Do Whiteboards Engage Students?
A recent article in the Washington Post questioned the wisdom of using scarce resources to purchase interactive whiteboards, which will soon be a fixture in one of every three classroom across the country. The article refers to the interactive whiteboard as nothing more than a “giant interactive computer screen that is usurping blackboards in classrooms across America -- locks teachers into a 19th-century lecture style of instruction counter to the more collaborative small-group models that many reformers favor.”
According to Larry Cuban, "There is hardly any research that will show clearly that any of these machines will improve academic achievement," said Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University. "But the value of novelty, that's highly prized in American society, period. And one way schools can say they are 'innovative' is to pick up the latest device."
Nancy Knowlton, the chief executive of SMART Technologies, a leading supplier of interactive whiteboards, countered “schools are desperate to find ways to engage multi-tasking, tech-savvy kids, who often play video games before they can read.” Knowlton goes on to describe engaged students. "[Students] are engaged when they're in class, they are motivated, they are attending school, they are behaving and this is translating to student performance in the classroom," she said.
Whiteboards From a Principal’s Perspective
I must admit up front that I love gadgets. However, I am also a utilitarian. If a “gadget” will perform a task that I need doing, it has value to me. However, gadgetry for the sake of novelty is a waste of time and money. Next, I am an early adopter not an innovator, which simply means that I usually like to wait for the second iteration of a new product before I jump on board.
As a principal, I didn’t drink the whiteboard kool-aid. First, I didn’t have enough money to equip our classrooms. Second, I wasn’t sure if they would help to raise student achievement. So, I did what I always did. I asked the experts. No, I didn’t ask the company reps, nor was I able to find any research on the effectiveness on interactive whiteboards. It was simply too early in the products life to find any quality studies. Instead, I asked the real experts, our teachers.
Our Business teachers had been using interactive whiteboards, obtained through grant funds, for several years. So, they were the likely candidates for a small action research project.
Actually, what initially drew my attention to the issue of whiteboards was a request from the Business teachers for a rather sizeable purchase of expensive rubber mats most often used by clerks in retail stores, who are required to spend long hours standing in one spot. When I asked about the need for the purchase, the Business teachers told me that their constant use of the whiteboards forced them to stand in one place for most of the class period.
Stand in one spot in the classroom? That brought up the first red flag. Our school was one of the very few high schools that had defined instructional practices one of which was a Madeline Hunter-derived instructional delivery model. This model had a clear, specific vision of how a class should begin and how it should end. Standing in one spot on a rubber mat with a 2,000 lumen bulb shining in the teachers eyes all day long was not in our instructional model.
I had recently attended a conference where I saw a demonstration of a portable tablet-like device that allowed teachers to do the same things that they could do with an interactive whiteboard with some important differences. First, the teachers were no longer physically constrained and required to stand adjacent to the whiteboard. They could now move around the room. Second, while the teachers still needed an LCD projector, they didn’t need the expensive whiteboard. Third, they didn’t need to continually recalibrate the portable device. Fourth, they could hand the device to a student, who could then continue the work without the need to leave his or her seat. Finally, the cost was less than one-fourth the cost of the interactive whiteboard.
I was able to obtain a few of the portable devices on loan and I asked the Business teachers to use them in place of the interactive whiteboards. After a few weeks, I asked them for their opinions. All of them wanted to keep the portable devices, which meant that that interactive whiteboards would become high-priced low-tech whiteboards.
A Tool For Every Purpose
This is not to say that our school had no interactive whiteboards. We did. However, we purchased them based on need and intended use, not on the fact that is was more convenient to have every classroom in every department exactly the same. We didn’t believe in the “one size fits all approach” or in trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole—force teachers to adapt their instruction to the technology instead of the technology serving the teacher.
We differentiated our approach just as we asked our teachers to differentiate their instructional approaches. No, this wasn’t convenient for us, but very little of what we did that worked helped students in our school was about our convenience. Convenience was about adult wants not student needs. Our choice of a course of action was always based on the fact that it would improve learning.
Technology: What Good Is It?
Technology is a tool to improve student learning. Technology can increase student interest and motivation, reinforce learning, offer self-paced practice, and create a low-threat, high-interest learning environment. Technology cannot replace the teacher. Technology is not a replacement for a quality teacher-student relationship. Technology cannot make a bad teacher into a good teacher. However, technology can help a good teacher become an even better and more productive teacher.
What is Engagement?
Whiteboards don’t engage students. Teachers engage students!
I was on a panel discussion at a recent literacy conference. Also on the panel were Dr. Michael Kamil of Stanford, and Dr. Anita Archer. Dr. Archer made a point of defining student engagement in a way that every school leader can understand. She said, “Students are engaged when they are interacting with the teacher and with other students.” I like Dr. Archer’s definition on engagement much more than Nancy Knowlton’s.
While students might enjoy “energized, multimedia” productions, I am not sure that that is how we want to define student engagement. Student engagement is lot more than students attending school, sitting in their seats, and behaving.
Classroom management expert, Fred Jones, always reminded us “It is not our (teachers’) job to have the students watch while we work. It is our (teachers’) job to watch while they (students) work.” Students don’t learn by watching the teacher. Students learn when they are doing/interacting. If technology, properly used and implemented with fidelity, increases student engagement/interaction, it should translate into increased academic achievement. If not, then it is merely a novelty. In these tough economic times, we need to focus on the necessities and all the novelties and niceties need to take a back seat.
Whiteboards are neither good nor bad. They are either useful or not useful in improving student achievement. Whiteboards are a tool not an end in and of themselves.
Note: A technology integration specialist told me that K-6 teachers liked the interactive whiteboards because their students loved to come to the front of the class and touch them. According to this specialist, this was the reason high school teachers did not like them as much. They didn’t want their students walking around the classroom during class.