the teacher not to break down, and have an emergency Plan B.

    Flip charts can look too professional! They shouldn’t answer all the questions a student might dream up, or quash the ‘instant wisdom’ of the teacher. Keep It Simple, Silly! Giver more time to collaborative, kinaesthetic activities.

    Sometimes, I feel that IWB is putting too much stress on some teachers, when in fact it’s ‘old technology’ these days. Why on earth aren’t the certification bodies doing more to prepare teachers for the 21st Century classroom and the millennial mentality?

    Like

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