The Limits of Interactive Whiteboards

Over the past ten years, interactive whiteboards (IWBs) have supplanted traditional classroom boards in many elementary schools.

With creative fonts, virtual learning tools, the capacity to project any downloadable image or movie, and software to store a career's worth of lesson plans, IWBs appeal to the generalist elementary school teacher who's eager to infuse their classroom with vitality and better organize their work.

While the aforementioned benefits are obvious, many educators fail to recognize the severe limits that IWBs place on mathematics instruction.

Between demonstrations and observations, I’ve been a part of over 500 math lessons in which an IWB was used.  Of these, zero were completed without encountering some type of technological glitch.

For every minute of instruction that a teacher effectively manipulates a virtual compass or protractor, they seem to spend at least two minutes recalibrating the IWB and/or tapping the screen to get the jumpy manipulative to cooperate.  It’s not uncommon for teachers to spend five to ten percent of their instructional time dealing with IWB malfunctions while their students sit idly, staring at their back.

I recently conducted an experiment in which I asked teachers to write their first and last names five times – first on an IWB and then on a standard whiteboard.  On average, teachers wrote 33% faster (and infinitely neater) on the latter.  The occupied space of their writing was 34% larger on the IWB.

There are several reasons for this variance.

First, IWB writing tools are less tactile than dry-erase markers and chalk. When writing on a traditional board, teachers can write smaller, quicker, and neater by steadying their wrist against its surface.  One popular IWB brand recognizes such contact as the same input as its regular writing tool, thus creating sloppy, senseless, unintentional marks on the board whenever a teacher accidentally touches the screen.

Secondly, there is a time delay between teacher input and IWB screen output.  In ADHD-saturated classrooms, collective student focus often wanes during these dead intervals.

In time, these technological problems will undoubtedly be solved.  Newer models have already cured some of the hiccups that run rampant in older ones.

Still, IWB dimensions present obstacles to delivering math instruction that far outweigh their benefits.  Although they have the power to enhance some lesson visuals, their size makes it an inferior tool for teaching the subject.

Exemplary math instruction involves powerful visual aids, strategic board organization, and a record of specific points that both teachers and students can refer to as the lesson grows in complexity.  To accomplish this, teachers need copious board space devoid of distraction.  Classrooms best suited for direct math instruction consist of two blank boards situated side by side, centered in students’ vision.

One traditional eight-foot by four-foot board has 20-25% more surface area than most IWBs on the market.  After factoring in the latter’s writable surface area and thicker font width, this figure jumps to 40-50%.  With a condensed space, teachers are forced to frequently flip pages while instructing and as they do, earlier lesson points disappear from student vision.

Learning challenging math concepts requires students to engage in deep concentration and occasionally refer to earlier lesson points recorded by their teacher.  During IWB lessons, the latter isn’t possible unless the teacher pages back in the virtual flip chart.  When/if they do, students lose sight of the point or concept that they’re supposed to be focusing on.

In their present form, IWBs hold some value as an educational tool, especially during Science or Social Studies lessons when focusing on a board is not pertinent to lesson comprehension. At this point in their evolution, however, they’re not refined enough to enhance math education or justify their exorbitant costs.

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All great inventions go through early trial periods when both inventor and consumer work to perfect its function.  Late 19th century automobiles were overpriced, frequently broke down, and reached maximum speeds of only ten miles per hour.  For the past ten years or so, IWBs have been entrenched in an analogous incipient stage.

In the future, IWBs will undoubtedly play a more prominent role in teacher instruction and student learning.  They’ll likely occupy much larger spaces and rarely – if ever - malfunction. When this happens, they might even have the power to transform education in the same way that the automobile revolutionized transportation in the early 20th century.

For now, however, IWBs are better off used as a wealthy school’s experiment, something to use occasionally in hopes of bolstering low stakes lessons.

Teachers who routinely use IWBs would be wise to apply a simple history lesson to their classroom board practice:  The first automobiles were rich people toys - not vehicles to be used in favor of a horse when wanting to move somewhere with a purpose.