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All aboard for training

It's all very well putting interactive whiteboards in schools, but many teachers aren't getting the most out of them because they don't have the right help and guidance, warns George Cole

There are a number of myths surrounding interactive whiteboards and one of the most prevalent is that they're simply an electronic version of the traditional blackboard. While it's true that interactive whiteboards allow teachers to teach in familiar ways, research carried out by Bristol University's Graduate School of Education suggests teachers need more guidance in using interactive whiteboards than is generally assumed.

The two-year research project (funded by the ESRC - Economic and Social Research Council) began in May 2003, and is designed to investigate how digital technology can best be used by teachers. It involves four schools in Bristol - two primary, two secondary. What makes the research of particular significance is that the project is collaborative; teachers are involved with the researchers during the analysis of the data. The teachers were also enthusiastic about incorporating the technology into their lessons. The problems and issues these teachers faced are bound to be felt by many users of interactive whiteboard technology.

"One of the things that has come out of our research is that training needs to be more sophisticated and what teachers really need is help finding the right software that can be used to engage children in learning," says Victoria Armstrong, a research associate at Bristol University. "At present, access and training are very piecemeal and only one teacher in our study was given systematic training; the rest were largely self-taught."

The researchers found that if training was poor, or non-existent, there was a danger that the interactive whiteboards would simply remain idle in classrooms - a number of pupils questioned for the research commented that in many lessons, teachers had access to interactive whiteboards but hardly used them. All this suggests that a good training programme should be added to the total cost of any interactive whiteboard, and that schools that leave teachers to learn for themselves may not be getting the best out of their investment.

Victoria points out that an interactive whiteboard is simply a bit of hardware, what really matters is that teachers have access to, and knowledge of, appropriate software. The software provided with many interactive whiteboards can be a mixed bag, and it's not always clear how it's designed to be used by teachers.

"There's an assumption that because a software package comes with the whiteboard, it must be appropriate. But sometimes, the software worked in ways the teacher didn't expect and, what is more, the teacher wasn't sure how to solve an issue when it arose," she notes.

Victoria gives the example of a piece of bundled software that allowed teachers to create a virtual environment. "It was very nice for the kids and had a dynamic interface, and you can see why teachers would be keen to use it," she explains, "but one exercise involved the children designing a number of fish in order to compare their characteristics. Pupils had to find which characteristics enabled the fish to live the longest. Well, the children did this on their laptops and then found themselves watching their fish live for more than 30 minutes - an outcome not anticipated by the teacher."

Victoria suspects that some of the software should be seen, at best, as a teaching tool rather than as a program to be used by students. It certainly provides vendors of interactive whiteboards with food for thought; the research suggests that it would definitely help teachers if more guidance was given on using the software in the classroom.

The project has also uncovered a number of positive aspects to using interactive whiteboards in the classroom. "The research suggests that most teachers find interactive whiteboards useful for presenting, saving and storing work and for initiating classroom discussion. It offers a shared communication space and is also useful for pupils who are less focused.

This latter area is a fruitful one for further research," says Victoria.

One teacher told the story of how the interactive whiteboard had transformed the behaviour of a pupil who was normally disruptive in the classroom. "He went up to the board and moved his text around and the class really responded to this. His standing in the class increased and the teacher was amazed to find him going away and writing a four-page story as a result."

Pupils also report that they find using an interactive whiteboard "fun" and "interesting", it helps them pay attention and they're more willing to come up to the board to answer questions. "They like the dynamic aspects of the interactive whiteboard and the fact that it supports a range of media.

Pupils also claimed it aids their recall when things are moving on a screen rather than watching a teacher talk over a static display," adds Victoria.

When it comes to pedagogy, a lot of teachers say it's important that an interactive whiteboard does not change their practice. The research has found differences in school culture can influence whether or not pupils are encouraged to come up to the board or not. Some teachers were uncomfortable with pupils encroaching on their territory at the front of the classroom.

"Pupils like coming up to the board to move things around and we found that the class was often very focused when pupils were at the front in the teacher's traditional space," says Victoria. "This is turning out to be a complex issue as there appears to be a mis-match between what teachers perceive as the benefits to pupil's learning and what senior managementheads (who are looking to justify interactive whiteboard expenditure) see."

Another area for further research is what actually constitutes interactivity on an interactive whiteboard - is it more than simply another way of facilitating and supporting classroom interactions between teacher and pupils?

The researchers would also like to see schools given more information on the day-to-day running of interactive whiteboards.

"The lamps for an interactive whiteboard can cost pound;300 each and we've heard reports of a school ordering half a dozen of them on the assumption that are they are about pound;20 each," Victoria explains. "And in some schools, networking PCs to an interactive whiteboard hadn't been seen as a good idea. If we can improve training and get the right software information to teachers, then they are more likely to engage with the technology."

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