Smart Boards in the Classroom

Dr. Jeff Beine is an assistant professor in Malone’s School of Education and is our resident “Smart board guru.” He is a Smart-certified instructor in addition to his academic expertise in early childhood cognitive development (ask him about Piaget sometime).

With the proliferation of Smart boards in Ohio and other state P-12 classrooms, it makes good sense that the School of Education is equipping Malone students to use these boards to their maximum potential. But what about actually using the boards to teach undergrads and graduates (both within the School of Education and without) at Malone? Are these [expensive] classroom tools just a gimmick or do they carry real pedagogical value? This is the question that Jeff explores. Thank you, Jeff, for your post!


Whether you prefer to call them Smart boards (which is actually a specific brand name from Canada’s Smart Tech, Inc.) or their more generic name, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs), today there’s little doubt that this technology is impacting America and Britain’s classrooms far more than any recent tech wave since, say, the advent of the Internet itself into school buildings.

For this week’s “Faculty Speak Classroom Geek” series discussion, I’d like to raise the issue of Smart boards in our Malone classrooms.   First, let’s consider five demonstrated benefits of teaching with an IWB.

Benefits

  • Improved student motivation: Probably the most commonly cited (and most easily documented) immediate benefit of IWBs is almost universal elevations in student motivational levels, regardless of age levels and academic subject environments. In particular, my Malone education majors (as well as the students of several local middle school teachers I’ve interviewed) often remark that it’s fun to play with (i.e., touch, interact) Smart boards.  With the newest software that that Smart Tech is now unveiling with its latest-and-greatest 800 Series Smart board, this intuitive playfulness is being maximized like never before with objects that comically bounce back from the board’s edges when casually tossed by the user, instantly expand or flip when two fingers are used, or offer students opportunities to virtually experience unusual experiences but as frog dissections and bridge building.  At almost no expense, educators can now download literally dozens of fun learning/review activities from Smarttech.com’s Teacher Exchange site.
  • Improved attention-getting: In terms of improving student learning, both modeling and retention theory rest on the same touchstone: students must be paying attention in order to learn well.  Here, a Smart board’s ability to unleash a host of unexpected sounds, shapes, and colors at a moment’s notice is almost unparalleled.   Certainly for those professors with a knack for comedy, unexpected absurdities such as a giant grinning lab rat that has to be shoved off of one’s lecture notes regarding operant conditioning tend to perk up even sleepy Ed Psych sophomores.   On a more traditional scale, using the virtual highlighter tool or instant spotlight feature (which temporarily darkens much of the screen) can be used to emphasize key points well.  As I was recently telling the professors of Nursing, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the Smart board’s transparency mode which allows a professor to move objects (such as arrows or question boxes) over playing video clips.
  • Visualization: Though I’m not convinced that an IWB can truly meet the learning needs of kinesthetic learners (i.e., Is sliding a virtual red square across a screen an authentic tactile/kinesthetic learning experience?)  a well-designed Smart board presentation can offer a struggling learner a plethora of visual examples to help them construct meaning from abstract lecture points.   Even more interesting, what if we educators started viewing  IWBs as windows (rather than just really expensive dry erase boards) – portholes into the real world beyond our classrooms – where local professionals facing interesting challenges can interact with our Malone students in real-time via Skype videoconferencing technology?
  • Organization: An interesting yet unexpected idea that I gleaned from local middle school teachers was in how many different ways they were using their IWBs during a single lesson: self-checked attendance, homework self-reports, opening bell work activities, behavioral reinforcement, collaborative learning, formative assessment, etc.    Moving beyond the IWB-as-just-a-whiteboard mentality, maybe Smart boards ought be viewed as efficient media hubs into which a wide range of classroom input and output mediums can be conveniently and effectively meshed into a fascinating whole?   To that end, I recently returned from a Smart Tech training session where a new classroom technology management software package called Classroom Sync can allow a teacher to wirelessly monitor and manipulate every linked computer in his classroom.
  • Creative thinking: Though Smart Tech would probably want me to make my final IWB asset the fact that Smart Board presentations can be easily notated upon and then offered online for after-class viewing, I think that the real advantage here is seized by those teachers who dare to leave their tool palettes up during their lessons thus allowing themselves or their students to make changes to presented ideas/information during the lesson itself.  Though maybe not quite as slick as completely prefabricated presentations offered in full-screen mode, I like the IWB’s capability to change and flow with the students’ actually learning.

Are Smart boards worth their cost?

“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” - Jan Brady, The Brady Bunch

For all the accolades and piles of cash spiraling around IWB’s these days, an experienced educator might be left to wonder along with middler, Jan Brady, whether or not all this Smart board hype is really so great when you actually have to live with the thing for a while.   To that end, I would like to conclude by presenting five real or imagined weaknesses associated with IWB’s:

  • Too teacher-centered: Probably the main concern coming out of the literature regarding the use of IWBs is the unintended consequence that K-12 classrooms are once again becoming more teacher-centered than collaborative learning environments.   Yes, yes, you can call up a handful of students over the course of a lesson to briefly manipulate some prefabbed elements on a few lecture slides every now and then, but in reality the person most engaged with the board is the teacher herself.   Under the guise of technology are we allowing our students to slip back into traditional passive learner roles?
  • Glitchy: Sure, when they work that boards are great, but what about all those wasted minutes when the software and hardware stops functioning correctly?   Let me be clear, I think that Malone’s tech staff does terrific job responding to our requests (including emergency in-classroom service) but the reality is that with any new technology, there are frequently pesky bugs in the system that you’ll have to learn to overcome or somehow ignore.
  • Short-lived shelf life issues: Though the School of Nursing will soon have the campus’ IWB-using profs drooling over a brand new 800 Series Smart board now being installed in Regula, don’t you kind of feel sorry for all those local K-12 teachers still struggling to use their first generation Smart board systems relying on unstable boards with wheels (What was Smart Tech thinking?) and roller cart-mounted projectors pulsing near blinding streams of light images onto the boards (not to mention into the blood-shot eyes of weary teachers) all day.   But even with the best wall-mounted projectors (as we enjoy here in Mitchell Hall), one has to wonder just how long students will continue to be fascinated with IWB technology.
  • Evidence is motivational; not educational: Though the research literature can readily offer the positive results of student and teacher surveys as to their feelings of satisfaction regarding IWB-based lessons, there’s precious little evidence out there that using a Smart board significantly impacted actual student learning.  Actually, it’s the remote response devices (i.e,. the clickers) now getting the best data.
  • Simplistic, pre-fab’ed lessons/questions lack higher order cognition and constructivist learning experiences: Yes, Smart boards and their related software possess the incredibly efficient ability to conveniently store literally hundreds (or thousands) of multifaceted IWB-based lessons replete with engaging video clips, remote response questions/assessments, graphic organizers, and review games.   But is the speed and efficiency of these boards really helping us to provide wiser, more reflective and creative citizens?

Summary

So where do I stand on IWB technology?   Mark me down as a cautious and curious supporter trying to improve his own developing skill set while wondering what it’s going to take to effectively move these new tools beyond their typically cozy homes in math classrooms.   I see tremendous upside if we as educators stop seeing IWBs as dry erase boards on steroids, but rather look to them as information hubs pulling together the different types of learning resources in our classrooms, and better yet as windows through which our thoughtful lectures and theories can be inconveniently interrupted by the complexities and intoxicating urgencies of the real world.

Jeff’s Kit:

  • Smart Board
  • Smart Board tools (preloaded on every computer on campus for the last several years). Also downloadable and licensable by all Malone faculty.

Glossary:

  • IWB’s – Interactive White Boards. As Kleenex are to tissues, so Smart boards are to IWB’s
  • Kinesthetic Learners – “Students” who learn through carrying out a physical activity
  • Constructivism in Learning – Some of the language Jeff used in this post is definitely oriented along the lines of constructivism learning theory (Piaget et al.). You will forgive my [Adam's] paraphrase but constructivism is the idea that learners build an understanding of a topic over time. Their increased exposure to a subject increases their [constructed] understanding of said topic.

Additional Resources

One Response to Smart Boards in the Classroom

  • Earl Rodd says:

    I was quite interested in the comments about literature focusing on motivational results, not ultimate learning results.
    I think this is a common theme in education — ultimate learning results are harder to measure and in some cases you have to wait years to find out if a particular educational tool/method really did better. This disconnect tends to lead to “fads”. Of course, this is not a reason to reject new methods/tools but is a reason to be in constant inquiry mode.

    When computer educational software first came out, a similar situation occurred. There was essentially no research on actual learning. With software the problem was that by the time any research was completed, the product was “obsolete” in the sense that it was not as “pretty” as current software, so vendors had no motivation to do research. There was one study of a an 80′s program called “Reader Rabbit” that did study learning and its conclusion was
    interesting — children using it learned to play Reader Rabbit very well – but they did not learn to read any better than other children.

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