To IWB or not to IWB

An evaluation of current research – towards a decision to install Interactive Whiteboards in a Sydney high school

Interactive Whiteboards (IWB) have a touch sensitive surface that can be written on with either erasable marker pens or ‘electronically” using touch.  There are two types, those that require only touch and those that require electromagnetic ‘pens’.  They are all attached to a computer, giving the capacity to connect to the internet, display movies or other multimedia and also utilise computer software such that the IWB acts just like a large computer screen.

Used in a classroom it can be useful for
Manipulating images and text, or for progressive reveal of pre-prepared lesson material
Displaying student work
Demonstrating software
Surfing the net in a group manner
Constructing notes then printing them for later reference
Building education material during the class and allowing playback later or to use in another class
Displaying interactive educational or instructive applications such as flash or java applets

Overview of current research.
There is overwhelmingly a bias to research conducted at the primary school level, with some work being produced in middle or high school, there is even less for tertiary education.  Another notable consideration is that much of it is sponsored by commercial interests and consequently there is an inherent skew and much rhetoric towards the value in using IWBs. Most findings are that it is ‘positive’ and of ‘great potential’. What is most notable, by its absence, is the lack detail of the underlying requirement for practitioner training, despite its importance for the effective use of this potentially teaching-method changing technology, and the lack of availability of this training, most articles  also ‘sidestep’ the reporting of educational outcomes or the improvement thereof.

Value of this research
This research is to help in my own decision making process. There is evidence of value in IWBs for primary level education, but less support as to their efficacy in high school where, I suspect, they will be an initial novelty and then treated no differently from static whiteboards, which are some 10% of the cost of an interactive board, in other words  “…they might be viewed as ‘glorified blackboards’” (Burden, 2002).
What is an Interactive Whiteboard?
An Interactive Whiteboard is a device that interprets a projected two-dimensional surface that interacts with a computer’s desktop. A typical use is as an electronic whiteboard but it is generally an interactive type of computer screen. Interactive whiteboards typically require a computer to generate the display via a projector. Software mimics the computer’s mouse and keyboard. However, some models have basic white boarding functionality present within the physical whiteboard (Wikipedia, 2007).

Without quite specific skills in IWB use and dynamic presentation, the IWB a large computer screen, shared with the whole class. This can be done with a dataprojector and plain coloured wall. The attraction and advantage of the tactile approach suits best the younger students who are still in the kinetic learning stages. There is far less ‘cool’ factor for teenagers to be manipulating images and text on a large screen in front of peers.

Current areas of IWB research focus.
Most articles report findings from research conducted in early educational years, the majority stem from America and Great Britain; although notably England and Wales only. The preponderance of material from Britain is largely due to the British government providing funding throughout the education system giving access to IWBs in every school. There has been a notable lack of research conducted regarding how the money translated to educational value, nor on the efficacy of the government’s approach despite them having been re-elected with a strong ‘education’ mandate1. This is particularly of interest in NSW since the State government also went to the polls with the same mandate to provide IWBs for schools.

There are research papers from Europe and Iceland, but not in the same quantity level as for Britain. A few papers are beginning to appear from Australia, mostly from the ACT (Canberra) region. Again one might look to political expediencies for this trend.

The Educational Effects and Implications of the Interactive Whiteboard Strategy of Richardson Primary School – A Brief Review (Lee & Boyle, 2005).  This primary school is one of the first to take a whole school approach.  Implementing the IWBs involved the whole community including the parents. It takes the process so far as to change the school’s curriculum around the use of IWBs. The ACT education system is sufficiently flexible in its approach to support such a large and local change of educational philosophy.  A number of research projects have been conducted on this example school.

e-Teaching and Interactive Whiteboards: Technology used to enhance effective pedagogy – creating a significant impact on classroom practice and student learning (Kent, 2004).
This article has a different focus but is conducted in the same primary school (Richardson Primary School). The capacity to adopt an e-teaching approach is only possible in primary schools where the structure of the day isn’t determined by periods and predefined lesson lengths.

Student Teachers’ Experiences and Attitudes Towards Using Interactive Whiteboards in the Teaching and Learning of Young Children (Kennewell & Morgan, 2003). This article concentrates on the use of IWBs in primary school classrooms with student teachers; new learners, new teachers and a new technology. These three factors are a prime recipe for a shift in thinking and approach. The findings of the paper were positive on all fronts from enthusiasm for use through to excellent learning results.

Student Engagement, Visual Learning and Technology: Can Interactive Whiteboards Help? (Beeland, 2002). This review moved towards slightly older students and focussed on middle school. Specifically it targeted the use of IWBs and their capacity for multimedia presentation to engage the three modalities of learning; visual, auditory and tactile. The intention was to see if the use of IWB would improve student engagement.  The unequivocal answer, based on the results of both the surveys and questionnaires, was yes. Additionally, based on the results of the student survey, there was a correlation between how highly the whiteboard was rated based on the type of media that was used, but not based on how much the students were allowed to interact with the whiteboard.

Most of the research is focussed around; engagement of the students in the class; associated student motivation; encompassing a broader range of learning styles; student retention of information presented; and flexibility for teacher’s lesson preparations.

Student engagement and motivation:
Studies conducted by Augusta State University found “… positive movement towards the long term/short term goals [and experiencing] greater perception of control over themselves and the environment … and their ability to shape their responses more positively” (Helms-Breazeale & Blanton, 2000).  There may be some Hawthorne effect by bringing an IWB to class (or vice versa) and this can only be observed longer term in classes that have constant access to an IWB and it becomes simply “part of the fixtures”. Nonetheless, the “Dynamic learning atmosphere” (Fernandez & Luftglass, 2003) engendered when using IWBs has a positive impact on the students’ interest and motivation. For example, a study within the area of mathematics teaching found, “Students are more attentive, contributed more, offered to volunteer more and all round enjoyed to a greater extent the mathematics classroom that made use of the interactive electronic whiteboard (Robinson, 2004).

Student engagement is critical to student motivation during the learning process. The more students are motivated to learn, the more likely it is that they will be successful in their efforts (Beeland, 2002). An additional factor not discussed in Beeland’s paper is that engaged students are less disruptive of classes and do not cause distractions to other students. A teacher’s capacity to engage students is either positively or negatively linked to their management of the class. If the students are disengaged, they will look for alternative ‘activities’ to amuse them, often brining in other class members or at least being a disruption to them.  This disturbance behaviour has a snowballing effect on the other students. Likewise the student whose attention is captured is easier to teach and share knowledge with. Computers (IWBs) can be used to assist both active and reflective experiences and the introduction of technology into the learning environment can encourage cooperative learning and student collaboration ((SEDL), 1999).

Learning styles:
Even though there are clearly biased research papers produced by commercial organisations with an agenda to further the sales of IWBs there is yet some strong indications that IWBs can improve learning in the classroom, particularly through the use of multimedia.  The broader range of learning styles that can be accommodated is largely due to the teacher ability to access more material, better interactive options and simply encompass more colour and movement in their presentations. Additionally they are able to better provide visual reinforcement of their auditory delivery (Easley & Hoffman, 2001). Would this be similarly effective with a dataprojector and computer? There are no studies yet making direct comparisons of this against IWBs.  For their part, the IWBs do allow teachers the opportunity to construct better lessons than they might other wise consider and for that IWBs are a benefit in the classroom.

Cognitive approach:
The germane cognitive load is partly affected by the motivation level of the student, increased motivation through the use of IWBs (Hawthorne or not) has been covered earlier in this assignment and is certainly a positive and beneficial consideration. According to (Veenema & Gardner, 1996) …the mind is not comprised of a single representation or even a single language of representations. Students might be biased to one or more of the (at least eight) discrete intelligences.  Multimedia environments have the potential of promoting meaningful learning by varying both the number of representations provided to students and the degree of student interactivity (Moreno & Valdez, 2005). Although the motivational and engagement aspects of the IWB have been considered, there has as yet been no work, specifically, on the effect on cognitive load and the construction of appropriate lesson material for teachers. A bank of lesson examples with explanations of the underlying design theory would be a practical and useful repository for teachers considering adopting the technology. Producing material that allows a teacher to exchange audio for text on the whiteboard (the modality effect) and adding in some graphics or simple animation, even manual manipulation would count, (the cueing effect) will yield greater retention of information by the class students (Richard  Mayer, 2001).

IWBs give teachers an opportunity to incorporate into their teaching the three modalities. The visual impact is expanded past the simple teacher produced text and diagram stage currently available with static whiteboards, and can encompass complex colourful and accurate images.  These can be manipulated on the screen and build complex ideas from simple starting places.  Sound (auditory learning) is not a feature of IWBs per-se, although all IWB installations should include a sound system.  Adding sound, natural, supportive or simply narrative, in the appropriate contiguous manner, will enhance the students learning process (Richard Mayer & Moreno, 2002). Care needs to be exercised so as not to introduce redundancy and cause cognitive overload, which would be perilously simple to do with so much multimedia readily available, easily accessed and manipulated through an IWB. The natural tendency to present an overwhelming amount of supportive material would need to be tempered and managed through the teachers’ understanding of learning theory, practice with this new technology and some support of peers who are in a position to mentor, monitor and non-judgementally critique the IWB use.

An applicable pedagogic approach would be to be considerate of Heppell’s taxonomy of multimedia. This presents a progressive approach to the use of multimedia through which you build better and better skills.
1. Narrative – initiate, watch and listen
2. Interactive – browse, explore, navigate and choose
3. Participative – as ‘interactive’, plus originate and present

Establish this via his four stages for introducing technology into learning situations:
Stage 1: Topicality – Focus is on learning about the technology.
Stage 2: Surrogacy – The computer is used as a ‘surrogate teacher’
Stage 3: Progression – Focus on use of generic tools
Stage 4: Pedagogic Evolution – Computers alter the learning environment and the learners.
(Heppell, 1993a, 1993b)

Note that this approach has strong parallels to the Gibson conceptual model for the use of technology in schools: Infusion, Integration, Transformation. And also the six stages proposed by Ann Russell (Russell, 1996).

Stage 1 – Awareness: often accompanied by a sense of nervousness and fear.
Stage 2 – Learning the process: often frustrating, intimidating, and time consuming assimilation of complex technology, extensive positive help and encouragement needed.
Stage 3 – Understanding and application of the process: hands-on experience relaxes the need to cling to step-by-step instructions and a feel for a learning community emerges.
Stage 4 – Familiarity and confidence: technology is becoming transparent and students become increasingly confident.
Stage 5 – Adaptation to other contexts: technology and software have become invisible and new understandings and experiences are transferred to other contexts.
Stage 6 – Creative application to new contexts.

Challenges and issues:
Potentially education-transforming technology used to replicate existing (old) technology.
“History suggests new technologies are initially used to replicate rather than transform the processes undertaken (Burden, 2002)  Further, access to sufficient technology holds no likelihood it will be used and certainly has no guarantee that it will yield any educational efficacy. Widespread access to equipment more often that not… sustains rather than altered existing patterns of teaching practice (Cuban, Kirkpatrick, & Peck, 2001).

This is the findings of most research. Although IWB vendors stipulate that for their use to be effective and flourish, a critical mass is required within either a faculty or even a whole school, the evidence suggests that even those institutions with saturation access do not necessarily make any educational transformation. Anecdotally there are many high schools in NSW with IWBs ‘gathering dust’.

Preservation of ‘traditional’ methods of teaching and a sticking to known-skills is common among teachers of long service. For pre-service and newly qualified teachers there is greater capacity to adopt current technology and deliver with it more of the potential to alter teaching methods. They are in a position and prepared to spend the extra time required to exploit the interactive features of IWBs to engage the children they teach. (Kennewell & Morgan, 2003)

Limitations of the methodologies
All reports currently look at the use of IWBs in a relatively isolated way, either with a specific groups (student teachers and early learners) or a particular topic (teachers mentoring colleagues) and rarely from a whole school or district budgetary level. From an administrative rather than educational viewpoint decisions have to be made on where best to spend limited budget. The return on investment value for one type of technology against another is usually decided by the educational outcomes; reports currently have insufficient information to make such a call. Projects have a feel of ‘stacking the table’ about them. Those from the Smart technologies (for example only) do offer practical suggestions but they are still left with the flavour of selling rather than empirical study. This might be addressed through some financial return imperative, although the funding of such research might itself not yield a reasonable rate or return.

Political speak; the capacity to say lots without being committal. For example: ”Further evidence is provided by a teacher interviewed by Glover et al. (2005), who stated, “We appear cool, we offer a technology that competes with the other media in their lives in a professional and bright way” (Smart Technologies, 2006). This is upbeat and positive but gives no indication if the ‘cool’ factor is budgetary sensible.

The sample size is always small. Given all the schools in Britain had access to IWBs; the sample size should be commensurate to the country broad roll out. All research is done at a local level with the inherent local issues at stake which do not support a more general or global decision. This issue can only be covered through large scale investigations, the like of which might well cost the same as installing the equipment itself.

“This action-research study …researcher taught TWO seventh grade classes…” (Robinson, 2004) Author bolded entry.

“The project from which this paper arises looks at the impact on teachers and their teaching in one Victorian secondary school following the acquisition and installation of six interactive whiteboards” (Jones & Vincent, 2006)

Low Tech: A consideration given no coverage is that IWBs can be considered low tech and might be a decent bridge for the technophobic. Although they have the potential to be a method changing technology, they are also no different and no scarier than the ever familiar blackboard. There is an opportunity to phase in progressively more complex capabilities for teachers who are unwilling or insecure about adopting ICT into their teaching methods. This will only be possible if the approach is to stop making the IWB the focus.

Technology implementation issues were noted. They were no less nor greater than any use of ICT in a classroom for non technology trained educators. Some teachers were overwhelmed and would need close at hand technical support.
“…if there are problems with the technology aspect that I don’t know how to correct, I feel very unprepared and feel like I always need a backup plan. It can be very frustrating to not
know how to fix something or operate some component.” (Beeland, 2002)

“Frightened to death … I think it was just the fear of something going wrong and no-one being there…” (Cogill, 2002)

Many of the research articles state that successful use of the IWBs is very much in the hands of the teacher.  Those having success were already considered “good” teachers before using IWBs. This does not mean the IWB has had no positive effect on the student’s learning capacity, but the skill and approach of the teacher becomes an equally large dependant factor on the learning results.  Would a generally less effective teacher be able to produce learning improvements through the use of IWBs at the same level that a skilled and motivated teacher can?  Would that same skilled and motivated teacher be able to produce improved learning results with a computer and dataprojector; no IWB involved? There is some possibility that this is the case but again no comparative study has been undertaken.

Results certainly favour educational efficacy even though they are still inconclusive, but there is certainly an engagement and motivational benefit.

“The research showed no statistically significant difference in content learning or visualization gains, while student motivation and interest in their mathematics class increased”(Robinson, 2004).

“The results of the surveys and questionnaires indicated a strong preference for the use of interactive whiteboards in the classroom” (Beeland, 2002)

“Although there was no significant difference in student performance, students in the technology-enhanced sections self-reported more enthusiasm and interest in the course than did students in traditional sections, and perhaps as a result, the retention rate in the experimental sections was much higher than in the control sections” (Tate, 2002)

“The SMART Board was novel and created enthusiasm for learning on the part of the students…” (Lee & Boyle, 2005)

Given the capability to change the didactic teaching approach, the inherent capacity to give cognitive load theory some practical development, the ability to address all three modalities, then… even if this is ‘Hawthorne’, there might be some value in appealing to the ‘cool’ factor. Bibliography

(SEDL), T. S. E. D. L. (1999). Building on Technology’s Promise: Computers and Constructivism. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved April 2007 from
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Cogill, J. (2002). How is the interactive whiteboard being used in the primary school and how does this affect teachers and teaching [Electronic Version]. Retrieved April 2007 from
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