Saturday, December 04, 2010

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.

Trivialises teaching

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.

Budget scarcity

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.

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Blogger Nik Peachey said...

I have to say I agree with much of what you have written above, but can't help feeling that IWBs were a kind of mistake we had to make in order to get to where we need to be.

If they did nothing else they forced a lot of teachers to engage with technology in a way they could control. Ever the optimist I hope that this engagement will eventually give those teachers the confidence and experience to let go of control and hand the technology over to the students.

I'll keep my fingers crossed, but won't be holding my breath.


Nik Peachey

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta say, I love having one and wouldn't want to go back.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Steve Pincher said...

Whilst all of the arguments are there around a more didactic style when used as a replacement technology, I disagree with the assertion that there is not real interactivity. The means are there to use the board as a point of convergence and collaboration; to interact not just within the confines of the room but beyond and to change the classroom dynamic.

The reality is that IWBs have not failed, it is the whole change management process which accompanied them which was at fault, particularly where boards were supplied with only technical training and not with a focus on process transformation.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Harold Jarche said...

Interactive white boards have been embraced by educational (schooling) organisations, especially in North America, for one, very important reason. They do not challenge the status quo. The teacher remains in charge. Companies like Smart have capitalised on this. Of course, this technology doesn't improve learning, but schooling has never been about learning anyway.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Simon Lewis said...

Totally agree with Nik. Before IWBs arrived in a big way in Ireland back in 2006, only 4% of teachers purported using technology at all in the classroom. Though no formal reports are out since, informally I can see that at a very conservative guess 50% of teachers use technology everyday. Yes, they're probably not using it well, but they are using it and the hope is that this is a stepping stone for the future albeit an expensive stepping stone!

11:41 PM  
Blogger Laura Austin said...

I think that there is some truth to this article. But as with any teaching tool, if used correctly it can enhance the learners experience and bring about a more creative and dynamic classroom. Having taught with an IWB this summer, I'd say that it was really useful in engaging the students. Did they learn more? Not necessarily. Did they enjoy the class more? Yes. Does increased motivation help students in the long run? Totally.
The classroom should help produce skills needed for the real world. It can never replicate it exactly, but by bringing technology into the classroom, such as by use of the IWB you are helping both teachers and learners to touch on what's happening outside the classroom, and that can only be a good thing.
The job on our hands is to train teachers to make sure they can use this software wisely.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Coach's Notes said...

The use of IWB's in Primary education has been greatly valued and has transformed teaching. I very much doubt they would agree with your comments. This has been less so in secondary where the use of IWB's has been patchy and value for money would therefore be a problem.

Adrian Metcalf

7:22 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Adrian. As I say, I'd love to see evidence that these things work. Do you have any references to actual controlled studies that suggest this is so? One would expect numeracy and literacy to have measurably improved, given the size of the investment.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Simon. Use is one thing, effectiveness is another. I suppose my argument is that the money would have been better spent elsewhere. This seems like an incredibly expensive stepping-stone. My point was that inserting technology into the classroom (with one exception - more in my next post)is, on the whole misguided. Again, I'd love to be proved wrong on this one but am struggling to find the evidence.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Laura. Interesting point about bringing the real world into the classroom. I can still remember that being done with 30mm slides on carousels. But the real question is whether this has resulted in more and/or better attainment. We really can't justify this money on the general feeling that it's been 'good' as reported by teachers and/or students. The last time we did this, with whole language teaching of literacy we wrecked two generations of students.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Howard. No surprise to learn that I wholly agree with this premise. It was a technology a) that went into classrooms b) could be used by teachers c) was about improving teaching. In other words it was about a neat fit into an existing 'teacher in class' and 'one-to many' model. the 'learner' came a poor fourth in this list. To be fair, if you believe that learning is nothing but a response to live teaching, then whiteboards seem sensible, if unproven in terms of attainment. If, however, you believe that live teaching is not a necessary, and certainly not a sufficient, condition for learning, you'll be a little more sceptical.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Bob Harrison said...

We have IWB's because Charles Clarke,then a junior minister,went to the USA and saw a demo. He came back and found some dosh and announced the intiative at BETT.

Simple as that!

There is little or no published evidence to demonstrate and positive impact on learning outcomes.

There is abundant anecdotal evidence and case studies supporting the view that they can improve teaching.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Coincidence, or maybe not. I'm seeing him next week in Qatar. I'd give him a good ear bashing but suspect he's not a good listener.

8:26 PM  
Blogger awhite said...

Agree on the immense importance to focus on the learning/learner as well as the teacher/teaching when looking at the use of any technology in the classroom.
Good article. THanks Anne White

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Mark Berthelemy said...


From my experience, it's not just schools who suffer from this problem. Even in corporate training rooms I see way too many IWB's acting as very expensive projector screens.

And in schools, apart from the fact that IWB's reinforce a particular model of teaching beloved by the last government (and probably this one!), in my experience there are still many teachers who don't really know how to use the Interactive element of the board.

I've argued for a long time that the whole IWB investment exercise was pretty much a waste of money. Far better to give teachers that really knew how to use them a portable one that they could take with them. And they're cheaper!

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Pete MacKichan said...


One of the biggest problems with IWBs is their name - "Interactive" takes people off in all sorts of directions and somehow it gets forgotten that an IWB is a presentation tool. True, this is slightly muddied by the fact that the manufacturers do sell various "collaborative" add-ons like slates and voting tablets, but essentially the interaction is between the presenter and the IWB.

How you use the tool is what makes the difference. Donald mentioned 35mm slides and I have sat through some 'slideshows' where the teacher basically showed their holiday snaps under the auspices of sharing a bit of target culture. Motivating, not. Bad teachers will be bad teachers, whether they use IWBs, chalkboard or a wax tablet and stylus.

I definitely would rather have an IWB in my classroom than not - most of the reading, listening and writing that my students do is mediated by technology and it seems a little odd to teach these skills without being able to bring the technology in to the classroom; but that's one teacher, one context.



11:33 AM  
Anonymous Debate Popular - Julio said...

It seems logical your opinion, I think by focusing on the possibilities we miss the main target although it could use technology to improve you must first study the appropriate method for this will complement and not be a stone in the road.

12:54 AM  

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