I’ve just been watching a video online of someone doing an IWB demonstration at the recent ISTE event in Denver, and I have to say, I’m a little speechless.
IWBs are certainly a controversial technology and cop a lot of flak for being a waste of money in classrooms, and although I hate to sound like an apologist, I too often find myself defending them. I defend them because I believe that in the hands of a good teacher they can be valuable tools, and I get a bit tired of hearing the technology being attacked when it seems to me that all technologies are fairly inert until someone actually does something useful (or not) with them. As a concept, IWBs sound like a good idea to me… here’s a tool that can support all manner of digital resources and is connected to the wider world via the web, but still has that human element that brings the class members together to discuss ideas around a shared, large-screen environment, sharing talking, making eye contact. That all seems like an attractive idea to me. Of course, in practice, none of that potential is realised without direction from a wise teacher who knows how and when to leverage the tool in some pedagogically sound way.
I’d heard that IWBs were a bit of a circus at ISTE 2010, and that, as usual, IWBs were being hawked by vendors as the silver bullet for making your classroom a better place. (By the way, have you noticed that the demonstrations of IWBs by vendors at trade shows usually consist of showing Youtube clips or playing tictactoe on the board?) However, I assumed that in the non-vendor sessions – sessions that were run by practicing educators who should know better – the importance of sound educational pedagogy would be emphasized over the fancy bells and whistles. So, I was a bit shocked as I watched this video of a teacher demonstrating how to get the most out of an IWB, as the demo was nothing more than a collection of “interactive” websites that were found online. In this demo, the teacher showed site after site after site of cutesy examples filled with cliched animations and canned audio that did very little other than provide yet another way for kids to consume some pre-made Flash-game rubbish on the way to rote memorising a bunch of facts. To make it worse, the entire demo was done from the computer, not the board, so there was absolutely no benefit in the IWB apart from being an expensive projection screen. The whole demo was a collection of everything I think an IWB should NOT be used for, and I think was a perfect example of why there is so much hostility from some people towards IWB technology.
Look, there may be a time and a place for the occasional naff Flash game. There probably are some useful websites that can be used to help a teacher unpack a tricky concept in a more visual way. I’m sure that having a bit of colour and movement to help engage students attention is a good idea. And having access to an onscreen simulation can be a useful tool when doing the real thing is too difficult, expensive or dangerous.
But come on! Teaching effectively with the assistance of an IWB should, hopefully, mean doing a whole lot more than just having a collection of garish websites and predictable, premade content up your sleeve! Surely we can do much better than this! I don’t want my classroom to have an IWB if its sole use is to allow my students to consume shallow, crappy, poorly designed web content made by other people. What made watching this video worse was watching the backchannel conversation, seeing the participants lapping this up and asking for the URLs for all these sites!
There are some great sites out there on the web, and there’s no denying that many of them work stunningly well on an IWB. But teaching is not (in my opinion anyway) a set-and-forget activity where finding a cool website that the kids think is “engaging” and then simply using it on an IWB somehow qualifies as “good teaching”. It doesn’t. I was truly stunned to see a bunch of poorly designed websites being projected on an IWB being held up as an example of worthwhile IWB use! I would be less surprised to see the vendors doing this, but not a practicing teacher! Maybe the critics are right.
And yet, in the hands of a good teacher, when the IWB is seen as having a supporting role in the classroom, rather than being the star attraction, they can be a truly amazing technology. Their ability to allow a good teacher to explore concepts visually, stimulate classroom discussion with rich digital media, follow interesting ideas that arise in the course of the lesson, and so on, is undeniably powerful. When used well, I’ve no doubt that IWBs can be revolutionary tools.
One of my mantras about IWBs is that it’s not about what happens on the board. It’s about what happens because of what happens on the board. Good teaching and learning is not about some stupid Flash game, it’s about the discussion and conversation and the ability to stimulate deeper understanding about an idea because of the stupid Flash game! The minute that the content on the board becomes the focus of learning, I think we’re in very shaky territory. As IWB-using educators, we need to always be thinking about how to leverage that onscreen content to challenge, support and extend the thinking of our students, and not simply to “edutain” them.
In their defense, I think IWBs can be used to provide an amazing “window to the world” in our classrooms. I think they can provide easy access to an incredible array of rich digital assets that can be used to engage, inform and stimulate learning. I think that their use can become embedded into our teaching and learning environments in ways that become seamless, where the technology disappears but the benefits are tangible. With a little thought, there are lots of great ways that interactive technologies can be built into the daily DNA of teaching and learning.
But to get there I think we need to let go of the idea that finding some “cool website” where a daggy animated character says “well done!” for adding 2 number together is something to get excited about. We need to realise that using some rudimentary drag-and-drop activity that reinforces the notion of learning as “who can remember stuff the best” is not the high-water-mark of teaching with interactive technology. We need to stop being dazzled by pointless animations, shallow activities, rote-learning dressed up as a game, and so on. We need to slap ourselves upside the head when we catch ourselves treating the board as nothing more than a screen. As intelligent educators, we need to be critical of the role that an IWB plays in our classrooms, yet we also need to be creative about looking for ways to leverage the power of this tool. We need to be smart enough to know when an IWB is the right tool, and when it isn’t. And we need to realise that the IWB is neither the sole domain of the teacher, nor just the plaything of the students, but rather a place to host a shared meeting of the minds where important ideas can be explored together as partners in learning.