Interactive Whiteboards – Fix or Fad?

KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

When such an education luminary as Robert J. Marzano starts singing the praises of interactive whiteboards (IWB), people listen. And sales go up. In an ASCD article, Dr. Marzano writes about huge gains, 16 points, in student achievement when the magic boards are used in classrooms.

Are these boards really the magic fix for our classrooms that we’ve all been so desparate to find? Or, are they just another classroom fad? If the latter, then they’re certainly an expensive one that costs thousands of dollars per classroom.

We should ask two penetrating questions. Is there another less expensive way to match interactive whiteboards?  Do they, uniquely, really produce the gains Dr. Marzano reports?

Answering the first question poses no real challenge. Nearly every classroom already has a projector screen. Many have VGA (or better) projectors installed or available. These projectors that display a computer’s screen are readily available at much lower costs than the IWBs. The IWBs, after all, just display a computer screen. The computer is required in both cases.

For a modest cost, classrooms can have the display capabilities of IWBs. What about the interactive part? IWBs allow teachers to work directly with the projector screen. They can use a special stylus or their fingers to perform the same actions that a mouse does right on the board. In so doing, they must turn, at least partly, away from the students. A computer properly set up allows the same teachers to face the class while manipulating the information on the screen. It could even be a touch screen but wouldn’t have to be. The IWB has no advantage here.

interactive whiteboard at CEBIT 2007

Readily available software will allow teachers to perform the same actions of drawing colored lines that the IWB does along with all of its other capabilities. Generally speaking, the IWB holds no advantage over a much less expensive projector and screen.

What about the advantages of having the teacher standing at the board gesticulating and interacting directly with the board? I can imagine that some teachers with really good showmanship skills could glean some benefits from this technique. They themselves might enjoy preforming in this manner. However, I believe that the students will benefit very little and, in the cases of less capable performers, not at all.

The second question requires looking at what Dr. Marzano reports. He claims that three features “inherent in interactive whiteboards” improve student achievement.

  1. The learner-response device, a handheld voting device or “clicker.”
  2. Use of graphics and other visuals to represent information.
  3. Interactive whiteboard reinforcers such as visual applause for the correct answer.

Of these three “inherent” features, the second two can readily be added to the simple projector and screen system that costs a small fraction of what an IWB costs. They are inherent only in computer-based projection systems, not in expensive IWBs. They require the same amount of teacher preparation in either case and should have the same pedagogical results.

Voting devices in the hands of each student cost extra no matter which system you use. They can be purchased without buying an IWB. So far, results strongly suggest that the appropriate use of voting devices in classrooms truly does improve average student achievement. The student responses are anonymous, and the aggregated responses appear as a bar graph for all to see and discuss. Every student participates.

In my opinion, all the benefits that Dr. Marzano presents can be achieved without using an interactive whiteboard.

Dr. Marzano goes on to explain the common errors made with IWB technology and also to explain that teachers must organize their content carefully if they wish to make the best use of the technology. He makes the important point that technology will not fix anything by itself but requires training and work. Otherwise, results can be worse with the technology than without.

The popularity of IWBs has forced educators to rethink the way courses are taught, and for that, we can be appreciative of their invention. New ideas that have come from classrooms using the technology have been trumpeted across the education marketplace by the manufacturers of IWBs because of the profits that they will gain from increased sales.

In my opinion, all the benefits that Dr. Marzano presents can be achieved without using an interactive whiteboard. Less expensive alternatives exist. The boards use up valuable classroom space and have a very high cost. If you gave each of the teachers in a school the money that might be spent buying (and maintaining) an IWB, would they spend it on one, or would they find better uses for the money? More to the point, if you gave them the alternatives of an IWB system or a projector along with the difference in cost to spend on other classroom material, which would they be most likely to choose?

In these days of declining school budgets, let’s spend our education dollars wisely.

ESL/EFL Teachers and How They Use Technology

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

There is a wide variety of hardware and software available for teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) and of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Even though the contexts between the two types of teaching/learning are different, the motivations are the same. Teachers and students want and need access to techniques and strategies that effectively teach English. Depending on the  specific context,  the teachers and students may have more or less access to various types of technology.

Before we go any further, for those of you who are not familiar with this field, I will define ESL and EFL. The ESL teacher is teaching English in an English immersion context.  The students are learning English in an environment where English is the primary language spoken, such as the US or Australia. The EFL teacher is teaching English as a Foreign Language in an environment where some other language (or languages) is primary, such as in France or Taiwan.

As I stated earlier, context often determines the type and amount of technology that is available. For example, ESL teachers who teach adults in American community colleges also iwb2often incorporate teaching computer skills into their classes. A teacher in an online program, whether ESL or EFL, uses a variety of web technologies for his/her class, which may include Skype, Ning, or other such online tools. A teacher in Peru may not have classroom access to a computer, but have access at home so that she/he can find lesson ideas online to use in class.

I decided to interview several ESL/EFL teachers to find out how they use technology, especially computer-based technology, in their classes, and I will start with myself. I do not usually teach English, but this semester, spring 2009, I am teaching EFL to university students in Poland who are studying to be English teachers. There is a computer with Internet access in the teachers’ office and I have my own laptop and Internet access at home, so I can reproduce and create classroom materials. One classroom where I teach has a computer and projector for showing DVDs and PowerPoints. Therefore, I have been able to integrate some computer-based technology into lessons. Most of my students have regular access to computer-based technology and use it regularly, so, besides my own use of the computer for presentations and the Internet for gathering materials, I set up a Ning so students could engage in a couple of online discussions.

In addition to classroom teaching, I have been tutoring a woman in another country using Skype, and I also email her occasional homework assignments. Since she only has access to a computer at work, we talk during her lunch break about once a week. I often use the chat feature to type a correction as she is speaking, so I do not interrupt her flow. Her spoken English is quite fluid, and, because of the slight lag in Skype, I have found that if I correct her verbally, it is more disruptive than when I type her the note. She can look at the note when she pauses and can then ask me about it or repeat it as necessary. I also use the text function sometimes to give her the phonetic spelling of a word or to write a phrase out for her. Combining these two functions has worked well for us.

Even though I am not an English teacher, I meet them through conferences, online courses and workshops, and the invisible network that English teachers seem to have. I decided it would be interesting to see how some of my colleagues in different English teaching environments use technology in their classes. The following comes from interviews with two of them.

Australia, Adult Intermediate ESL

Teacher A told me that she has “been involved in teaching ESL with computers since 1995, starting with using ESL programs in a computer lab.” She said that she learned very quickly that she needed to upgrade her computer skills “and since that time,” she said, “I haven’t stopped doing that, formally and informally. Formally I’ve done many computer-related jazz_chants2courses, including a Graduate Certificate in Multimedia, Certificate III in IT, and Masters in Education (Computers in Education). Informally, though, I haven’t stopped, being involved with CoP Webheads in Action for quite a few years.” Since 1999, she has also trained ESL teachers in her college in the use of computer technology.

She then went on to tell me how her use of computer technology has evolved. “I’ve tried using various applications,” she said, “through MS Office, ESL programs, blogging, wikis, and IWBs [interactive whiteboards]. Each of them has been useful for different purpose and audience.” In an attempt to maintain a paperless classroom almost everything is set up so that it is done on the computer, including grammar exercises, reading activities, and listening activities. Over her years of teaching English using technology, she has found that hands-on activities, either individual (in the computer lab) or individual/group with Smartboard have been effective.

In her present class she has access to a wide range of technology. She uses an interactive white board for web-based and Notebook (Smartboard proprietary software) interactive exercises. These activities can also incorporate audio and video, so she often uses a camera to take photos and short videos to enhance her lessons. She also has access to a Student Response System (clickers) that she uses for tests and other assessments. Teacher A also relies on email to stay in contact with students and has found that wikis are useful for developing and posting class programs, files, and links. They are especially helpful for students who are absent to keep up with what is happening  in class.

However on the downside, she has found that technology is not always an effective learning tool for some of her students for a variety of reasons. One form of technology which she has found problematic with her students is SMS (text messaging). She stated that the English they have learned through this medium is a different kind of English and that once students learn it, it is difficult to unteach.

She has also learned that student blogs require too much time for many of these students so that they do not do them at home and have too little in-class time for them. She said that the students in her present evening class are a mixture of young and old people (21 to 50), long-term residents and new migrants (from 3 to 23 years in the country). They either come to class after work or after swapping childcare duties with their husbands. Most of them have no energy or time to study at home, let alone to use the computer (often occupied by younger generation). Only a few students in her class check the class website/wiki.

United States, College-Level Academic ESL Writing

Teacher B originally told me that she doesn’t use technology much in her classes, but I encouraged her to talk to me anyway. She said that one reason she doesn’t use technology much is that she has “an incompetence complex.” Then she went on to say, “Ironically, I run my school’s computer lab.”

She said that another reason she does not use technology a lot is that she thinks it can be overused. She found that, because young people “feel comfortable with this low-context, pronunciationpeople unfriendly medium,” they will often overuse it and ignore other ways of interaction. She gave an example of teaching students irregular verbs with flashcards. Most were not interested. However, when they discovered an online irregular verb quiz, they were eager to participate. Her comment was that “they obviously prefer the impersonal to the personal.” She thinks that this type of interaction “does not include important human contextual clues during discourse” and is concerned that the development of interpersonal communication skills will suffer as a consequence.

However, do not get the idea that Teacher B is a technophobe. She uses the ELMO document camera with a Smart Board to display papers for group discussion and uses audio equipment to play Jazz Chants, rhythmic chants for teaching English pronunciation and stress. She said that she likes “to refer students to on-line exercises, but it takes a lot of time to find good matches for each student.” She also encourages use of the computer lab for independent reading comprehension work using the Kenmei Internet Reading Lab.

Teacher B also uses other technology with her students, but she thinks it should be moderated and mediated by the teacher. For example, she likes to use Pronunciation Power software, but she commented that “It is useless if used unmonitored, and that is the way it is promoted!” In the fall semester she is planning an inductive grammar activity for her students using an online corpus, which she believes will help them improve their writing.