ICT - Time to ditch the L-plates

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
The whiteboard has been around for years, but many teachers still lack the skills to use it to its full potential, says Jack Kenny

When information technology was first introduced into the classroom, the expectation was that it would change the role of the teacher. From "the sage on the stage", dispensing knowledge, the teacher would help pupils to navigate their own way through the mass of information now available, becoming a "guide on the side".

Nowhere were these hopes more concentrated than in the case of the interactive whiteboard (IWB). The now ubiquitous piece of classroom equipment would transform learning, opening up new possibilities and involving children in their education as never before.

But in many cases the IWB has simply put the sage back on the stage.

One of the main obstacles to more creative use of IWBs is that some teachers have retained their old teaching techniques and simply applied them to the IWB, says Nancy Knowlton, chief executive of IWB developers Smart Technologies.

She believes it is what happens after a school buys a whiteboard that is important rather than the arrival of the IWB itself. "Most of the teachers who use whiteboards are experienced, and with experience comes a mindset around how things should be done and could be done," she says.

"What a teacher has to do is to set aside that thinking and say: `What are the possibilities now with the interactive board?'"

She says this often means letting pupils take the lead. "You need to be open to the possibilities that the technology presents for increasing engagement and helping children to understand concepts."

Dan Roberts, deputy head at Saltash Community College in Cornwall, says teachers need to overcome any qualms they might have about letting pupils use the IWB, including worries that children will break them. "If you give pupils a chance you will find giving them responsibility to use it will increase engagement," he says.

This can also be good for teachers' own professional development, giving them ideas on how to use the boards more effectively. "I have been in many lessons where I hear, `Did you know you can do this, Sir?'" says Mr Roberts.

He says one of the most common traps is to use the whiteboard as an overhead projector rather than as the interactive bit of kit it really is. Practising when the children are not present, or setting up a group of teachers and pupils to share top tips, can be an effective way of getting the most out of IWBs.

"They have fantastic potential, but often teachers are scared of using them and looking silly in front of their students if they get things wrong," says Mr Roberts.

IWBs have the scope to bring collaboration and alter the whole dynamic of the classroom, says Jayne Holt, director of learning technologies and innovation at Walsall College.

Every classroom at the college is equipped with an IWB, chosen after a consultation programme with staff. Ongoing training also helps encourage teachers to accept the technology, she says. Ms Holt believes this has been particularly crucial in increasing motivation and attendance among "less engaged" pupils at the school.

Jonathan Boyle, deputy head of Madeley Academy near Telford, in Shropshire, believes one way to help teachers get the most out of the IWB is to encourage them to record their lessons. "With a little practice, all of your classes can be exposed to your best performances at the whiteboard and watch them again on their home computer or even telephone," he says.

He suggests using IWB-ready applications such as those available from Birchfield or Daydream Education to enliven presentations. "Both will engage your students in whiteboard-rich experiences over the longer term," he says.

Used in the right way, the IWB can be an enormously useful tool, says Alison Lydon, ICT learning adviser at Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools, twinned independents in Edinburgh.

"There are teachers who can use this technology in a magical way to achieve their learning intentions," she says. "Sometimes that will be just writing on the board; other times it will be manipulating images in a way so that ideas come from the children."

The capacity to place and manipulate images on the IWB is one of its main advantages over other media, she says, while voting pads are particularly good for involving pupils who are reluctant to talk in class.

"It is all about the right tools at the right time," she says.

Flip charts, she adds, are also an effective way of summarising a lesson. If all the resources used in a lesson are on the board, revisiting them can remind pupils of their learning path. "You can't do that kind of thing on a normal board," she says. "You can verbally do it but not all children are verbal learners."

Ms Lydon believes teachers should also be encouraged to share resources they have made, both within the school and more widely through online communities such as Promethean Planet. "I don't see the point of making something and then being precious about it," she says.

The challenge for IWB developers such as Promethean is how to get people to progress, says the company's chief education officer Jim Wynn.

He believes training courses often fall short because they do not always explore how the technology will be used in a lesson.

"We run training courses on how to use the technology but we don't teach people how to use the technology as a maths teacher or a geography teacher," he says.

"You cannot teach someone something that is abstract and then get them to apply it. You have to make it concrete. It is pointless teaching a history teacher about Excel; you have to put it in their context."

For Ms Knowlton, the sign of success will be when the debate is no longer about the technology itself.

"I am looking forward to the day when there are no more technology conferences," she says, "when it is all about teaching and learning, and technology is talked about just as part of the toolkit."

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