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Whiteboard magic casts a spell in the classroom

Interactive whiteboards enthral everyone who sees them and may well convince many teachers to use digital materials. Jack Kenny looks at some of the pitfalls.

It is magic, writes Jack Kenny. I watched a teacher give a bravura display of using the whiteboard, playing it like an instrument. It took us all across the UK via video-conferencing, then on to a DVD disc where we watched a clip from a film, before going into an animation. The teacher wrote notes on the screen that would eventually be printed out and she finished with slides that summarised everything that had gone before.

Kids, enthralled for 30 minutes, applauded at the end. Not everyone has the technological fluency to do that, but children find the interactive boards exciting. Attention spans seem to be longer. Few children have experience of the technology so the shock of the new is still potent. But how do teachers keep it fresh? How do they avoid them becoming a passive, boring babysitter, as television tends to be.

An interactive whiteboard is basically a huge touch-screen for a computer, and it is rapidly becoming the high-tech blackboard of the 21st century. A high-quality projector displays the computer image on the whiteboard, which has a sensor system that allows you to use a pointer, coloured crayon or even your finger in the same way as you use your computer mouse.

The work teachers, children and students develop for this medium can be simply stored on the computer, school network or intranet. This includes text, images, sound and moving images - even video.

People often say how easy the boards are to use. Some are, but the software on some boards is complex. There are good arguments for using a simple program: colleagues will be more likely to use it. However, it is probably true to say that if you have simple software you will only make minimal use of this powerful technology. Some boards can be used without much training, but a few sessions will increase the impact of lessons profoundly.

One error is to think that materials, such as worksheets, that you have already prepared for your own screen and for printing, will work just as well on the large screen. They will, but they won't have real impact. You have to create for this medium and exploit what it will do. You have a screen where text and pictures will move, disappear or change colour; that can talk; that can transport you around the world; that you can animate. The big mistake is to think of the screen as a blackboard. It isn't as static and you are not as constrained.

Look around and you will see that some software entrepreneurs have already started trying to sell materials that are written for whiteboards. Some are very good and will save you preparation time. It would be a pity to depend too much on commercial materials, however. Why not make your own and remember that you can keep these materials and use them over and over again?

Capitalise on time saved. Using the board can eliminate the time students spend copying notes, since you can print everything out for them. However, you will have to ensure you have other techniques for getting them to read and internalise the notes or otherwise they will just be filed.

Some teachers hog the board. Encourage students to use it like a painter's canvas. Young children like to see their digital work displayed and like to take people through their slides or hypertext.

There is a danger, however, that it is over-used. Whole-class teaching can be useful, but not for the whole of the time. Use the board judiciously, to set personal tasks and stimulate autonomous learning.

Finally, with colleagues, reflect on why and how this is having an impact. What are the learning gains? What are the deficits? How does the use differ in different subjects? Are there techniques that science teachers use that could be developed in English?

Investing wisely

Buying an interactive whiteboard is not the easiest purchase. You will be subjected to the usual hard-sell and hype. Remember that it is for your school - its unique environment and its idiosyncratic staff. The purchase has to be tailored that way. Often the whole thing will come as a package, including the board and the projector. Ensure that the generosity of the package does not talk you into buying something that is not completely suitable.

The boards themselves come in different sizes and there are also differences in functions. The electromagnetic boards must be used with a special pen: Promethean, Hitachi, and Time. The membrane boards will work with a pen, but also with a finger: Smart Board and Displaymate.

Software is also crucial. Some argue that it has to be simple - that more staff will use the board if all they need are the skills they have learnt on computers.

There are a confusing number of projectors (see Chris Drage's guide to projectors on our website,

Promethean Activboards

The Promethean range of products has to be considered. The company concentrates on education and they know the environments in which their Activboards will work. In addition, they are not content to produce presentation software, they also do Activstudio, Activeslate and Activote.

They claim that they go beyond a general presentation aid and are producing an integrated group-teaching system. Activslate enables pads to be distributed around the class so that the students can interact with the main board. Activote is the "ask-the-class- rather-than-the-audience" model. Each pupil can have a handset, which helps the teacher ascertain what a group knows.

Training in the use of the board and the software can be arranged. Prices start at pound;1,650.

Hitachi Starboard

The Hitachi Starboard is a standard electromagnetic board with the software necessary to run it. Like the Promethean it can be run as an ordinary whiteboard; as a projection screen, or connected to a PC. Automatic text recognition (OCR) enables you to convert handwriting into characters so that you can integrate them with your files. It does not have the extensive software add-ons of Promethean. Prices run from pound;1,650.

Smart Boards

Bullet-Point Presentations are the main suppliers of Smart Boards into education. These boards have a membrane that acts as a sensor. The robustness of these boards is sometimes queried, but 6,000 are in use in the UK and not one of them has been damaged with normal usage. They use less expensive pens than the other boards and you can even use your finger. The boards come in three sizes and prices start at pound;865 for the 47-inch board. The software is fairly simple to use and Bullet-Point, now owned by Digitalbrain, has developed some software for primary schools to use with the boards. Training with this board is free, even if you want to call them back for a refresher in a year's time. Updates to the software are often produced and all buyers are informed of these so they can download them from the Internet.

Time Digital Whiteboard

The Time Digital Whiteboard comes from TDS, the same board manufacturer as Promethean. Time has its own software. The durable, non-reflective matt surface can be used as a conventional whiteboard with a marker pen. Like other boards the electronic pen allows you to annotate and move through your presentation without having to touch the computer.

Prices for whiteboards range from pound;1,289 to pound;1,867. The price for a multimedia presentation package, which includes an IMP 1000 62-inch whiteboard, a 450-3D notebook computer and an NEC VT440 projector is pound;3,999. Installation is done with great care to ensure that the correct board is chosen for the light levels with in the school.

Plasma screens - RM

Plasma screens are expensive. They can be used to display computer screen output, videos and DVD films. The image quality is superb under all light conditions. The disadvantages are that you are restricted to the size of the screen. They are 42-inches diagonally or 50-inches diagonally. The 60-inch screens will be on sale in the near future. When considering the price, it has to be remembered that a plasma screen is the equivalent of the projector and screen. Plasma screens do not need bulbs. They can be used with a SMART Matisse overlay to create the interactivity. The price of an NEC MP2 42-inch is pound;4,995, and the SMART Matisse 42-inch interactive overlay is pound;2, * Most projectors rely on good lighting. Chris Drage looks at how to work out what projector suits your classroom environment on our website:


* Where will you mount the board and projector?

* Is it going to be moved from room-to- room?

* How much light comes into the rooms?

* Will any specialised software work with PC and Mac?

* What size display are will you need?

* Is the board robust?

* How much are replacement pens?

* How near to the front of the class can I put the board?

* Is training given free?

* Is the board complete or can you add to its functionality later?

* Will children be able to use it with ease?

* How much are replacement bulbs for the projector?

* What is the quality of the audio like?

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