Catching up (and some slides)

It’s been a while since I blogged here, basically since I got back from ISTE about 2 months ago.  Not sure why, just been super busy. I’ve got a heap of things happening at work, exciting things that I’ll be writing about here soon, but it’s just been hard finding the time lately to sit and write.  I need to change that. I miss doing it.

I presented the keynote at the IWBNet conference in Sydney this morning, which was fun. The topic I was asked to present on was “Why Interactive Whiteboards”, and a few people asked for a copy of the slides so I’ve included them below.

Gotta fly, I need to be at the airport in an hour or so to catch a plane to Japan where I’m spending the weekend with Kim Cofino running a workshop for EARCOS called The Networked Educator.  I guess I’ll have more to write about that later!

IWBs are no Silver Bullet

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 boardIt’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.

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That book…

Here’s a little piece of news about the book that I wrote with Mal Lee last year, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution: teaching with IWBs.  We’ve just been informed by the publishers, ACER Press, that the original print run is now completely sold out and they are going into a second print run. Apparently there are even back orders, and the book has been one of the best selling books in their catalog this year. Who’da thunk it?

It’s true that Interactive Whiteboards can be a controversial topic. There are plenty of people who see them as a useful technology for teaching and learning, but there are also plenty of others that don’t (and are quite vocal about it!)

One of the things I think we tried really hard to do in the book was to consider this controversy and take a sensible and level-headed approach to what IWBs do and don’t do well.  I certainly don’t think I wrote it as an IWB fan-boy and I hope we managed to present a reasoned, common-sense, brand-agnostic argument for how IWB technology can succeed in making the teaching and learning process a little better, while continually reinforcing our belief that no teaching technology can make much of a difference unless it being used in ways that are based on sound, effective pedagogy.  IWBs on their own will not help your students learn – a truth that you would think seems so obvious –  but you only have to look at the advertising from most IWB makers to realise that this idea of it being a silver bullet is still being pushed quite heavily.

There’s no denying that there is still a lot of silly hype about IWBs, and I’ve seen plenty of cringeworthy examples of ways to use them. There have been moments where I’ve almost felt a little embarrassed that, of all the edtech topics I could have chosen to write a book about, it had to be about interactive whiteboards. The last thing I want is be thought of as “the IWB guy”.  In fact, I’ve been asked to give the keynote address at this years Interactive Teaching and Learning Conference, and I’ve called my presentation “Are IWBs carrying our classrooms into the 21st Century, or chaining us to the past?”  I believe we will only use IWBs well if we take a critical approach to their use and continue to ask ourselves the hard questions about how they fit into our teaching practice.  If we don’t do this, they can all too easily become gimmicky and pointless.

Having said all that, I’m pleased to say that the book has been getting some excellent reviews from people who see it as providing reasoned, sensible advice about a topic that is frequently hyped beyond reason and sense.  That’s been really quite affirming.  It’s also been affirming to get emails and twitter message from many of the people who’ve read it saying they found it useful and helpful.  My sincere appreciation for that!

Perhaps the best thing to come from the book has been the ongoing discussion about IWB technology that is happening over at www.iwbrevolution.com.  We originally set that site up as a way of providing a place for community to develop for people who read the book, who perhaps wanted to continue the conversation, ask questions, clarify things, or just generally tell us we were idiots and had it all wrong.  It’s actually grown FAR beyond our original expectations, and there are now over 1400 members from all over the world sharing ideas over there.  I’m actually far more proud of the ongoing intelligent discussion we’ve created there than the book itself.

If you have been one of those people who has read it, thank you!   And if you haven’t but would like to, you can get it here.

The Value of Thinking Out Loud

At the recent ULearn Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was asked (along with many other educators, I hasten to add!) to be part of the EdTalks series. Naturally, I was thrilled to have been asked and readily agreed, although I must admit that in the flurry of preparation for ULearn I really didn’t think about it very much until I got to Christchurch.  Sitting in the foyer of the Chistchurch Conference Centre, quite by accident, I bumped into Matt Tippen, one of the brains behind EdTalks, who said “Oh, so you’re Chris Betcher. Are you ready to record your talk?” I wasn’t, but I did it anyway, and essentially just made it up as I went along.

EdTalks is a project of CORE Education, a leading New Zealand educational consulting and training organisation, and is described on their website as “a growing collection of videos featuring New Zealand and International educators talking about learning. EDtalks is CORE’s contribution to your professional learning; a free database of short video interviews with leading educators and thinkers.”  It’s one of those wonderfully simple ideas – use video to capture teachers talking about what they do, then sharing that with other educators on a completely open, accessable website.

Anyway, as I said, I wasn’t actually prepared for it, and really hadn’t given much thought to what I might talk about.  The topic of interactive whiteboards came up, and next thing you know I was recording a piece about them (Curse that book! I’m getting typecast!)  While I do think that IWBs have a worthwhile role to play, and I think I’ve given a fair amount of thought to how teachers might use them sensibly and effectively, I don’t know that I really want to become known as “the IWB guy”.  Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s the EdTalk I recorded.

The more I think through the arguments for and against IWB technology, the clearer I think I become about it in my own head. It took me a while to get to this point, but I do believe that IWBs are a worthwhile addition to a classroom.  I also don’t think that my opinion is simply based on having drunk the Kool-Aid of the whiteboard vendors, who too often promote the technology as an instant panacea.  It’s not.  I think it’s taken me a long time to get it clear in my own head just where the value proposition lies for IWBs, and where their true strengths are.

Of course, it’s not just IWBs.  The same process has applied to so many other area that I’ve developed a considered opinion about.  It’s really only been this process of “thinking out loud” in public spaces like my blog, my podcast,  or in various other online forums like mailing lists and Nings, that I have managed to hold some of these debates in my own head and come to conclusions that actually make sense to me.  There is enormous value in being challenged by others who hold contrary views and who will debate and raise the level of critical thinking so that the end result, at least in my own head, is something that I can feel happy with.   You know what they say… if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

It makes me wonder… I know many people who don’t/won’t take their thinking into a public space and expose it to the scrutiny of others. How do those people decide where they stand on controversial issues if they don’t blog or write about or somehow share their thinking with the wider audience?

Finding New Things to do with an IWB

The following post was originally written as a reponse to a thread about interactive whiteboards on the www.iwbrevolution.com Ning.  One of the thread participants there made a statement about needing to see IWBs used in new ways.

I’m interested (read desperate) to see the revolutionary value adding aspects. I have an IWB, I love using my IWB, but I need to grasp the ideas and strategies that move people to describe it as a ‘revolution’ in learning. Show me an idea that is actually new!!!

While I appreciate where he’s coming from, I think the question is somewhat flawed. In responded to the post, I found myself “thinking out loud” about the value propsition of interactive whiteboards.  For what it may be worth, here’s the post. As always, your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments…

I used to own a mobile phone, an iPod, a digital camera, a video camera, a GPS, and a voicerecorder, and I often carried many of them with me at any given moment. I also used to carry photos of my kids in my wallet. Gradually each of these devices has become subsumed into devices that could combine many of these functions – at first, my mobile phone gained a camera, and then my next phone had a camera, and a voice recorder. I still needed an iPod if I wanted to have my music with me, and I still needed a GPS if I wanted to know where I was going. I could maybe carry 3 or 4 photos of my kids at most.

My latest device is an iPhone, and it has finally merged all of these tools into a single pocketsized device. I now no longer carry all these things around with as individual tools, but I still have all these tools in my pocket. They are now just one device. The phone, the cameras, the voicerecorder, the GPS, the iPod with all my videos, music and photos accessable whereever I go, combined with mobile internet access and the dozens of amazing apps I have installed for doing just about anything you can think of, has fundamentally changed the experience of interacting with these devices individually.

I find my iPhone to be “revolutionary”, not because it allows me to do anything I could not do previously with all these individual devices, but rather because of the way it has combined all these tools into a single device. The revolution has been in the convergence, not in each the specific tools. I could do all this stuff before – I just had to carry a bag full of devices to do it! It’s also evident in the way these tools interact with each other… the maps can talk to the GPS, which in turn can access the web to look up an address, which in turn can let me make a phone call to that address. There’s nothing terribly “new” about the map, the GPS or the phone. Individually, these are all old, existing tools, but combine them together and they produce an overall experience that is new, different, and dare I say it, revolutionary.

The argument I hear that “an IWB does not let me do anything I couldn’t do with xxxx” – pieces of cardboard with words on them, sheets of butchers paper and blu-tack, an overhead projector, a pair of real dice, a big wooden protractor… you name it… is a complete piece of misdirection about the real value that an IWB can bring to a classroom. It is NOT about whether an IWB can “only” be used to do something that was already possible using a different technology. The real point is that the IWB, by converging so many classroom tools into a single, digital, point of contact on a large shared screen that every participant of the classroom can see, hear and engage with, fundamentally changes a whole lot of things.

There ARE great examples of how IWBs can reinvent what happens in classrooms, but if the onlookers want to constantly dismiss them because they might be able to be done in other ways with other tools, then they will never see the value that convergence brings to these tools.

You say you are desperate to see something “new”, but what do you need to see before you class it as “new”? There are very few new ideas under the sun… if people are waiting for that magical moment where they see an IWB being used to do something that is so unique and special it has never been done ever before by anyone in teaching history, they might be waiting a while. Few examples exist.

However, many examples exist of IWBs enabling teachers to bring digital media, online video, rich learning objects and realtime data into lessons. There are lots of examples of IWBs being used to bring disparate resources together in ways that were cumbersome and awkward using disparate technologies. If you’ve ever tried to show students specific scenes from a DVD – or heaven forbid, several DVDs – in a class, you will know that juggling disks in and out of the DVD player and trying to find specific places in the movie can take up most of the classtime. The same lesson, where the relevant video clips have been pre-prepared and embedded into a flipchart is a totally different experience.

Likewise, the ability to have an IWB as a “window to the world” where not only is the answer to so many random questions just a Google search away, the important thing is that it is only a Google search away in a shared, publicly viewable, social space of a classroom. I would argue that classroom participants using the shared digital space of a large screen connected to the internet and able to divert a lesson into unexpected directions at a moments notice is fundamentally different to traditional classrooms. The ability to do this is, in effect, new.

Perhaps we should stop looking for these profound, earth shattering instances of how an IWB can be “revolutionary”, and instead see the whole picture. The convergence of tools into a shared space that can be instantly adapted into whatever digital tool that might be appropriate is a an incredibly fundamental difference. A large screen tool shared by the whole class that is a place to write, a spreadsheet, a video player, a photo album, a maths lab, a world map, a link to world libraries, an encyclopedia, a highlighter pen, a post-it note, a place to brainstorm, and so on and so on, is an incredibly valuable tool. The fact that these individual parts can be dynamic, realtime and interactive makes it even moreso.

Whenever I hear people saying that an IWB can’t add anything to a classroom, I ponder how they are using it. Are they using a narrow set of IWB tools or do they use it in a myriad of connected ways that build on each other to create a dynamic ecosystem of tools. Do they treat their IWB like a hammer or a Swiss Army Knife? Is it just an expensive highlighter pen, or is it an amazing pandora’s box of digital tools waiting to be combined in interesting ways by creative teachers and students?

That’s where you’ll find your new stuff.

The REAL trick to all this is to ensure that this potential is being realised by teachers who understand the world of possibilities their IWB offers. If a teacher cannot see the potential, then of course we will struggle to see genuine “newness” in the way the IWBs are being used. As always, it is the creativity and insight of a talented teacher that brings this potential to the surface. Let’s stop being so hung up about whether IWBs can add value to a classroom. They can. The real question is whether the teachers who work with them can make the most of that potential and use them to bring that “revolution” into their classrooms.

More than just Dazzle

I’m in Auckland at the moment for the first New Zealand National IWB Conference.  As some of you may know, I co-authored a book a while back with Mal Lee that was all about IWBs and interactive technology in general, and I learned a fair bit about whiteboards and their various uses in the process of writing that book. I’ve presented at the last three Australian IWB conferences, another in Napier earlier this year, and now this one in Auckland.  Plus, since the book came out I get asked quite a lot to run IWB workshops for schools, where I get to I talk to lots of teachers about the things they do with their IWBs.  (Actually I’ve always talked to lots of teachers about their IWB use, but I think I ask much better questions these days).  All of this has given me – I think – a reasonable perspective on the current state of IWB use, so I just thought I’d blog a couple of reflections about it.

When I first saw an interactive whiteboard, I really wasn’t very impressed with what I saw.  I remember touring through a school in southwest Sydney about 5 years ago that had installed them in every room.  As I wandered around looking at how they were being used, a few thoughts struck me…

  1. I couldn’t see anything special about “the board”. It seemed that everything I saw being done could have been done with just a projector on its own equally as effectively.
  2. There was nothing terribly special or even pedagogically sound about what I saw.  It was mostly just online games and digital “busy work”.
  3. I wondered if these people had given any thought to how much their ongoing costs for replacement projector bulbs would amount to!

Shortly after that, I was asked if I would help develop some digital teaching resources for teachers using IWBs.  I recall it was myself and another teacher who were commissioned to create this package, and I think we had 5 days to work on it, but I spent most of the first three days arguing with her about how stupid some of these whiteboard activity ideas were.  Mind you, I was a high school teacher and she was a primary school teacher, and were both coming at it from completely different paradigms.  Eventually we did come up with some good ideas, but I felt like the process of arguing and questioning the value of the IWB actually brought us to a far clearer realisation about what exactly these IWB things were all about.  Or at least what they could and should be all about.

When I was teaching in Canada, my school adopted Smartboards. I was lucky enough to be selected for the original “pioneer group” of teachers there, and we got some excellent training directly from the trainers at Smart.  Over the last couple of years I’ve read a lot of research papers and blogposts about IWBs, listened to a lot of IWB specific podcasts, watched a lot of teachers work with them, had many, many conversations about them with all sorts of teachers. And, of course, I’ve co-written what has turned out to be a pretty comprehensive book on the subject.

There are still some people who have some pretty negative opinions about IWBs.  They claim that interactive whiteboards are a backward step. Coming from my originally skeptical position, I totally understand the controversy surrounding IWB technology.  However, I also feel like I’m reasonably well qualified to have some sort of considered opinion about them, so here’s a few thoughts…

I feel like the general attitude to IWBs and the approach to using them seems to have matured somewhat over the last 12 months.  In the early days of IWBs, many teachers were clearly impressed with the “wow factor” and were not giving a lot of deep consideration to the actual pedagogy for their more meaningful use or thinking about how they might become seamlessly embedded into the daily routine of teaching and learning. 

These days however, I’m pleased to say that most of the conversations I hear about IWBs seem to have a much more pedagogically focused outlook.  More teachers seem to be thinking intelligently about how they might be used to improve learning, or at least raise the student engagement factor in some sort of sustainable way.  They want to know about how to use the technology to deepen understanding and to promote higher order thinking skills.  They genuinely want to become more proficient in their use, so they can get the technicalities of using them out of the way and focus on the real issues of “how will this help me teach better, and how will this help my students learn better?”

It’s becoming much harder for vendors to dazzle educators with fancy animations and meaningless drag-and-drop activities.  It seems to me that the IWB-using educators I’m meeting these days are much more discriminating and thoughtful about how they use the technology.  They also have a far more suspicious view of outrageous vendor claims about the instant impact an IWB will have on their classrooms.  For way too long, vendors promoted IWBs as though they were some sort of magical panacea for classrooms.  “Just add an IWB to your classroom and student excellence will automatically follow!” seems to be the claim. 

From what I’ve seen lately, that claim is being increasingly seen for the lie that it is.  Intelligent teachers know that while interactive whiteboards might be a powerful addition to their classroom, expecting them to be more than that is just naive.  Great teaching is still the catalyst that makes powerful learning possible, but used wisely, IWBs can certainly enrich that environment.

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Get Inspired

The successor to Promethean’s ActivStudio 3 software is known as the ActivSoftware Inspire Edition… although hopefully it will just be called ActivInspire or something less wordy.  The first Beta release of Inspire is now available and Promethean is encouraging people to download, install and play with it, no doubt to try and identify as many bugs as possible before the production release, due in late March.

While I was writing the IWB book, I was fortunate to have been invited to a sneak peek at a very early Alpha build of this software, and it’s certainly come a long way since the buggy, crash-prone demo I saw a few months ago.  For a Beta, this is actually quite stable, although there are still some unusual behaviours and unexpected interface issues to iron out in the next two months.

To give you a bit of an insight into some of the most obvious new features, both good and not so good, I’ve recorded this screencast about the new Inspire edition.  It’s about 20 minutes long, but if you use Promethean software I hope you’ll find it useful in helping you get your head around the changes.  And there are some major changes too… the team behind Inspire were aware that ActivStudio had a number of legacy issues that needed to be addresses, so they decided to start with a clean slate and develop the new version from scratch.  This is not an update on ActivStudio, this is a whole new codebase and a complete rethink of how an IWB interface should work.  The interface is certainly cleaner, and there seems to be less clicking to get things done.  It’s still not perfect, especially in the area of video handling, but it does seem to be a step in the right direction.  It appears to borrow some interface ideas from other tools like PowerPoint and Smart Notebook, but reinterprets them.  My first impression is that, although it is certainly a big improvement on AS3, it still needs quite a bit of work before the final release.

You can get your own copy of the new beta from the Promethean Planet website.  You need to be a Planet member, but it’s free to join.

In a nutshell, some of the new features worthy of a mention are…

  • Profiles for task-centric tool palettes
  • Browser pane for easier access to common functions
  • Cleaner, more streamlined interface
  • Support for multitouch and dual pens
  • Elimination of the familiar edit panels that appear when you double click an object
  • Non-modal action pbjects
  • New connector tools
  • More familiar use of a standard menu bar at the top of the screen
  • Better drawing tools
  • ActivStudio and ActivPrimary both optionally available within the same application
  • Customisable tooltips on objects
  • Better 4:3 Flipchart support for widescreen computers
  • Much better implementation of templates

It’s not all rosy however… there are still some notable ommisions, such as the ommision of a tool for creating tables, something their competitor Smart Notebook 10 actually does very well.  Tables really need to be in here.

The other notable point is the lousy way it seems to handle video and media.  This has been my biggest complaint about ActivStudio 3, it just does a really crappy job of managing digital video.  It needs to be far less fussy about what media type you throw at it, it needs to render video really well, and it needs to allow the embedding of video into the page rather than just creating links to it to open in a new window.  Although Inspire has attempted to improve this aspect of the software, it still has an awfully long way to go in my opinion.

There is plenty to talk about in this Beta release, and I think I might make a couple of other video reviews in the next couple of weeks.  But take a look for yourself… in the interests of making sure the final release candidate is everything it should be, I’d encourage you to download it, cast a critical eye over it and tell Promethean what you think.

I’ve been pretty critical of ActivStudio 3 in the past, and have complained loudly about its woeful usability and lack of standardised interface design.  I have even been whinging directly to Promethean over the last six months or so, and I’m pleased to see that this new version seems to be the start of finally getting it right.

Not bad so far, but Just fix the damn video handling issues!

PS… I meant to mention these couple of extra things, but forgot…  so here is another screencast just to add the bits I missed.

A couple more things about Activ Inspire from Chris Betcher on Vimeo.

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