They are portrayed as the teacher's best friend, or as a gratuitous nod to the modern world. Estelle Morris put multimedia and interactive resources at the heart of her new Secretary of State's vision of the classroom of the future. As yet, there is no evidence that they raise standards. But they do fit well with traditional whole-class work. With the teacher still at the front, these very latest teaching aids are added to the chalk and pen.
So what is an interactive whiteboard? It is three pieces of equipment: a computer, a projector and a touch-sensitive display board. The computer plugs into the board and the projector magnifies the computer screen in a very clear form.
But the display is more than just big and visible - it's also interactive. The board feeds information back to the computer. You can use either your finger or an electronic pen for annotation. In effect, you and your whiteboard replace the mouse and computer screen as the interface for operating your software. You can open menus, run video clips, zoom in, display web pages, surf the net, sketch in a drawing package, or even add handwritten text on to the board.
The boards allow you to save work as well - with all your last-minute illustrations and points made on the spur of the moment as you teach . You can print it or publish it on an intranet for subsequent lessons or revision.
Promethean is the only company that makes its boards in this country. Each comes with its own software, probably the most highly developed for classroom use. The company says it updates software constantly and sends upgrades free to customers.
"Some of the latest functions stem from watching teachers use the boards," says Stephen Jury, Promethean's managing director. "We found that teachers were pre-drawing bar charts using the graph paper background, then minimising bars. Once students arrived at the correct results, the teacher could instantly extend the corresponding bar on the board.
"Such instant reinforcement enables teachers to control the pace of lessons. Captions on diagrams can be wiped over in a background colour which hides them, then revealed by wiping over again with the board rubber." The effect, he suggests, is light years ahead of Velcro and card.
ACTIVboards are inductive - you have to use a pen to annotate the board. They are not resistive so will not respond to finger pressure. Pens can be lost and since a replacement pen costs around pound;100, this is a drawback. Conversely, pens are better than fingers for adding text. Not surprisingly, Promethean's ACTIVboards are the most expensive on the market.
Several other stands are demonstrating the Canadian manufactured SMARTboard, a popular and cheaper alternative. It has a touch-sensitive membrane covering the board. Students called up by the teacher to add to a diagram can use finger pressure or the board's marker pens, or they can touch where the text is to be placed - then open the on-screen keyboard and type the text.
An alternative to a whiteboard is the Mimio, a much cheaper option. It fits to the side of a standard classroom whiteboard. The bar connects to the computer and detects writing on the surface of the board. Step-by-step lessons can be saved, printed or published electronically. The Mimio also connects to the projector to display a huge version of what is on the computer screen. The drawback is that users find the Mimio unreliable for pen strokes, so spellings or formulae details may be saved incorrectly.
While all boards tend to look the same, there are differences. Demonstrations are not a true test of use in a large classroom. Prices are falling, but a state-of-the-art board and projector is still likely to cost more than pound;4,000.
ContactsAccurate Stand SW52Bullet Point Stand B112Matrix Display Stand C658Promethean Stand C515SMARTboard Stand B712OthersMimio: Tel: 0870 458 3344 www.europe.mimio.com
BUYING A WHITEBOARD: WHAT YOU NEED TO ASK
* How What will you use yours for? If it is to enlarge what is on your computer screen, then the functionality of the board is less important than the quality of the projector. If you want to write lessons based on its interactivity, then the interface and software are paramount.
* where Who will use the board and where will you put it? If you install it in the ICT room, will it be wasted - or is this where it will be put to best use? Will a big board be out of reach of younger pupils?
How will the dimensions and lighting in your classroom affect performance?
* siting Do you want yours fixed to a wall or mounted on a moveable trolley?
* setting up Who will set up boards and projectors if they are to be moved? A fixed board, by comparison, only needs to be set up with a projector and calibrated once. l links Will you have it as part of your network, or will it stand alone?
* feedback What do local schools and your authority recommend? Can you visit a classroom nearby where a whiteboard is already in use?