Despite the heavy investment in interactive whiteboards, many teachers are not getting the most out of them, writes Jack Kenny
"Ski Sunday. I watched it every week, admiring the way the skiers would swoop and swerve. Great! Watching it didn't teach me to ski though." So says Harold Brownlow, head of Ballymena Primary School, who is sceptical at the headlong rush to acquire interactive whiteboards. Some headteachers now measure the effectiveness of their schools by the number of whiteboards they have. Learning by watching replaces learning by doing. Plainly, judicious use of the boards is what should be aimed at.
"A hopping-on point" is how Gareth Mills of QCA describes the boards. He sees them as a way of pulling in the formerly reluctant to take on ICT. The hope is that teachers attracted by the boards will be seduced into furthering their ICT skills. Time will tell.
After sitting in many classrooms over recent months, it is obvious that the most frequently used piece of software is PowerPoint. Used well, you would not guess its origin, but used unimaginatively it has a clunky, linear, plodding feel. Easiteach Studio is a big rival to PowerPoint and, like PowerPoint, it will work on any board. It is simple to prepare materials that incorporate more than text.
It is good to develop your own material to play on the screen, but software specially developed for the whiteboard and that will work on all boards is worth considering. RM's range of Easiteach Literacy, Maths, Science and MathsAlive is soon to be joined by Geography, English as an Additional Language, Early Steps in Literacy, Animated Books, Timeline, Mind-Mapping Tools and Foundation Phonics. Software like this can reduce the workload and at the same time put first-class resources in front of the students.
Nelson Thornes' Whiteboard Workout activities are structured around the word, sentence, text, and speaking and listening framework categories, and can be varied in length to suit differing classroom needs.
Eventually we will look back and see that the current interactive whiteboards are full of problems. They don't work well in strong light, and they are often installed at the wrong height. It is difficult to work at them and keep out of the projector beam and, above all, they ensure that teachers keep teaching the way that they have always taught. The boards themselves have developed little over the last year, although developments like SMART UK's back-projection screen (2000i, see competition on p70), wireless keyboards and wireless mice all have practical advantages.
The real quest in a classroom is for the students to take charge, and devices like the Classroom Performance system, Promethean's ACTIVote, Qwizdom and Educlick can help with that. Teachers type in multiple-choice questions; the questions are then displayed on the screen; each student has a handset that they use to choose what they believe are the correct answers. A receiver picks the responses and transmits them to the teacher's laptop. The answers are analysed by the system and can be seen by the teacher so they can judge how well the group has understood the work.
Much cheaper is the low-tech whiteboard: a laminated card, a pen and tissue for each child. The children can write their answers, hold them up and then clean them off. You can use it to ensure that they all make a response. It is cost effective, gives instant feedback and a clear picture for the teacher to see how a concept has been understood.
Most new technologies have "interoperability" problems. SMART UK will be licensing software so that those schools that use different brands can move from board to board with ease. This means that teachers will be able to open Promethean files in SMART Notebook and Notebook files will run on the Promethean board.
Alternatively, some schools are putting tablet PCs into classrooms in the place of whiteboards. The set-up is one digital projector, and one tablet connected wirelessly to the projector. The projector screens the output on to a conventional white surface. The tablet can be used anywhere in the room by the teacher who can write on it or hand it to a pupil for a contribution. In this set-up the teacher is not confined to the front of the class in the traditional, age-old position, which is what also tends to happen with a conventional whiteboard.
Whatever platform you choose, good training is crucial. Promethean has an exclusive agreement with Atomic Learning to provide of 29 introductory online tutorials for Promethean's ACTIVboard (free for users).
Meanwhile, SMART UKis setting up an accreditation programme for 40 support staff who will go into to schools. There is a direct telephone line (0870 160 8200) to SMART UK for any users who might not feel that they are getting 100 per cent from their boards.
* Sound out the quality of the training provided
* The quality of the content that you put on the board is more important than the board
* Practise using the software tools
* Ensure that the height of the board is governed by the height of your pupils
* Remember learning styles and adapt your displays.
* Check the quality of the speakers that are provided.
Atomic Learning Stand SW60
BulletPoint Stand A60
Cambridge Hitachi Stand S20
Classroom Performance System Stand X100
Espresso Education Stand D64
Polyvision Stand Z90
Promethean Stand V60 W40
Quizdom Stand B61
RM Stand D50E50