The Government has invested heavily in interactive whiteboards, and for that it must be given a lot of credit. Central hardware initiatives in education have often helped drive the uptake of ICT in schools. For example, the programme to put modems into schools helped email become an important means of communication in education. Now, interactive whiteboards are helping to spread the use of ICT in schools. Despite the millions invested in ICT hardware and software in education and the extensive New Opportunities Fund (NOF) training programme, there are still many teachers who are, at best, reluctant to use ICT in their lessons.
There are a variety of reasons for this reluctance, but the perceived difficulty of using ICT coupled with the effect it has on traditional classroom organisation are undoubtedly near the top of the list. However, interactive whiteboards have done much to break down these barriers. An interactive whiteboard allows teachers to teach in a way that is familiar to them, with the central focus of a board, but with the excitement of media-rich content. In other words, it doesn't interfere with their existing pedagogy and so they feel comfortable. That's a lesson that ICT manufacturers have taken many years to learn. No matter how great the technology, if teachers don't feel comfortable with it, it will just get left in a cupboard.
And you don't have to re-arrange the classroom to use an interactive whiteboard either. Consequently, a lot of teachers have been seduced into using ICT in their lessons and that has proved an effective use of resources. The best, most creative teachers have shown some remarkably imaginative uses of interactive whiteboards and in unexpected areas; for example they're having a substantial impact in sport and art.
So that's the good news on interactive whiteboards, but there are always notes of caution too. Like the old chalkboard, the interactive whiteboard is behind the teacher, which means he or she has to turn their back to the class when using it. Teachers also have to be careful about blocking the projected screen with their body. And anecdotal evidence suggests that interactive whiteboards might end up being used rather less interactively than intended. A child running through a set of presentation slides can let the whiteboard "do the talking" where the same child with a simple laptop and projector, facing their peers, will often talk more to the group.
There is much support still needed for professional development and more research needed to inform that continuous development. And there remains the problem that, despite careful software guidelines by some vendors, interactive whiteboards can discriminate against shorter pupils, who can struggle to reach the upper areas of the board. Then there's the unexpected issue of the energy cost of running interactive whiteboards all day in classrooms to consider.
Around the world, interactive whiteboards are becoming stepping stones to other presentation systems in particular, a laptop and projector.
ICT-confident teachers like this set-up because it means they can use materials stored on their own laptops. They can also face the class while knowing all the time what the kids can see on the screen behind them. It then begs the question: when all teachers are confident with their own laptops, what will schools do with all the interactive whiteboards they have? Some schools are already pioneering the use of whiteboards to strengthen the links between parents and schools. The "couch potato generation" so many parents belong to love to sit back and watch a presentation, and this has proved a powerful way to convey insights about learning in today's schools. Indeed, this can be extended to the wider community, too. So few people know just how much good work is going on inside our schools.
Finally, interactive whiteboards can be used with a technology that is ubiquitous, powerful, but still sadly under-used in education today: the mobile phone. Many of today's children are walking around with more processing powering in their pocket than you would have found in half a dozen BBC computers, yet so far we make little use of it. Today's mobile phones can be used for sending pictures and text on to a web page, and interactive whiteboards make a great display space for these pupil contributions. Once again a national hardware scheme has jump-started a raft of ICT developments in our classrooms, but that start should not be seen as the destination.
Stephen Heppell is director of Ultralab (www.ultralab.net), the learning technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University. He was talking to George Cole