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 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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