Unfortunately, school improvement is not this easy.


The SchoolCIO article, “Interactive Whiteboards Factor in Improved AYP” quotes Fayetteville, North Carolina executive director of technology Terry Williams as saying:

We believe that a great classroom is interactive… Having SMART products in our classrooms makes them interactive and engaging, inspiring students to learn.

Was that an accurate quotation, Terry? If so, I beg to differ on the second part of your assertion.

Yes, great classrooms are certainly interactive. The mere presence of interactive white boards (IWBs) in a classroom, however, offers absolutely ZERO guarantees that learning opportunities in the room will be interactive, engaging, or inspiring. They might be, but that all DEPENDS– mostly on the TEACHER.

See my September 23rd post, “Interactive technology access does not guarantee good teaching and learning,” for more elaboration on why this is not the case. Even better, see Dr. Jon Becker‘s five part “Peer-review of Marzano’s IWB Study” from this summer: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

H/T to Kim Cofino for this SchoolCIO article link.

I’m sure vendors of IWBs absolutely LOVE it when school officials make statements like this one, and they are quoted in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, however, assertions like this about IWBs are simply not true.

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18 Responses to No, just having IWBs does not make learning engaging

  1. Jason says:

    This is absolutely true, however, one can say this about ANY technology… it isn’t the technology, it is how you use it…

  2. Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more. I DO think that interactive technologies, in the hands of a wise teacher who knows how to leverage them for the right uses in the right situations, can be an powerful and effective tool, but these vendor claims that “just add an IWB and everything will be wonderful” are complete nonsense.

    We need to call them out on these claims. Good work.

  3. Thanks for the reaffirmation of what we know to be truth. I’ve heard the Terry Williams comment several times and cringed each time. I even told a former principal that the new IWB didn’t raise test scores, I and the students worked more efficiently with its help.
    I will definitely share this article with my staff.

  4. MaryFran Lynch says:

    Absolutely agreed. It’s not about the tool. That is the same reason why one can find so many studies claiming that computers have not changed education. Having an IWB might make the pictures larger and brighter, but until it is in the hands of a skilled educational professional who has been trained in how to best integrate it into engaging curriculum, you might as well be using a projector and ppt. Read Robert Marzano’s research on the use of IWBs. http://www.prometheanplanet.com/server.php?show=nav.19109

  5. Russ Goerend says:

    How are we defining “engaging”? I’m as big an advocate of pedagogy > technology as anyone, but it is undeniable that in my classroom, turning on the LCD projector instantly gives me the attention of all my students. This could be for a few reasons, one of which is definitely that as a young teacher I’m not a master teacher, however another reason is that we, as humans, are drawn to “shiny objects.” I believe that it’s what happens after/during that engagement that is what matters, which is why I’m not afraid to say that — in the way I understand/define engagement — digital technology sure seems to increase engagement in my classroom. (Note: it’s not the only thing that is engaging in my classroom, it’s just one of the things that engages my students. Other examples: fish bowl debates, small group discussions, creation vs. recitation, etc.)

    So, I’m asking sincerely: when I read educators speaking for/against things that do/don’t increase engagement, what do educators mean when they say “[This] increases engagement”?

  6. Andrew Watt says:

    I don’t use a whiteboard or a digital projector in my classroom.

    But my classroom is now digital. Every kid uses a laptop, and they work alone or in small groups, reading classical texts (posted to our class wiki so they can modernize a century-old translation when they want to), writing practice essays, and engaging in discussion.

    It’s radically different from any kind of teaching I’ve done before. But it’s the students that make my classroom interactive. Not the technology, and certainly not me.

  7. Tim says:

    Agree completely! I have watched dozens of lessons involving IWB in our school system and none of them (NONE!) were interactive or, for that matter, were made better by having that particular technology. Students coming to the board to tap a spot or using a tool to digitally write is not innovative in any way. The same interaction could be done with a standard whiteboard and markers. Or with a really old-fashioned felt board.

    The big problem is not the board, however. It lies in our tendency to put the technology before the need. I cringe every time I hear a principal boast that they have IWBs in every classroom because I can be sure that he/she spent all their money on the boards without asking their staff. And they like spent little or no time on training to help teachers integrate them into their teaching. Unfortunately, it’s been the same for just about every other technology we’ve embraced over the past decades.

  8. Cathy Nelson says:

    I could not agree more. I hope you personally contacted the NC person to share this with him. It is so ridiculous the massive amount of money invested to install an IWB (thinking board, computer or laptop, and projector alone)in a classroom. How many Mini laptops would that funding have purchased for a classroom? Grrr. IWB also IMHO promote sage on the stage teaching as well. And despite what they say, most IWB encourage ne person interacting, even if its not the teacher. Double Grrr.

  9. Having visited several classrooms with IWBs in NC I can attest to the fact that the whiteboards did NOT increase student engagement. In fact, what I saw were low level tasks that were certainly not very interactive. Using the clickers to give a quiz to the entire class is not my idea of higher level thinking and increased engagement.

    I have this idea that when putting technology into the hands of teachers who are “average to below average” however you want to define this, the use of technology does not necessarily improve engagement and learning. In fact, I’d say that it rarely does. Those teachers will use it just as they used the textbook or other tool. I will say that I think that the students benefit from some level of use of technology. They’re still better off than learning without the technology. Engaged, not necessarily.

  10. Brian Crosby says:

    Hi Wes – I agree wholeheartedly. The ability to be interactive is there, but IWB’s are not inherently interactive. Designing lessons that are truly interactive takes a lot of work. I’ve spent upwards of 5 hours on one 45 minute lesson. It’s not a sustainable situation unless you can share the load with others. I have an ActivBoard in my classroom and they have done a good job of putting lessons shared by other teachers as online downloads for just that reason. But it is still time consuming because you have to find a lesson that fits what you want and then view it yourself, and continue until you hopefully find one that fits, and then you often have to edit it to make it match exactly what you want from it and/or to be useful to your group of students. Now that is true anytime you use lessons designed by someone else, even out of a book, but it still discourages teachers from utilizing IWB’s in ways that are truly powerful consistently. Perhaps that will change over time as more lessons are available and more expertise is realized by users.

    On the other-hand, IWB’s are great in what they are good at inherently. That is being bright and colorful and and generally cool. In addition the maps and measurement tools and audio / video capabilities that are easy to use are very valuable. You can pull up a map or photo or web page and write on it, make the writing go away, run the internet (or any application) from the board and more. Because you have the board you automatically have a video theater in your classroom. One of my favorite features is archiving notes and brainstorms that you can return to, add to, change, edit anytime you want. You filled the board with notes and you still need to continue? No need to wait while someone copies everything and then erase, just go to the next blank page and go on. Then save and come back anytime you want. I love using it to design video projects. Its a huge storyboard.

    “Gateway drug?” – I’ve often heard that whether or not IWB’s are the best bang for the buck, they just might be the way to FINALLY bring technology integration at some level into the classroom – and build some basic teacher tech competency. And it seems to make sense. I often bemoan how many teachers are unaware of even the simplest uses of applications. I think if there was a way to have every teacher watch a demonstration of sending an attachment on an email it would be a revelation for almost half of them. Teachers are really out of the loop on using technology (not all their fault BTW). Having an IWB in your classroom, the theory perhaps rightly assumes, means that teachers have to at least learn how to use the computer attached to the IWB at a certain base level. Starting it up, opening the software, saving files, accessing tools, using tools and more, all help users become a bit more familiar with the basic uses of computers.

    Then besides the whiteboard software you have other applications at your fingertips. Pretty much any application on the computer can be used right from the board, including the internet. You would assume (or not) that eventually the teacher would have a reason to access the internet to use a web site or watch an online video or whatever, and so again basic competencies are being built and hopefully over time the teacher-user will see the value in technology integration and the rest is history. My school district seemed to hope this to be true, at best the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned, but most teachers in my district that have IWB’s have not had them very long either.

    I have not included all uses here, but the bottom line is that there is lots to like about IWB’s.

    So what are the downsides of IWB’s?

    Well cost for one. IWB’s cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 dollars generally (by the time you get a computer to make it go and all) so to put one in each classroom in your school … well you can do the math. Some say the money would be better spent on laptop labs that could move around the school, digital cameras, iPods (now with a still and video camera built-in), and other hard and software. And they have an excellent point. Others point out that dumping laptop labs in schools is a waste because way too often the training is poor to non-existent, and teachers don’t or aren’t allowed to change the pedagogy to use them effectively. I would mention that this is SOOO true, but the same is true of IWB’s.

    My district so far has put IWB’s in classrooms and not mandated training (they offer and provide it – but don’t mandate it), and because teachers are being asked to do so much more right now with data, including uploading and downloading it and analyzing it and new curriculum pieces that all involve trainings (and I could go on) that if the IWB training isn’t mandated and the time provided for it, it’s an area I can save time on, something I control and I choose not to (I’m not saying I agree, it’s just the reality). If this continues we will be in the same place we’ve been almost every time large tech rollouts have happened. Tech first, training and pedagogy second (if at all) and we again prove that tech has no place in education. (You’d think we’d learn – ironic, sad and very frustrating).

    Other downsides. IWB’s can be used as just glorified whiteboards, slick, but a very wasteful use of resources. They don’t require the user to make any changes to pedagogy, so they can easily do the same old stuff but claim they are integrating technology (so it must be good right?) which gives technology integration a bad name.

    I have probably only accomplished to muddy the waters here, so I am relying on you to fill in the gaps, and things I forgot and clarify things (I know, a cop out on my part, but I’ve already spent too much time on this)

    I will say I love my ActivBoard, but I also have 1:1 laptops in my classroom (I hope again soon) so I don’t use or think about my IWB the same as someone that does not have 1:1. I should also point out in the name of transparency that Promethean named me their “Teacher of the Month” awhile back. But love it or not, are IWB’s worth the investment? Like I said above the jury is still out for me, since my school district has invested in them a lot, I really hope I’m saying yes they are in a year or so. What about you? What do you think?

  11. […] posts that started out as a comment on someone else’s blog. Namely Wes Fryer’s post: “No, just having IWB’s does not make learning engaging” (IWB = Interactive Whiteboard) ActivBoard, Smartboard, Mimio, TeamBoard, Starboard, and […]

  12. Rick Alfonso says:

    Tim, I agree with you that sometimes, perhaps many times, technology is placed before the need. A teacher or program should figure out what you want to accomplish first, then see if there is a way for technology to support, enhance, deepen, extend the learning experience for the student. Interesting that you suggest that mini laptops (netbooks) could be purchased in place of the IWBs, but again, mini laptops in students’ hands without following the same notion of using it if it enhances the student experience, not because it’s a mini notebook. You can say the same about pencils, lined paper, calculators, compasses, protractors, chalk, erasers, etc. It’s about the teacher and the student and having various tools and technology available for when the various teachable moments arise.

  13. Jason de Nys says:

    I couldn’t agree more, it isn’t the tool, its the teaching! Here is a link to a presentation on the topic I gave last year at the 21st Century Hong Kong Conference (an awesome conference BTW, it was great to see Wes there this year!) http://teachr20.blogspot.com/2008/05/iwbs-in-secondary-where-is-interaction.html

  14. […] Update (October 20, 2009):  In a similar vein, see the latest post from Fryer:  No, just having IWBs does not make learning engaging […]

  15. Brett Moller says:

    ah yes IWB posts will always draw a crowd!! Hey you know I had an interactive classroom with my teacher back in the 80’s. She had rolls of butchers paper and stacks of different coloured pens… we were engaged in brainstorming and collaborative work. Guess what that still works today in my classroom – now me as the teacher and a different generation of students. Often they prefer the collaborative work. To achieve this they either have the materials mentioned above or a laptop…

    As for a reader here quoting the Marzano research…. Can I please remind you all that this report was commissioned by the same company that just published in their Australasian newsletter that IWB’s would reduce teacher stress… see http://blog.brettmoller.com/2009/08/05/comical-or-offensive-iwb-claims/ for more on that one!! 🙂

  16. Sean Nash says:

    IWB’s reduce teacher stress? Jeeeez Brett, now you have me wanting to but one for my home.

    In terms of what I consider “teacher-side technology,” I’m more than solid on the 8 foot screen and projector to hook up my trusty MB Pro. I’ve have that setup (different laptops) for just about ten years now. Wow. Right about that same time, although I was by most accounts a rather “accomplished” teacher in the realm of direct instruction (it was never so top-down and black and white in my classroom) I began the switch to a real student-sided approach.

    Five years ago, the superintendent rolled in our first cart of MacBooks (then iBooks) for my room to be a “pilot.”
    That absolutely cemented the a severe lean toward a constructivist approach toward building independent learners in my classroom. From that point on… I haven’t given IWB’s a wayward glance.

    Perhaps I’m wrong.


  17. Russ Goerend says:

    Still wondering:

    So, I’m asking sincerely: when I read educators speaking for/against things that do/don’t increase engagement, what do educators mean when they say “[This] increases engagement”?

  18. This post and comment thread prompted me to run “The Great IWB Debate” on the Virtual Staffroom Podcast.

    I have 2 more spots left on the negative team if anyone is interested…



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