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I am dead set against so-called “interactive” white boards (IWBs).

The “interactivity” is defined by vendors whose notion of school is pre-Internet, before social media, and sans self-publishing. Any effort on their part to make things visually interactive or clickable is superficial at best.

IWBs possess an insidious pedagogy that reinforces outdated teaching behaviours, e.g., watch me as I show and tell. This does not empower students to learn by creating, critiquing, or peer teaching.

I have called IWBs white elephant boards [example] because they come at great cost and often end up being used as projection surfaces. In the worst (and sadly common) scenarios, they are relegated to gather dust bunnies in a corner.

I have seen “smart” rooms dumbed down by the addition of these expensive white elephants. When the higher-ups wise up due to feedback from the ground, practice smartens up by focusing on professional development of pedagogy instead.

The only ones to gain from IWBs are unscrupulous edtech vendors. They are still easy to spot at trade shows and conferences.

Video source

But I digress with my rant.

There is one interactive whiteboard I enjoy and would gladly promote. It is the Japanese one in the video above.

The Japanese IWB was part of a Rube Goldberg machine. You can bet that IWB enabled a lot of creating, critiquing, and peer teaching to run as smoothly as it did.


Most technology companies that manufacture computers and phones typically focus on hardware and have little or no say on software development.

There are exceptions like Apple that create and control both, i.e., Macs and macOS, iPhones and iOS.

Google used to only be in the online software business. Then it partnered hardware companies to create Chromebooks, and Nexus (and now Pixel) phones.

Video source

So I was not surprised to read about Google’s new TV-sized interactive whiteboard (IWB) called the Jamboard. This device is designed for blended and creative boardroom meetings. It takes advantage of G Suite and Google tools to connect, share, and store artefacts.

I was disappointed actually. Or rather, I am going to be disappointed because this might be another round of IWB snake oil vendors selling to schools and education institutions.

I hope that schools and other education institutions have learnt the painful lesson that IWB means Irrelevant White-Elephant Board because it is largely a teacher’s tool.

If tools like IWBs allow teachers to just teach the way they were taught, the teachers do not get pushed out of their comfort zones.

If the technology is not in the hands, minds, and hearts of the learners, it will do little to change teaching. When this happens, the technology ceases to be mere tools and become instruments instead. When this happens, the rhetoric of paradigm shifts, 21st century learning, and empowered students becomes real.

You need to be familiar with the pop-culture reference of Bart Simpson being punished by writing lines on a blackboard.

You also need to know how “interactive” white board vendors descended on classrooms to replace blackboards. Some still do now, but with glass boards instead.

When you see a tweet like the one above you might smirk or laugh.

After appreciating the joke, and if you are more critical, you realise that the rhetoric is not met by example.

The call is for teachers to move with the times. Bart was punished punitively, but he found a way to get around the work because he was more adept than the teacher or administrator. Perhaps the call should be for teachers to move with their students.

Changing the medium does not guarantee a change in the message or the method. The new and expensive boards do not move teachers away from chalk-and-talk. They leave the technology largely in the hands of teachers instead of with the learners. The creators, communicators, and correctors of content are the teachers. Neither the message nor the method has changed.

The overall message the GIF sends is this: Do the same thing differently. Being more efficient is necessarily being more effective. This is certainly not being innovative.

Ultimately, this is putting money in the pockets of vendors. There is nothing wrong if the vendor provides a worthwhile and meaningful service or product. But it is a cardinal sin if you are not getting any change in pedagogy for your dollars.

I tweeted this while away at a conference earlier this week.

I did this because I had noticed the number of “interactive” and “smart” board vendors at the conference centre. I had also coincidentally read an article suggesting 5 Ways to Stop Using Your Interactive Whiteboard as a Whiteboard.

I can suggest better. Stop using an “interactive” white elephant board. You can do this is just three steps.

  1. Do not buy an IWB.
  2. Use the money to get shared slates or Chromebooks and a mobile Internet connection.
  3. Invest in learning how to design and manage lessons that require students to create and teach.

Without such boards you will not have items to show off to visitors of your school. Your teachers will also have to unlearn old ways of teaching, relearn what it is like to learn, and learn newer ways to teach.

So ask yourself who you serve: The visitors, the vendors, or your students?

If there is anything I dislike more than “interactive” white boards, it is computer labs. If there is an IWB in a computer lab, then a child-like neuron in my brain dies!

Both are relics in the edtech age because they do not attempt to create new learning opportunities and environments. Instead, they limit the possibilities due to old school rules, e.g., do X things in Y amount of time and submit it to Z, noise is bad, do only what the teacher says.

Here is what I think is wrong with computer laboratories:

  1. Teachers need to compete to book the venues because the labs are a shared resource. Some teachers have more access than others.
  2. The labs create and reinforce the mindset of lesson novelty for its own sake. You go to a special room for a special lesson under special circumstances.
  3. The novelty creates classroom management problems because the kids (young and old) get over excited. Just bringing them to the labs is disruptive.
  4. Once in the labs, the kids discover that the sessions may not be that exciting after all. They are what one blogger calls “sporadic and unspectacular engagement with technology”.
  5. The labs are sometimes misused. The occupants do not use the computers or are there to enjoy the air-conditioning.
  6. It is very expensive to maintain and upgrade the computer labs. You get stuck in the cycle of having to maintain them because they were so expensive to create and perceived as a waste to let go.
  7. Despite this expense, the labs in some schools become white elephants when their usage drops.

There already are alternatives to fixed computer labs like mobile carts and BYOD schemes. While these measures may reduce material or infrastructure cost, they do not remove them entirely.

They also do not necessarily promote more progressive technology-mediated strategies, e.g., flipping the classroom, game-based learning, self-directed learning.

I think that the best thing about BYOD is that it forces teachers to think about ways to leverage on what students already own. If teachers do this well, they can work on passing the ownership of learning to the students. To do this, teacher must first own and use the devices themselves and then learn new instructional strategies.

If the teachers have wifi enabled classrooms, they do not need special rooms like computer labs. They just need to start with new mindsets and strategies. When these methods become more common, the technology and the pedagogy become natural, powerful, and transparent.

I am part of a research group that is investigating mobile learning in NIE. One of the components is the impact of the environment in such a venture. One such environment in NIE is our prototype collaborative classroom, an example of which is shown above.

There are five such classrooms at the moment and the plan is to convert the classrooms at the ground level to this less traditional format.

We asked the tutors assigned to these classrooms what they thought about the facilities there (see below). The scale is 1 for “not useful at all” (orange) and 5 for “very useful” (green). The easy way to interpret the chart is “green is good”.

[Click to see larger version]

The items rated most highly were wireless Internet access (4.51 out of 5), group-seating arrangement (4.49) and power supply (4.41). The least valued items were the visualizer (3.98) and the IWB (3.29).

I am glad that the tutors favoured the features that help make the classroom potentially more connected and collaborative. The IWB and visualizer do not do much to challenge pedagogy.

I would add that you don’t need an elaborate room to do this. All you need in terms of infrastructure are a good wireless network and mobile devices. Most existing classroom furniture will do, but having a flexible layout does send a subtle message to all who use the room.

Last week I read in the Nanyang Chronicle about NTU’s plans to upgrade its campus so that it has more progressive feel to it.

Progressive was my word for what I read. The article talked about a Holland Village like feel, collaborative classrooms and informal learning spaces.

I am glad that the planners realize that the classrooms of the future are not always actual classrooms. The informal learning spaces are nicer, higher tech versions of the BBQ benches that currently litter the campus. The article also mentioned professors chatting with grad students at restaurants and cafes. That’s more like it!

But the article also briefly mentioned smart boards. There is nothing smart about them and their use is rarely ever smart (just like there isn’t anything truly interactive about an IWB).  They focus on teacher talk instead of focusing on learning. And the first sort of focus doesn’t last very long.

Just look at the cost of maintaining the status quo. In Singapore, the cost of one smart board or IWB with projector is about the same as five low end first generation iPads with accessories and key apps, an AirPort (to create a wireless LAN) or a mobile 3G access point, and at least a year’s subscription of 3G access.

Most modern classrooms already have projectors. If they really need to, learners can project or share online artefacts on a screen that is not a smart board. At the very worst, create a very low cost IWB with a Wiimote! [comparison of vendor and Wiimote whiteboard]

So much more can be done and learnt with mobile devices in the hands of learners. Put these disruptive technologies in the hands of learners or encourage their use! That would be the smart and progressive move for me.

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