Thursday, November 8, 2012

SmartBoards as essential teaching tools?

  This topic came out of a discussion with the elementary teachers in my school about wanting SmartBoards in their classrooms. I want to point out that I'm not intending to specifically respond to them. I've realized I feel a specific resistance towards SmartBoards in myself that I want to explore in this post. I hope no one feels attacked. Also, I use the term SmartBoards even though there are a number of other companies that make devices that compete with Smart Technologies. Much like Kleenex, and even more so in technology, we tend to attach ourselves to whatever came along first. If you don't believe me open a word processing document and look at what the save icon is. That's a floppy disk. Now try to think of the last time you used a floppy disk -- no, that was a zip drive -- there you go.

  Secondly, I want to be sure that everyone who reads this knows that I'm not arguing against using the SmartBoard in your classroom. If you have one, use it. I'd rather have one than not, and there are thousands of uses for them. This article is to discuss if having a SmartBoard in every classroom should be considered necessary technology in the same way that a whiteboard or chalkboard is commonly found in every room.

What you find in a teaching station

  When you walk into a classroom what do you expect to find? There will be desks or tables, chairs for the students. Usually you'll find a teacher's desk of some sort, storage for supplies. The teaching station is specifically the area around some sort of desk or podium on which technology resides. My current teaching station is comprised of a laptop, extra monitor, projector, speakers, and a whiteboard. I have a pull down screen but I'd rather just project directly on the whiteboard. Last year this also included a microphone, built in speakers, scanner, keyboard and mouse, computer dock, student clickers, and a SmartBoard.
Teaching station at University of San Francisco
  I, along with most teachers I know, use the computer and projector every day. Speakers are frequently used and are easily worth adding considering their low cost. The whiteboard has definitely become industry standard; there are still some teachers that use blackboards and to some degree the white board becomes more of a static fixture in a room with a SmartBoard. The extra monitor I find incredibly useful with the projector as I use the spare to show what is on the screen behind me running an extended desktop rather than just showing what is on my screen to the world. It allows me to have my grade book, email and other more sensitive files open on my computer without having to worry about accidentally showing it off to my students. Plus the additional screen space when trying to create presentations and pull information from the web prevents me from having to flip back and forth between multiple windows as often. I could live without the extra monitor, but with cheap monitors running around $100 it seems to good a deal not to buy.

The SmartBoard Question

  When I had a SmartBoard in my room during my student teaching and last year, I used it every day. I only used the whiteboard for random breakouts during math and to post the weekly homework for everyone to see. Almost all classwork, entry task assignments, and corrections were done with use of the SmartBoard and projector. There were other teachers that used the SmartBoard for a number of purposes that I'll discuss later on here. Needless to say, they were used, heavily. The question I'm curious about is if they're worth the cost. Not if they serve a purpose.
  Looking at the cost we see that the current range for interactive white boards is between $1000 and $4000. I've seen a few conference sessions about making your own using a Wii which could significantly decrease the cost. While practical on an individual level this isn't the sort of decision that is going to be employed across a district. Additionally to the fees for buying the board is the cost of mounting both it and the projector. While the projector is necessary technology mounting it isn't necessary, even if it is best practice. So we should probably assume in the $2500 range for this piece of technology in order to get it a significant size, assuming that the teacher has all the other equipment to make use of it. Sizes of up to 94 inches are available but the cost also increases significantly.

The Issues 

  Unlike a projector screen (or as I'm currently doing just projecting on a white board) there isn't much flexibility once the smart board is in place. While a mounted projector can be turned off and the board used for other purposes, the interactive white board takes up prime classroom real estate all the time. It goes front and center. While I've used a smart board on wheels that could be rolled around the continual need for adjustment really makes this not worth it. The dead center of your teaching pallet is basically reserved for the machine. While this isn't a massive issue all the time it can be frustrating when you want to draw a timeline across your entire white board.
  Newer boards are getting to the point where multiple touches are standard allowing for multiple students to use the device at once. One problem I encountered was having multiple students work on the space at the same time.
  Size is becoming less of an issue. 77in seems to be the new standard which does meet the needs of most classrooms. My own projector is currently running at 68in diagonal and is meeting my needs just fine. Some of the earlier versions sat at 48in (they're still available) which ends up being horribly small for most classroom uses. Boards this size are still useful for conference room type settings but they don't really function in a classroom.

The Uses

  There is a handful of specific uses that you can do with a smartboard that you can't pull off with just a projector. The first one is easy display of functioning websites. A presenter doesn't need to go back to a computer to forward slides or click on webpages. While a clicker does perform several of these functions, the ability to easily click on hyperlinks has significant value.
Smart Technologies
  One other advantage is that you can use the screen as a giant iPad. I've seen teachers use this for organizing games, students taking their own attendance, or several other uses. It allows anyone access to come up and manipulate what's on the screen without having to get access to the teacher's computer. I've utilized this both as a large interactive whiteboard as well as putting online worksheets on the board and I can write on the directly.
  One of the biggest features of an interactive whiteboard really isn't that valuable in most classrooms. The ability to save work on the board. This was described to me as highly valuable in engineering scenarios where people are doing a long series of design type work and want to share and keep the results. In my math classroom it hasn't been necessary. I've used it for lists in language arts but this was more for dramatic effect than to actually save the specific work done. It does allow you to quickly copy down what is on the board and move on to a fresh screen. You can move on without actually erasing anything. This means earlier problems can be brought back up in the same session. This is valuable, though not vital.
  I feel that the full picture of uses hasn't been fully developed for interactive whiteboards but the technology is quickly being eclipsed by tablets. If information can be pushed to student tablets they gain all the touch functionality that you would have with the screen at their desk. I'm sure there are all kinds of creative things that can be done with touch screens but I don't feel that realistically most teachers will optimize their usage.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Apple iPad
  Bearing the $2500 price tag is really a big deterrent to bringing Smartboards into every classroom in my opinion. With the current price of tablets reaching down into the $200 range, paying the price of 10 tablets to outfit a classroom with a piece of technology with no mandatory uses feels like a significant waste of money to me. The Smartboard from 3 classrooms could give an entire set of tablets to one classroom.
  While it definitely does cool stuff I don't see enough practical uses in most classrooms. Perhaps in a college science setting or maybe even advanced high school math there are some reasons why people should have one. But overall I feel that this is more of a want from people than a need. In a classroom a Smartboard is a big shiny. It's something that stands out as cool and fun. But it just doesn't bring with it the educational bang for its buck that makes it a necessary investment for schools.

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