An introduction to Interactive Whiteboards

For the last few years I have given courses on using Interactive Whiteboards in the classroom.  This year I was in Kilkenny city.  Normally on a course like this, very few of the participants would have had interactive whiteboards in their school.  This meant that we usually spent most of the week learning about the different boards on the market, testing out the various options, rating them according to certain criteria and then maybe creating a few flipcharts using the software.

This year, almost three-quarters of participants owned IWBs and they wanted to know how to get the most out of them.  It was interesting to see the big shift in the confidence teachers had in using ICT.  Whereas the last few years, teachers’ confidence in using ICT verged from mild fear to absolute terror, this year most teachers were confident and eager to try things out.

The plan for the first day of the course was to introduce Interactive Whiteboards, what they did and how to use them.  For the second half of the day, teachers would go around the venue using as many of the boards as possible in order to check out the various options available to them.  I’ll go through the general comments later.

So how do I give an Interactive Whiteboard course?

For me the most important thing is to make them sound as simple as possible because, after all, IWBs are simple devices.  In many ways, I feel it almost deflates the whole excitement around them.  There is such an air of expectation surrounding them as if they will transform everything we do in the classroom.  When one visits a demonstration from any company, you receive the “wow, bang” effect as the salesperson throws up flashy videos and amazing games to entice you.  However, when you’re stood faced with a blank screen with a toolbar not unlike “Microsoft Paint”, it’s a different story.

I claim that there are 4 parts to an Interactive Whiteboard – a projector, a computer, a gizmo to make it interactive and, most importantly, a creative teacher.  Without the last part, an Interactive Whiteboard is about as good as a blackboard and chalk.

After that, I go into the various different types of boards that are available.  Even though I argue that all IWBs are almost the same, there are still over 25 different boards in the country, each company believing theirs to be better than the rest.  There are subtle differences between boards and I divide them into categories:

  • Pen vs Touch: Pen boards only allow you to interact with them using a special magic pen.  Touch boards also allow this but one can use any pointed device including one’s finger.  Being able to use touch allows the user make more natural gestures such as drag and drop.  The magic pen is good from writing on the board.
  • Dry-wipe vs not: Some boards allow you to use them as normal dry wipe boards, that is, one can write on them with markers like a normal whiteboard.  This allows one to use their wall space more effectively.  IWBs without dry-wipe surfaces require the classroom to have 2 boards side-by-side.
  • Permanent vs Portable: A few years ago, a portable board was the gadget one stuck to a normal whiteboard to turn it into an IWB.  Permanent boards were the boards with the interactivity built-in.  With these gadgets like Mimio, eBeam and Onfinity proving annoying to move around between classrooms, more and more schools simply left them stuck to boards permanently.  The new portable boards are the IWBs on portable trolleys.  These look like the IWBs one sticks to a wall.  With projectors now being often less than 50cm from the boards, the whole lot can be placed on a stand on wheels and carted around the place.
  • Height-adjustable vs not: Some boards are height-adjustable, others are not.  More boards these days are height-adjustable, which is handy for classes where there are children of different heights or children with mobility requirements such as wheelchairs.
  • Multi-touch vs single-touch: Most boards only allow one person use them at the same time.  However, with devices like the iPhone allowing new gestures such as pinching, swiping, etc. there is now a bigger need for multi-touch IWBs.  This could spell trouble for pen-based boards, though most of them allow for dual-control these days.  In a classroom, having multi-touch boards allows more children the ability to write on the board at the same time.

Once all that’s out of the way, it’s time for me to show what an IWB can do.  This is where I feel most teachers’ hearts sink as they realise that there isn’t really a lot to IWBs despite their previous convictions.  Here’s my list followed by a quick video of these services in action:

  • Draw or makes marks on the board
  • Highlight objects on the board
  • Make lines and shapes on the board
  • Import images and videos
  • Write/type text
  • Drag and drop items
  • Point and click other items
  • Interact with any software such as the Internet (or import these on to the board)

That’s it.

Some boards’ software have interesting features like tools to help with maths, literacy and other subjects, but they fall into the last category in my opinion.  Also, the software that comes with a board can be bought separately in most cases, (particularly if it’s good quality).

However, before I turn you off IWBs, with only these simple tools, one can thousands of amazing things with a little bit of imagination.  I hope that the rest of the course will prove this to you.  In the next article, I’ll be describing how teachers got on when they were faced with 15 different IWBs.  I’ll discuss their findings, their frustrations and their recommendations.

Last Update: August 17, 2017  

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2 thoughts on “An introduction to Interactive Whiteboards”

  1. I get the impresion that in terms of deliverable useful learning tools IWB’s arent quite there yet. However I would see a lot of scope in the context of Games based learning and imersive technology. For instance the Virginia Number Line application available for the ipod/iphone could transfer quite well and work with a group taking turns to place the tokens on the line.
    At the end of the day I thinks they probably have more of a summative than a discursive role.


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