White enlightening

One interactive whiteboard was enough for Robin Hood School. Dorothy Walker discovers how to get full value for your digital budget

The scene is Robin Hood Junior and Infants School in Birmingham, and an animated group of children are in the school cinema. But today their big-screen treat is not a blockbuster movie. Instead, they have come along to re-draft a classmate's essay, with the help of their teacher, Joe Purnell, and an interactive whiteboard.

Purnell has used a scanner to put the handwritten story on to a computer, and now it is displayed on the electronic board. And as the class volunteers suggestions for refining the text, their teacher makes the changes with an electronic pen, guiding them through the editing process.

"I used to have to do this on a one-to-one basis," says Purnell. "Now everyone gets the benefit of a whole-class modelling exercise."

Purnell's classroom is next to the cinema, and he uses the board extensively with his Year 6 pupils, revelling in the sense of spontaneity it brings to lessons. Armed with this electronics-plus-software package, he or his pupils can operate a computer from the board, and use a range of tools to enliven presentations with on-the-spot detours, demonstrations and journeys into detail.

"In maths, I might drag out a grid on the board and demonstrate how to draw a graph and add data," he says. "If we are looking at coastal features I can pull up a map and highlight where a feature can be found. It allows me to be more creative and it engages children who might otherwise not participate."

The board was purchased three years ago from supplier Promethean. A year later, the school had concluded that its most valuable feature was not the interactivity, but the ability to show the computer screen to large groups of children without having to crowd round the machine. After carefully weighing the pros and cons, Robin Hood decided that rather than opt for more interactive whiteboards, the priority was to install less sophisticated digital projection facilities throughout the school. Today every classroom has a system that simply projects what is on the computer on to a pull-down screen on the wall.

Ann Aston, deputy head, says: "We realised that for us the real advantage was having the big screen. Interactivity was an advantage, as you can focus on particular elements of a lesson, and there are lots of tools to engage pupils and present information in a more upbeat and precise way. It allows teachers to think more innovatively and to do something a bit different. For us it is very important to give them those opportunities.

"But when we looked at the expense, we weren't sure we would get full value for money. A whiteboard cost pound;2,700, and a pull-down screen was pound;100. We were also concerned about the pressure on staff. If we spent that amount on interactive whiteboards, would we be pressurising the staff to use them for the sake of it, rather than assessing what was appropriate for each lesson?"

But the school has continued to explore the interactive whiteboard theme, with the aid of five pound;75 preparation tablets purchased two years ago as accessories to the Promethean board. The A6-sized tablets enable teachers to prepare whiteboard lessons at home on their laptops. And in class they act as mobile interactive whiteboards, allowing anyone in the room to do the things they could do on the big board. All the action can be displayed on a pull-down projection screen, so the tablets can be used in any of Robin Hood's classrooms.

Carolyn Dowsett uses the tablet with her Year 5 class, and says: "It allows me to be with the children, rather than standing at the front doing the chalk-and-talk thing. I can't imagine being without it, and the children love using it."

She says the main benefit has been the professionalism with which children now prepare and present information. "I have become more adventurous in how I use it, and the children model what they do on what you do," she says. "They are now very good at understanding what engages people."

In the last three years, interactive whiteboards have increased in sophistication, and a range of tablet-sized whiteboards has appeared on the market. Today the school is once again pondering whether it should pursue the interactive option.

Head David Broadfield says: "We are now debating whether we should put full-blown whiteboards in a few more classrooms, or spend our budget on things such as handheld machines children can take home. We have not yet arrived at a decision."

Benefits

* Good catalyst for teacher and learner creativity

* Supports innovation and lateral thinking

* Provides flexibility, supporting on-the-spot changes to lessons

* Helps demonstrate concepts and explore details, bringing presentations alive

* Added-value presentation tools such as grids and maps save time

* Offers learners a professional quality medium for presenting to classmates and parents Action points

* Assess which extra dimensions you want to add to current practice

* Talk to schools which are using the technology to good effect, and try to see these schools in action

* Assess the merits of front-of-class interactive whiteboards, smaller mobile versions, and simpler digital projection facilities. Which mix best suits your aims?

* Plan how children are to be actively engaged, rather than simply watching the on-screen action

* As with any technology, be prepared for the day when the novelty wears off

Contacts

Robin Hood: www.robinhood.bham.sch.uk Promethean: www.promethean.co.uk

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