5 Questions to ask BEFORE buying IWBs

Interactive Whiteboards played a large role in my professional thinking this week after I received an email from a district level technology leader in a Southeastern state asking a question that caught me a bit off guard:

“Bill, I know you’re not a fan of Interactive Whiteboards, but what questions would you ask or criteria would you set if you were going to buy them?  How do you evaluate IWBs as an investment before spending your monies?”

Good question, isn’t it?  And I’m completely jazzed to hear from a technology leader who is interested in asking questions first and making purchases later!  Willy-nilly spending on silver bullets is literally sinking American schools.

While I have no money to actually spend—remember that I’m just a classroom teacher—here are five questions that I’d beg those with budgets to consider before dropping cabbage on Interactive Whiteboards:

How do IWBs align with your school’s vision for high-quality learning environments?  If there is anything clear about highly successful organizations, it’s that they align every internal decision with a convincing shared vision of the future that they’re trying to create. 

For schools, that means imagining the kinds of learning experiences important for student success.  Good schools can tell you what they think the most effective learning experiences actually look like.  They can describe what teachers and students will be doing in the classrooms that they’re trying to create.

Knowing that stories are a powerful tool for persuasion, they may have even crafted a set of short bits detailing progressive classrooms—and they use those bits to guide every professional choice that they make.

If IWBs fit neatly into this vision of “learning in action” in your building, they’re likely to be a worthwhile purchase—and if you haven’t yet developed a clear and convincing vision, any money that you spend is going to be wasted!

Does your school have a strong culture of participation—instead of presentation—in place already?  If I were to write a clear vision of learning in action, it would involve heavy doses of participation on the part of my students.

In fact, the biggest change between the way that we’ve consumed content for generations and the way that our students consume content today is that no one does anything alone anymore!

Our kids engage in ongoing chats with other viewers while watching their favorite television shows.  Our kids join communities around their favorite bands.  Our kids fire up video games and become a part of  digital teams with members from across geographical borders.

To put it simply, our kids are standing waist deep in a culture of participation when they leave school, and yet our schools are often stuck in presentation mode.  We are still delivering information and expecting kids to absorb it without comment. 

Sadly, IWBs tend to promote this presentation culture. 

Teachers love ‘em because they can easily show videos to an entire class or access what they think are engaging clip art galleries.  Even teachers trying to innovate with IWBs get stuck thinking about presentations, dreaming about the kinds of engaging reports students can make if they just had access to a whiteboard.

While IWBs can play a role in learning—there will always be times when content needs to be delivered—they shouldn’t become the primary tool in your digital toolkit until your teachers are firmly committed to creating interesting opportunities for students to participate in their own learning.

Are you sure that IWBs are seen as engaging by your students?  If there’s anything that I learned from my time with an IWB in my classroom, it’s that kids are far less impressed with them than their teachers are. 

While my students were enamored with our IWB for the first month or so, it quickly became old news to them.  In fact, when I opened the board up to student groups as a tool for brainstorming at the beginning of research projects, I had no takers!  “It’s not worth the hassle, Mr. Ferriter,” one group leader said.  “We’ll work here.”

Crazy, isn’t it? I mean, if you listen to the rhetoric that teachers spin about IWBs, you’d think they were revolutionary tools that captivate learners. 

That disconnect shouldn’t be surprising, though.  Teachers love IWBs because they make traditional practices—lecturing, presenting, sharing websites—easier.  That is pretty revolutionary.  But if you’re a kid, lecturing, presenting and sharing websites has never been all that interesting to begin with!

The lesson to learn if you’ve got a pile of cash you’re looking to blow on technology:  Ask your students what kinds of things they’d like to do in their classrooms.  Find out what kinds of learning experiences they believe are the most engaging. 

If IWBs can support the development of the learning experiences that your students describe, pull the trigger on your purchase.  If not, don’t bother.

Have you thought through a plan to evaluate the impact that IWBs have on student achievement?  I’ve been wrestling with supporters of IWBs for a while now (see here, here, and here) and in every conversation I ask the same seemingly simple question: 

How do you evaluate the impact that IWBs are having on student engagement and/or achievement in your classrooms?  Have you conducted any pre/post surveys of your students?  Did you develop any performance indicators and then analyze results after your implementation?

Seems like a reasonable thing to expect, don’t you think?  After all, IWBs—especially when rolled out across an entire school—are probably the single most expensive technology purchase that you’ll ever make.  Costing anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per classroom, they’d better be making a huge difference on student learning!

Sadly, no one has ever been able to answer my question!  Sometimes, I’ll get responses like this:

  • My teachers love them.
  • My teachers say their students love them.
  • If my teachers say they need them, I’m going to buy them.
  • The IWB company tells me that they’ve done a ton of research, and IWBs work.

If this is your plan for evaluating the impact that IWBs have on student achievement in your building, you’re walking towards disaster.

Because the investment you’re planning to make is going to consume a significant amount of your school and/or district’s technology budget, you’d better have a clear plan in place for measuring the “value added” by IWBs before you buy anything!

How will the IWB company that you are working with support your long-term technology needs?  Let’s face it:  IWBs are like any other computer hardware purchase that you’ve ever made in your life.  Sooner or later, they’re going to be outdated clunkers—kind of like the 300 laser-disc players your district has sitting in storage somewhere!

That’s important for you to consider before making wholesale investments in IWBs. 

Do you really want to put yourself in the position where you’re going to need to do “refreshes” every 5-7 years, replacing antiquated IWBs with newer models?  Can you count on having a never-ending funding stream to even make replacing your oldest IWBs possible?

How are you going to explain the new technology in some classrooms and/or buildings and the old technology in other classrooms and/or buildings to parents, principals and teachers?  Are you going to inadvertently create the appearance of “haves and have nots” if your budget doesn’t keep pace with your replacement plans?

Because these questions are so hard to answer, I almost always suggest that districts avoid spending their technology budgets on expensive hardware products.  Spending your money on Web-based services—things like Voicethread and Polleverywhere—makes more sense to me because those kinds of tools are always being improved. 

If you’re going to buy IWBs, though, you’ve got to ask some tough questions of your providers bef
ore spending your cash.  Here’s a few to get your conversation started:

  • What guarantees has the IWB company you’re working with made about keeping their hardware current? 
  • Are they willing to lease hardware to you so that you don’t get stuck with worthless tools in no time? 
  • Do they have a track record of making enough improvements in their software packages that antiquated hardware isn’t a problem?
  • Will they guarantee that any new “add ons” developed for future boards—devices like student responders designed to communicate with their software packages—will be compatible with older versions of their boards?

If you aren’t convinced that your IWB company can answer these questions cleanly, don’t give ‘em a dime!

You know something:  While I was writing, I realized that my questions really apply to any technology purchase, don’t they? 

If you’re not asking these kinds of questions before starting 1-to-1 computing initiatives, buying netbooks, selecting document cameras, choosing a wiki service, starting district-wide blogging projects, or picking a course management system, you’re just not acting responsibly.

Long story short:  Technology decisions are the toughest to make simply because the people with spending power aren’t always those who are working full-time in classrooms or those who have been surrounded by new tools for learning for their entire lives.

But that doesn’t mean technology decisions are impossible.  By starting with a set of careful questions—and collecting answers from a broad range of stakeholders—you can protect yourself against poor choices and wasted cash!

12 thoughts on “5 Questions to ask BEFORE buying IWBs

  1. Bethany Smith

    I recently was asked to conduct some technology workshops, so like any good consultant I surveyed my potential students about the types of technology they were interested in learning. They overwhelmingly replied with IWB instruction. So I dutifully prepared my workshop, including a discussion about the good and bad uses of IWBs. I had planned on building upon their current experience with IWBs, assuming that they were asking for the training because they had them already installed in their school, but had yet to use them. Of the 45 teachers I saw that day only 5 had them available. They couldn’t even explain to me why they wanted it – they just did. That is what scares me the most, that IWB = technology in the classroom.

  2. Tandilyn

    Owning an IWB, I find that a HUGE consideration that one fails to look ahead with such technology is maintenance costs. I am on my second projector bulb in two years at a pretty $270 a pop. Ouch!

  3. DonteRome

    I enjoyed your article Mr.Ferriter. We should consider the opinions of the people using the technology in classrooms more since they are the ones who have the most first-hand experience with them in those situations.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Matt wrote:
    School systems really do not have a vision about their learning environments. They have visions about their end results.
    AMEN, brother. In fact, most schools that I know don’t even have what I would call “vision statements” at all. Instead, we stop after we’ve polished up a mission statement.
    I wonder how many educators realize that mission and vision statements are two entirely different things?
    Here’s how I try to explain the difference:
    Without a clear vision, though, schools are going to struggle to take practical steps in any direction.
    Rock on,

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Kevin wrote:
    I’ve seen no marked difference in the formation of groups and cliques among kids over the past 40 years, or the desire or lack of it to do things together.
    You know, this is probably a true statement for their group-forming behaviors at school, Kevin, but I’m not sure that it reflects group-forming behaviors beyond school.
    danah boyd and her colleagues have done a great job researching the way that digital tools have changed the social behaviors of kids.
    While all of her writing is good, this book—for which she authored one chapter—does a great job detailing the changing nature of relationship forming in kids today.
    I think the reason we don’t see evidence of changing group behaviors in our schools is simply because our schools are still rigid and inflexible. We’re not all that interested in giving students the chance to craft new and different learning environments, and our students have learned to stop trying.
    It’s that disconnect—between what’s happening beyond school and what’s happening in our classrooms—that is making school irrelevant to many kids.
    Any of this make sense?

  6. Curmudgeon

    This is not a condemnation of the way tech is implemented, in my mind. It does point out how the purchase and review is so fragmented in schools.
    The faculty end-users are not familiar enough with the products to be able to determine absolutely what they need or to determine the difference between a name brand (like Smart) and the generics which are often 1/3 the price. Most haven’t used them before getting them – at least not in any meaningful way. SO they will scrape enough department budget money together to get one and then the teacher will leave it in the corner of his room propped against a filing cabinet because “he doesn’t have time to learn how to use it.”
    The tech brats who might know, don’t ask the teachers and couldn’t be bothered to figure things out for themselves. Laziness and a willingness to cry “I’m so busy” are the primary reasons. They also don’t mind a 6 foot SmartBoard being unusable for an entire year because of a faulty cable.
    The financial people who authorize have no clue either. To them, it’s a board that you “tap” to go to the next slide.
    The administration who demands “more tech because I think it sounds cool” are no help. They like IWBs because the district tech person can stand by the board and tap it to get to the next slide. “We’re high-tech here.”
    The salesmen con the community into thinking it’s for the good of the children and will “build learning opportunities for the digital natives, don’t ya know” and the irony of the marching band equipment salesman takes another bump.
    Meanwhile, those who might make something out of it are required to continue with whatever old technology was lying around and are doing just fine, thank you.
    But. What I could do with one …

  7. Matt Guthrie

    Bill, I think your first question is the most condemning on schools. School systems really do not have a vision about their learning environments. They have visions about their end results. Their vision statements are nicely crafted and sound awesome (I love the one for my district) but the implementation of the statement never matches the vision itself.

  8. Ben K.

    I think that classrooms need to have a projector and connected computer. IWBs are a new way to do old things, like you stated.
    The real making in presenting with IWBs is the software, which is free. Add a tablet or wireless slate with your software and you’ve got what you need, please the benefit of being able to move around the room.
    Great Post

  9. Kevin Karplus

    I like your approach to tech decisions (I see the same problems at the college level, with IT guys wanting some flashy toy that ends up sitting unused—though the problem applies as much to software as to hardware). You also have to look at the cost of generating content for the tool, and whether it will migrate cleanly to a different platform.
    I disagree somewhat with the claim
    “In fact, the biggest change between the way that we’ve consumed content for generations and the way that our students consume content today is that no one does anything alone anymore!” I’ve seen no marked difference in the formation of groups and cliques among kids over the past 40 years, or the desire or lack of it to do things together. There is more group homework than when I was a kid, but that is due mainly to increased student/teacher ratios and increased homework load, making the grading of individual homework more time-consuming—that is, the increase in group work is teacher-driven, not student-driven.

  10. Maureen Tumenas

    Good things to consider. We have no IWBs at our school. Still not convinced that they are worth the money. I had the aver pen rep come out and do a demo. I invited a 9th grade geometry class to come see it. They thought it was clunky and didn’t see it as cool at all, or adding value to the way they wanted to learn. When my son was in college he complained that his profs spent more time fiddling with the tech than actually teaching.
    Lots of think about before committing scarce resources- in both $ and training time.

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