Whiteboards: the white stuff or black holes?
Prometheus stole fire from the Gods but was punished by being chained to a rock, his liver pecked at for eternity by birds of prey. And so it turned out for Promethean, the UK Whiteboard company. It’s being hailed as the ‘worst flotation of 2010’ and its shareprice has just collapsed. The founder, Tony Cann, is a nice guy, I know him well, but his arguments about e-learning in the classroom were never convincing. This was about teaching, not learning, about hardware and not learning.
Doomed to succeed
Whiteboards were hailed as the technology saviour in schools, boosted by BECTA, but many, including BECTA’s chair Andrew Pindar, saw them as reinforcing an old preachy, teacher-centric, classroom model. And so it came to pass. The UK has led the way here with more whiteboards in schools than European and US schools. But has it worked? Studies in the UK show NO significant improvement in attainment through whiteboards. Professor Frank Coffield warned us for years that this was a misguided policy. It’s a policy that was ‘doomed to succeed’.
Interactive whiteboards: boon or bandwagon? A critical review of the literature by Heather J. Smith, Steve Higgins, Kate Wall & Jen Miller, Centre for Learning and Teaching, School of Education Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University.” There is insufficient evidence to identify the actual impact of such technologies upon learning either in terms of classroom interaction or upon attainment and achievement.” This excellent paper shows that most of the supposed evidence is merely anecdotal from teachers and pupils. But, as Professor Mazur of Harvard is fond of saying about educational research, ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’. The literature often confuses Whiteboards as a tool for teaching with a tool for learning. One PhD thesis, using a control group, does seem to support its use in maths, Effects of technology on student achievement and motivation in mathematics, by Paino, Tara L., M.A.S.E., CALDWELL COLLEGE, 2009 but there is a paucity of trials and support in general. It’s as if the educational world simply wants to will this idea to success.
Attempts to inject technology into classrooms often fail. It’s a busy, crowded, one-to-many space, not a quiet, personal space, where one can focus on the task at hand. Whiteboards, like most technology in the classroom, is a square peg in a round role.
First, it diminishes the real role of the teacher, who has to hold the attention of the class, maintain discipline and engage with students on a personal level. Whiteboards so often pull attention away from the teacher, diluting their hold on the class. For many, it trivialises rather than enhances teaching.
Difficult to use
Second, teachers struggling to use the technology, 30 or more kids smirking at their incompetence and desperate to help ‘poor teacher’ scroll or close an error message. “No Sir, you have to…..” Few knew what resources to use and fewer still how to integrate the content into their lessons. It is possible, but it is hard and needs far more planning than most teachers are willing to give. The training is often inadequate and low bandwidth into schools often means lag and technical problems, which teachers are not equipped to deal with.
Illusion of interactivity
Third, there is the illusion of interactivity. Passivity and a more ‘lecture’ type style of teaching has been encouraged. Whiteboards were installed in primary schools, too high for the kids to reach, rendering interaction impossible. But of you lower them, they’re too low to be seen at the back of the class. But even when they are at the right height, the interaction is lightweight. There are many other problems with installation in terms of height, light and position and in practice, lots of whiteboards stand idle, the return on investment not realised.
An early problem was lockdown into the whiteboard manufacturer’s software. This is plain stupid, and demand dictated common file formats (CFF) and more open source software. Some have even favoured portable whiteboards that can be moved from room to room.
The impact of huge amounts of money spent on Whiteboards has been a paucity of books and other forms of technology. Far too great a proportion of the budget has been spent on technology that is difficult to maintain and may be quickly out of date. Many use it as a traditional blackboard or simply as a projector, neither justify the investment. This move has soaked up budgets leaving scraps for other initiatives. Books are in short supply and a sensible approach to personal devices, connectivity and communication with parents and pupil often flounders.
Technology is one-to-one
Learning demands personal attention. What learners need are devices and ‘connectivity’ i.e. access to resources that help them, as individuals, learn. The paradox of collaboration, is that it’s much more powerful online than offline. Any 12 year old instinctively know that sharing and collaboration come through access to online spaces, not classrooms.
I’m not against Whiteboards in general. Anything that has the potential to enhance teaching is useful. What I am against is the massive spend on ‘teaching’ as opposed to ‘learning’. The success of mobile devices, and it’s not the future that’s mobile it’s the present, is that it’s powerful, personal and portable. The investment should be in connectivity, not front-end devices. Consumer behaviour determines the latter. Graham Brown-Martin was well ahead of the game here. We need to focus on learning technology, not teaching technology.