Can one size fit all?

Merlin John warns of the hype that schools should consider before splashing out on expensive interactive whiteboards

So you think you need an interactive whiteboard? Are you sure? Do you want to engage in truly interactive classroom work, with your students playing a full part? Or do you want to communicate creative and stimulating curriculum presentations from your computer to a large screen where it can be shared with your students? Are you aware of cheaper alternatives, for example the new "tablet" PCs some teachers will prefer?

The current hype about whiteboards has led to some curious "one size fits all" buying decisions. The worst scenarios have resulted in expensive technology being left under-used in classrooms. Some key policy makers are wary of the whiteboard debate. They sense that many teachers who feel they ought to be using interactive whiteboards don't realise the classroom work could be done as easily, and at far less cost, by a PC plus mobile control pad, or laptop computer, or even one of the new tablet PCs (see Circuit, P26), beaming its content via a data projector to an inexpensive white screen and providing mobile interactivity from anywhere in the classroom.

John Anderson, education technology strategy co-ordinator in Northern Ireland, urges caution: "My view on whiteboards is one of concern. I see schools scraping together a large sum to buy 10 whiteboards which they 'install and forget'. If you forget about the significant professional and curriculum development costs then it's an expensive way to buy a digital projector screen. There is evidence that significant additional investment is needed if you want to see a return in terms of pupils' raised key stage levels in literacy and numeracy."

There is no doubt that training and support can produce exemplary work with whiteboards. And there is no shortage of examples if you search in the web archives of the organisations and publications that cover educational technology. Schools Like Robin Hood Primary, in Birmingham, have become well versed in the arguments and the practices over the years (see opposite).

What separates the skillful whiteboard teacher from the simple projection "broadcast" model is interactivity and the positioning of the teacher. Watching a maths class using RM's Easiteach whiteboard software you see pupils engage with the teacher, working together on problems and contributing their suggestions by using "pens" or their fingers to write or draw on screen.

Purchasing decisions should be made in the awareness that this technology is not standing still. The latest devices to attract interest are the small "mobile whiteboards", actually radio-connected graphic tablets (MeetingPad, from Interactive Education, or ClassPad from RM), that teachers can use around the class, and with the pupils, to project the computer images to a white screen (or wall) via a data projector. This device has already been purchased by some schools, and others are watching with interest.

Also causing excitement are the aforementioned tablet PCs. Like laptops without lids, they are fully functioning PCs controlled by a touch-screen and can be connected to a projector by radio so they can be used anywhere in a classroom. Then there are the relatively inexpensive "clip-on" whiteboards that can use existing boards. Many educationists are familiar with the Mimio, but now we have the eBeam (see review P34-35).

These then are some of the considerations to work through to protect teachers and school funds against a whiteboard hype that could lead to curriculum regrets and even financial hardship in the near future.

Buying points

* Do you really need an interactive whiteboard, with the action fixed at the front of the class?

* Have you looked at the alternatives - mobile radio laptops, interactive pads or "tablet" PCs?

* Seek counsel from other schools and insist on free demos from potential vendors

* Is the software user-friendly?

* Do you want pupils to use the set-up?

* How much is it to replace pens?

* How much are replacement bulbs for the projector?

Implementation

* What size display do you need?

* Where will you mount board and projector?

* Will they be moved?

* Check out light levels

* Can you position the board so you don't cast a shadow across it?

* Technology and curriculum training are essential

* Do staff have access to laptops for preparation?

Costs

Be aware of the "total cost of ownership" concept favoured by the DFES - thought to be as much as pound;10,000 for an interactive whiteboard.

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