There seems to be a renewed interest in interactive whiteboards of late, with the debate largely centering around the notion of "value." Proponents often bring forth such lofty, yet immeasurable "proof" as a teacher or administrator declaration of how wonderful they are, how their classroom lessons are more engaging, effective, interactive, etc., etc. Or, better yet, they bring in a second grader and a board, and let him/her demonstrate it - leveraging what I would call the "cute factor" - in an effort to sell the technology to the school board and/or stakeholders. And in a particularly sad state of affairs, many view technology (and not just this technology) as more of a trophy than a tool - an opportunity to say, "look how advanced we are. We have interactive whiteboards in every classroom." A simple review of any recent ed tech conference will reveal plenty of evidence of this phenomenon - but I digress...
Opponents aren't a whole lot better. They are generally rather tongue-tied, stating that they just don't think they are "worth it," that the money could be better invested, or that a good teacher is a good teacher, and will succeed regardless of the technology they have (which I personally agree with, but has little to do with the issue at hand.)
While it would be difficult to argue against the value of more engaged students, or the likely improvements to classroom instruction, test scores, etc., my question is this - is it really the boards that made the difference? If we step back for just a second and look at the situation from an appropriate distance, what really changed?
The reality is that the board is only part of what was actually added to the room, and I would argue, was not the key component. The real key to this new found interactivity is the projector with a computer hooked up to it, not the whiteboard. The interactive board is, for all intents and purposes, a $1500 giant mouse with some presentation software added.
There are a number of problems with interactive whiteboards that are also rarely discussed. For example, in order to use one, you must stand in between the board and the projector, which means you are not only casting a shadow, but are blocking the view. The shadow presents difficulties with accuracy, which lead to frequent erasing and re-writing/drawing, and the blocked view means that the user must constantly bounce back and forth, in and out of the way. Interactive whiteboards are also often problematic to mount - some classrooms simply do not have a good location to mount such a large and heavy item due to pre-existing cabinetry, etc. In addition, they are easily damaged, yielding extraordinary repair/replacement costs, post mischief.
Then there are the pedagogic issues. Interactive whiteboards by their very nature reinforce the traditional "lecture hall" teaching style, which has been well proven to disengage, rather than engage most of today's students. The teacher is effectively anchored to the board, when they should be free to move about the class and drive engagement through personal interaction. And, contrary to assertions from interactive whiteboard manufacturers, our experience has been that students rarely actually touch the boards themselves. They are particularly difficult in elementary classes, since the kids are generally too short to reach much of the board. Overall from the student's perspective, once the initial "wow factor" wears off the board quickly becomes "no big deal" to them.
In the end, what we are ultimately doing is using the computer and projector to present a variety of media resources and technologies - which is great, of course - with a big, expensive, white mouse to control it. The annotation software that comes with the board is easily replaced by such products as GenevaLogic's Pointer for a mere $49. We can create the same, engaging environment and tools, and get the teacher out of the way of the board, all the while saving $1451 per room. Or better yet, we can save those great white mouse dollars, and invest them in inexpensive technologies that offer better functionality at significantly lower cost, while using the balance for other classroom resources!
One such technology that shows great promise and alleviates the anchored teacher syndrome is the iPen from FingerSystem. It looks just like a large pen, but is really a lightweight, rechargeable wireless mouse that is both durable and accurate. It's an optical device, so it allows the user to mouse/write on any surface, and has a very long range - up to 30 meters - so the teacher is free to move about the class and/or hand the device off to a student. And best of all, it costs less than $100.
In addition to basic mouse functionality, the iPen software allows it to work much like most interactive whiteboards. Simply flip a switch and it goes into "pen mode," which offers the typical pen and highlight modes, enabling the drawing of circles, arrows, and all the other stuff that one would expect from an interactive board, including saving the annotations. It even handles text entry through built in handwriting recognition, which automatically translates your writing into typed text - cursive or printed. No more punching an on screen keyboard. And it's particularly nice with graphics programs, since the pen is natural for artists who won't have to worry about their shadow blocking their view.
Pedagogically, it's a much better solution as well. The ability to interact while moving among the students, involving them while passing by virtually guarantees engagement. Standing next to that one or two who are struggling or don't ordinarily pay attention can have a dramatic impact. Even the ability to move among groups of students working on a project, handing them the pen here and there, could truly change the learning environment. And no one is excluded - even a second or third grader could use the pen at their desk, without any need for risky ladders or stands.
There are other similar solutions out there as well. Interwrite Learning has their wireless Interwrite Pad, which allows up to seven of the pads to be used in a single classroom. Wacom has Graphire pads and Salient has the V-Mouse pen.
I don't know about most other ed-tech advocates out there, but I'm sure I can find some great ways to invest that extra $1000+ per classroom. A couple of computers or some great software come to mind...