The future's white

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Interactive boards could be a boon for whole-class teaching, writes Jack Kenny

Sometimes you encounter a piece of technology that leaves you lost for words - apart from a few trite, inadequate cliches - and you realise that this development could bring about major change. That something has come along to really encourage learning.

Those who have never attended a demonstration by RM's Russell Prue are deprived. Prue, the doyen of demonstrators - he's described as Chief Product Evangelist - engages his audience with his wit and professionalism and even gets applause. Now he has an interactive whiteboard to work with.

He stands in front of the large screen and, with an electronic pen, sketches and draws. With an on-screen keyboard, he adds text. He brings in video conferencing, talks to girls in a school in Dijon and makes on-screen notes of what they say. In the next 15 minutes, he astounds, amazes and entertains his sophisticated audiences. It is technological fluency turned into an art form.

Imagine it all in a classroom - and it is already appearing in an increasing number of classrooms.

During a class, a teacher walks up to the board as if it were a small cinema screen. With her electronic pen, she scribes "Macbeth". Now the artist, she quickly sketches a dagger. She asks the class for an appropriate colour. They suggest red, so she floods the screen. Crimson splashes across the room and glows on the attentive faces. The teacher touches an icon to open a multimedia program, and we see the witches and hear their cracked voices.

Then she switches into a CD-Rom encyclopedia, looking at an entry on witches. Using her pen, she highlights and copies a paragraph here, another there, to build a document.

With a keyboard that she floats on to the screen, the teacher encourages the class to comment on what they have just seen, heard and read. Using the screen like a keyboard, she types in their words and links the paragraphs to other elements.

Now, on the Internet, she searches for more about witches, while explaining what she is doing. She wants the children to do more of this themselves later.

All the words and images have been saved. They are saved on the school intranet and can be viewed on all of its computers and printed out. In turn, all those resources will be available to children working at home via the Internet.

Some people fear that because of the way information technology is spreading throughout the world, schools will appear bleak and irrelevant to children. You can see their point: what is a child to make of a learning environment where there is just one, ancient computer that they have to share with 30 others when at home there is a PC with Internet access, a good selection of CD-Roms and some well-chosen educational software?

Here, though, the class was enraptured, not just by the technology, but by their teacher's technical know-how. She was playing with learning. Maybe that was her real message - that learning can be engrossing.

How does it all work? The Interactive Whiteboard is the result of a joint project between RM and Promethean. Promethean designed the board while RM created the presentation and annotation software. (It should be noted that electronic whiteboards are also available from other manufacturers.) The computer output is projected on to a touch screen that contains a lattice of sensors. When the computer cursor clicks on an icon, it responds in exactly the same way as it would on a conventional screen, allowing the user to switch quickly and smoothly between applications. The floating keyboard, meanwhile, allows the user to write directly at the screen. The image size also gives a CD-Rom much more impact.

Is it useful? Yes, and it is much more interactive than scrolling through PowerPoint slides. And the fact that a class can see their ideas being incorporated as they speak enables the teacher to captivate their pupils. And everything can be saved and shared in a multiplicity of ways - copied to everyone, put on the school intranet, or sent across the world on the Internet.

With whole-class teaching being advocated, as it is now, this is whole-class teaching for the future. And the cost? The screen (75 inches diagonally) is Pounds 3,000, but once the projector and the software are added on, the total is aroond Pounds 7,000.

There are snags (other than the price). While the board works well in a moderately bright room, the image can get bleached out in sunshine. It also works best when used by staff who are technologically fluent when it comes using the Internet, intranet and video conferencing. There is one other nice touch - technophobes can use ordinary dry marker pens of any colour.

RM 01235 826868

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