Classroom Technology: Promise or Overpromise?

Technology is coming for you. Resistance is futile. That probably describes the bias in the K-12 world toward classroom technologies like interactive whiteboards (IWBs) that vendors say will improve teaching and learning.

According to Bedfordshire, U.K.-based Future Source Consulting, IWB sales to the education market are exploding, and market penetration will reach nearly 40 percent of all classrooms this year.

Sales of IWBs at Calgary, Alb.-based SMART Technologies support the assertion that IWB sales have accelerated dramatically in recent years. Between August of 2008 and May of 2011, just under three years, SMART Technologies sold more than one million IWBs, compared to sales of one million units over the 17 years between 1991 and 2007, according to SMART.

Pushing Back

As the market for IWBs has surged, some have begun to push back. The Washington Post ran an article last year that painted IWB spending as a boondoggle.

The article quoted Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University saying, “There is hardly any research that will show clearly that any of these machines will improve academic achievement. 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.”

A sixth-grade teacher from North Carolina told the Post reporter that a whiteboard was “a badge saying ‘We’re a 21st-century school.’” He went on to say that it couldn’t do anything more than create digitized versions of old lessons.

Others quoted in the article complained that IWBs perpetuate the 19th century teaching model in which a teacher lectures and students listen and take notes. Yet, today’s model is collaborative; teachers work with small groups and individual students.

A final criticism charged that teachers must stand at the IWB to operate it, preventing them from moving around the classroom.

Answering the Critics

While it does seem true that little research supports the claim that IWBs improve student learning, IWB enthusiasts see great value in the technology.

“This will be my sixth year with an interactive smart board, and I love it,” says Glenn H. Cermak, Social Studies department chairperson at the Central Dauphin Middle School in the Central Dauphin School District (CDSD) near Harrisburg, Pa.

Cermak also serves as technology integration facilitator for the middle school — each CDSD school has a technology expert, who trains faculty and staff and troubleshoots when necessary.

Cermak has stuffed his classroom with technology. He has a SMART IWB, interactive response clickers to enable students to take quick quizes, wireless slates and a document camera. There’s more: Cermak’s students
can also tap into the classroom’s five iPads, 12 iPod Nanos and a webcam from Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple and a couple of Flip video cameras from Irvine, Calif.-based Cisco.

“Just over half of our middle school’s classrooms have permanently mounted IWBs and response clickers,” says Cermak. “We also have mobile boards. The rest of our district’s schools make similar use of technology.”

What about the arguments of IWB critics? IWBs are just digital versions of the same old lesson plans, frustrate the move to more collaborative and individual teaching and prevent a teacher from moving about the room.

“Some teachers use IWBs as a fancy way to display PowerPoint presentations,” Cermak says. “That isn’t an effective use. So it can be true.”

Cermak goes on to point out that it’s about the teachers, not the technology. “Bringing teachers up to speed poses challenges,” he says. “Teachers must put in time learning to create lesson plans that use the capabilities of the technology.”

Teachers learn to operate IWB technology intuitively. You write on it with an electronic pen. You select text or images and copy or delete, just like you would on a smart tablet. You scroll up and down to view a page and swipe side to side to go to a different page. You pinch an image to shrink it and spread your fingers apart to enlarge it.

The hard part is developing lesson-planning skills that tap into the full range of IWB capabilities. Cermak uses Notebook, a software application that comes with SMART IWBs, to create lesson plans. “You can drag and drop text and images into it,” he says. “You can resize things and move them around.”

SMART also offers an exchange ( where teachers post and share IWB lesson plans that have worked well. The lesson plans on the exchange help teachers learn and take full advantage of all of the features offered by IWBs.

Getting the lesson plans right answers the criticism that IWBs perpetuate the lecture model of teaching that is being replaced in today’s classrooms.

Most IWBs come with wireless tablets — Cermak has a couple — that enable the teacher to interact with the board from anywhere in the classroom. He can also give a tablet to students, who can then write on the board without getting out of their seats.

“The real benefit of IWBs comes when students use the boards,” Cermak says. “When I train teachers, I tell them that students should touch the board six times more than the teacher. The idea is to let students use the board to demonstrate what they have learned.

“I’ve had students use the Notebook software to create their own content and then invite other students to interact. For instance, one group of students created a virtual tour of a castle by piecing together video found online.”

In short, it isn’t the technology’s fault that a teacher fails to adopt collaborative teaching methods and lesson plans; it’s the teacher’s fault.

Fundamental Change

James Bushman, Ed.D., head of school at University High School (UHS) located on the campus of California State University, Fresno, believes that whiteboard technology enables teachers to make fundamental changes in the way they prepare for and teach classes.

“A traditional classroom was self-contained,” he says. “You could only use the materials you had in the classroom. This technology opens up a window to the entire world.”

In January of 2010, Bushman was investigating classroom technology for a new UHS facility slated to open the following school year. He looked at IWBs as well as something called BrightLink that he came across at a conference.

Marketed by Epson America, Inc. in Long Beach, Calif., BrightLink is a projector that can cast an interactive light onto any smooth, light-colored hard surface — a wall, a whiteboard or a tabletop, for instance.

Using special BrightLink digital pens, teachers or students can write or draw on the wall. As the pen, which doesn’t touch the wall, interacts with the projected beam, BrightLink’s software produces an image to match the pen strokes.

“The images are stored digitally,” Bushman says. “Now a math teacher can solve a problem that runs through 15 stages, and he or she can flip back through the various stages to review. After the lesson, the system will store the presentation for reuse.

“You can focus on the class, a group or an individual. For instance, we know that different students learn in different ways. Now a math teacher can solve a problem in 10 different ways and save the work to re-use with individual students in each of his or her five classes.”

The projector will connect to a Windows PC or Mac and project still as well as moving images to the screen. It will play audio clips that accompany the images. The projector also automatically engages with Microsoft Tablet features and ink tools.

Interactive technologies do indeed hold great promise — for teachers that embrace, study and practice using the technology.

Bushman believes it is up to individual teachers to decide how much of the technology to put to use. “Teachers should wade in as far as they want,” he says. “Some will want to use all possible interactive capabilities. For others, it will just be a whiteboard — at least for now.”

Can classroom technology improve teaching and learning? No. With or without classroom technology, improved teaching and learning is up to the teacher.