The taming of the whiteboard

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Digital technologies are often associated with transformation. There's no doubt that widespread use of ICT has changed many service industries beyond recognition; banking and air travel being probably the most common. In the early days of computers, many heralded them as agents of change that would enable revolutions in schooling similar to what we've seen in commercial airlines. The teacher, like the travel agent, would be sidelined as the service provider interacted directly with the "customer" - the service provider here being the designer of a particular software system and the "customer" the learner.

This model of direct interaction with the technology being the key to learning was found in a very diverse range of models. Everything from the Skinnerian "teaching machines" that could "teacher proof" the curriculum to the constructionist microworld of LOGO were seen as so powerful that, regardless of the actions of teachers, simply exposing children to these systems would revolutionise teaching and learning. It seems hard to believe now, when we know that management of the use of computer-based tools by teachers is at least as powerful in determining the impact on learners as the tools themselves. Yet, I well remember a very uncomfortable job interview in the late 1980s when my suggestion that simply putting computers with LOGO on them in classrooms was unlikely to achieve much was met with open hostility.

Surely now though, it would be hard to find anyone who could argue with conviction that technology on its own can change education? Schools have shown themselves to be remarkably able to absorb all kinds of similar interventions with very little impact on the way they manage learning.

One of the latest, most widespread initiatives to have been introduced to schools has to be the installation of interactive projection systems, especially the interactive whiteboard. Again, much has been claimed for these tools as a means of enlivening teaching and accelerating learning, and there are many classrooms where this has been witnessed. But whether this represents a transformation is another matter.

Whatever the theoretical potential of interaction with a shared image, has the pedagogical model really changed? There are reports that, by using such a device, teachers can spend more time instructing children. This is because they concentrate for longer as their imagination is fired by the high quality of the teaching resources. Teachers find it easy to adopt this technology as it matches their model of teaching and is easier to manage than pupil devices have proven to be. Also, it is there on the wall to be used as and when needed, so the underlying pedagogies are supported and the outcomes seem to be improved.

In some schools these tools are now so vital to teaching that they are critical to the day-to-day business of the school - a first for any computer-based teaching tool. A question remains as to how truly transformative this practice is. Is this the ultimate example of the school system absorbing and taming technology to its will, rather than responding to the agendas of individualisation and personal empowerment seen in the wider world of digital technology use? If so, are we seeing a sustainable change that will revolutionise the school system or merely a digital finger in the dyke?

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

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