Whiteboards and Interactive Learning Solutions

As communication technology devices proliferate and permeate most every aspect of most Americans lives, the assumption is that communications actually improve. But does it?

At one time, the only way people could communicate was person to person, the mail, telephone and, perhaps, the new-fangled fax machine. But, outside of emergency responders, and stock market gamblers, has there been any appreciable gain in the quality of communications from the slow-paced past to the frenetic present? This question is especially pertinent in terms of education. For the assumption is that all these gadgets improve teachers teaching and students learning.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the validity of this assumption, what certainly does appear to be true is that this technology, especially whiteboards in conjunction with other interactive solutions, are rapidly gaining in popularity in schools, and manufacturers are making their products more user-friendly for both teachers and students.

In terms of the technology's increasing popularity, Nancy Boas, senior marketing manager, Luidia, Inc., points out that, contrary to what you might expect, these learning devices are much more popular in parts of Europe than the U.S. This is especially true of the U.K. Boas refers to the U.K. analyst firm covering interactive whiteboards, Futuresource, which found that global sales of these products reached $1 billion in 2009, and 75 percent of the schools in the U.K. have them. The number of U.S. school that have them is far less.

But, Boas predicts this figure will rapidly rise. "Since today's students use mediums such as cell phones, text messages and iPhones as social communication, they are used to being engaged with them," Boas says. "Interactive whiteboards speak to students in a relatively easy way. Over 80 percent of the schools we've talked to say they really help with student engagement."

Eileen Shihadeh, vice president of global marketing for elnstruction, reports that her company pioneered student response systems in the early 1980s, "which was then a novel idea for it meant that the teacher had the possibility of hearing from every student." Shihadeh adds that there are now over 500,000 of these response devices in use in schools, some with interactive whiteboards, some not.

"There's been a pretty steep acceleration in recent years," she continues. "At the core, is how these devices can better engage students in instruction. They provide administrative insight into just how well teachers and students are performing. Students can be reached just-in-time."

Karen Nelson, director of global marketing for PolyVision, says, "What we are finding in North America, is that a lot of schools have jumped in with smaller installations, piloting the technology in 10 to 15 classrooms. But, now that those teachers have been trained, and the full potentials are more obvious, more and more schools are outfitting every classroom and providing equal access for all students."

Jay Johnson, Wyoming Sales Manager for Troxell Communications, says that many companies such as his own have been involved with interactive whiteboards for about a decade, a few even longer than that. "I think initially schools were slow to adapt," Johnson says. "But every year, momentum has picked up. Programs ranging from Bush's No Child Left Behind to Obama's high-tech money for schools, have served to fuel the use of this technology in classrooms. The industry numbers I've seen predict staggering increases in the sale of these products."

To turn to the trends driving this popularity, PolyVision's Nelson says that in the past, this interactive technology "has been pretty proprietory. Teachers had to stay with one set of software and had to change the way they presented lessons and modified their preferred instructional methods."

Now, however, the trend is toward an open source. Again, it's the U.K. that has taken the lead. "What they found out is that if they purchased whiteboard A, then they had to use A's software. But, if they then purchased whiteboard B, the tool bars are embedded in the software. So what happened is that schools might create loads of lessons, but if they switched technologies, the lessons didn't automatically switch."

Therefore, Nelson continues, the U.K. has put all of this technology into a common file format (CFF), which means the vendors of the different software are required to manufacture products that communicate with each other. In other words, the failure of this technology to communicate with itself resulted in an increased difficulty of the desired goal of teachers and students better communicating with each other.

Nelson says "There is some debate whether this same movement will occur in this country, or whether vendors will try to keep users locked into their own products." Nelson adds that her company is one of a number that is going in this direction of open architecture. One important criterion for schools choosing their interactive technology is to see whether it is compatible with others in the same arena.

"Plug and play," is another trend designed to make this technology more user-friendly, says eInstruction's Shihadeh. "With installation and set up time decreased, educators can use it right away, rather than having it sit in the closet," she says. "It's no longer acceptable that the technology serves just one function. The trend is toward integration and convergence."

A problem with the big whiteboard fastened to the front board is that it puts the teacher in a lecture hall role, Shihadeh continues. Whereas the trend now is to make the devices portable from one room to the next, as well as allow for different types of student responses, such as being able to use devices such as laptops or BlackBerrys instead of the standard physical response pads.

Luidia's Boas says her company's contribution to this trend of convenience and ease of use, is a small portable device which can be attached to any whiteboard of any size, or even a wall or any flat surface. This allows the interactive process to begin almost anywhere.

Yet, as user friendly as all these trends make this interactive technology to appear, has there ever been a time when a computer product was not touted as user-friendly?

As positive as Toxell's Johnson is about the future of this technology, he cautions that it is not as immediately accessible as it might first appear. "To put this in perspective, whenever anybody is given a new technology and forced to change the way they do things, most people are slow to embrace it," Johnson says. "This is especially true of the older generation. There is a real struggle going on to utilize this technology. There's a tension between parents and district administrators and teachers regarding what's called the latest and greatest technology. Often times, there's a failure due to some lack of ability with the user, or a problem with the technology, or the fact that all these whiteboards are tied into the computer. If there is a problem, rather than trying to fix it, many people will decide not to use it."

The solution, Johnson says, is training the teachers, which can take more than "watching an eight-hour presentation." This has its costs, but the lesson for administrators, Johnson suggests, is in looking at the return on investment, for technology can help teachers, but can't replace them.