Interactive Whiteboards: A valuable aid or an anachronistic tool in modern disguise?
This was originally posted on the BELTA blog on June 22, 2013
Having attended a most interesting IATEFL debate between Gavin Dudeney and Pete Sharma, I would like to seize the opportunity to share my experience of using Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) on a daily basis since 2008. I work at a private school in Athens which had Interactive whiteboards installed in 2008 and a year later introduced and integrated into the syllabus the 1:1 model (1 computer to 1 student). Being a primary school EFL teacher, I will focus on my personal experience. Even though it concerns a comparatively small scale (4 classes: 3-6 graders, a total of approximately 70 students per year), I hope you will find it useful. You are more than welcome to contribute with comments and recommendations.
First encounter: Shock and awe!
Having an expensive gadget on my classroom wall gave me the creeps at the very beginning for two reasons: 1. It is an investment but at the same time primary school pupils are notoriously awkward and tend to damage anything fragile -would they be responsible enough? 2. The expectations of the learners to use it start from day one: the more you postpone using it, the more impatient they grow. Soon a third concern appeared. Would I have to stick to the board throughout the lesson instead of mingling in class?
At the very beginning, I felt like the gentleman in the video:
Part of the furniture or a robot performing automated, repetitive tasks. Was that my role in a learning technology equipped class? Obviously not!
As time passed-by I realized that my students felt more comfortable with it than I did. Born and raised at a time when gadgets are status symbols, kids show an amazing flexibility and dexterity when it comes to technology. In a relatively short period of time most of my 9-10 year old students offered to help me and gave me practical tips that saved time and effort in class. It was then that we -the teachers at school-noticed the obvious. Why not give our students the opportunity to deal with technology in a synergy that could bring benefits for both sides?
Appointing assistants (computer whiz kids who adore anything that involves technology) brought to surface the advantages of this "alliance". "The teachers can help us learn English, we can help them with technology to make the lesson more interesting".
Looking back, I could summarize my experience in the following:
I have been teaching for 20 years and it was the first time that I saw pupils shouting so loudly and competing who will come to the board to write, draw or match. IWBs seem to be stronger than the classic inhibition that every student has - including myself when I was a boy - when it comes to writing on the board in front of the whole class.
The kinesthetic aspect
For many years our lessons were audio-visually strong but when it came to the kinesthetic part, they either required too much preparation (realia) or we were simply carried away by the exercises that had to be done in the book. Let me add that because EFL books have always been more expensive than others, parents often complain that the book is not used and they are practically money down the drain. Consequently, teachers often felt compelled to do all or most parts of the book. The IWB offers an alternative in the classroom for children who are not fast writers, have learning difficulties or are simply sick and tired of the book. I have seen children who loathed writing asking me to come to the IWB, so that they can write the date or the answer. In some cases, when the special pen for the IWB was not available, they simply loved writing using their fingers and using different font or special effects. In real life classes, there are mixed-ability kids and have different learning styles that need to be catered for, even in streams.
Building team spirit (we are a class - we are a team)
Teaching young learners often involves building team spirit and instilling the notion that " we are a team, we learn together". Even though the IWB is not regarded as a team building tool, it works as one to encourage them to work together as a class on an exercise.
Because of all the above, IWBs can help the teacher present and practise new language or do remedial work more easily. I cannot base it on research but I have the impression that the attention span of my students is longer when I use the IWB than the whiteboard. I have seen children who couldn't care less about an ordinary lesson insisting on actively participating so that they can be given the chance to use the IWB. This may be because they feel more comfortable with technology or they feel something "big" and "exciting" is happening in class and they want to be part of it. By saying this, let me clarify that IWBs are not magic wands that will automatically solve all your problems in class. In my experience though, it can help you "capture" your students' attention and motivate them to participate when you most need it.
Do IWBs perpetuate a teacher-centered model?
IWBs are often accused of promoting a teacher centered lesson depriving students of time to work in pairs or groups as they would do with 1:1. Is that a real life dilemma though? How many lessons rely exclusively on one kind of interaction? A real life lesson usually includes a variety of forms of interaction. Practice, presentation, task ( based learning), project ( based learning), plenary, pairwork or groupwork are all tools in the hands of the educator. The school I work for has seen a complete transformation in terms of methodology and has adopted project based learning. Pair work and groupwork are there on a daily basis and are an integral part of our lesson. Yet, pupils adore the moment when we play a quiz - using the interactive coursebook on the IWB - or younger ones doing a drag and drop exercise as a plenary and not in pairs or small groups.
Prices for software and hardware range but I am sure that the cost is significant for small schools of foreign languages. I know many such schools which felt compelled to buy it because their competitor a block away has one. However, they often let it gather dust or use it once a year in a way that reminds ancient ceremonies rather than integrating them into their daily practice. My advice is: if you intend to use it on daily basis, buy it. If not, invest on something you will exploit more.
Some argue that instead of spending money on IWBs, the school should buy tablet pcs (netbooks or laptops) for their students (1:1). Yet in Greece, the price of an IWB ( excluding your laptop) does not exceed that of 2 or 3 netbooks which means the dilemma IWB or tablets for all my students is not valid. Supposing though such a question is posed, I would say that it is the students' age and needs that set the priorities and play a role in the decision. There are no magic recipes, it all has to do with the syllabus design and model one wants to follow.
Tips and hints
Once you decide to install IWBs, do not remove the whiteboards from the class. Keep them side by side with IWBs. In the event of a technical problem or power failure, you can always resort to the classic whiteboards.
Ensure that software and hardware arrive the same day and that your teachers have undergone training. Once having them installed, kids will be so enthusiastic that it will be difficult to postpone using it.
As mentioned above, appoint students as assistants. It motivates them, it makes them feel they were assigned a position with some responsibility and it saves the teacher time at the beginning of the lesson.
With some IWBs you can't use an ordinary marker. Let students know how to use it properly without damaging it. The most sensitive parts are usually the pins at the end of the plugs. Train students to use it and respect the equipment.
Remember that you are assessed for your English teaching skills and not your technical ones. Should something go wrong, keep calm and ask for help from the ICT department. My favourite punchline is "Has anybody got Harry Potter's phone number?" It always makes my pupils laugh and dispels any fears. Most of the times, - unsurprisingly perhaps - students know more about it and can deal with the problem on the spot or can even give you tips on how to use it more efficiently.
Do not overuse it. Integrate it in your syllabus and define aims will be achieved with it and which parts of the lesson you will use it for.
I hope I have helped those who want to know more about IWBs in class with an account of my experience. To my mind, IWBs, laptops or any other device can be the most valuable tool or the worst time waster. They are merely the means to achieve the goal and not the goal itself . The educator has been and still is at the very center of the educational process in the sense that they -like generals- deploy their resources and equipment in the best possible way to overcome difficulties and achieve learning. Flexibility, creativity, variety and exploiting feedback are the keys to the successful use of technology in class.