Lessons from the Downfall of Interactive Whiteboards
IWBs were once the darling of education technology. So why didn't they take off?
When the Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) first caught the eye of educators in the late 90s and early 2000s, it invigorated hope that education technology might begin to align with the digital age. In fact, these IWBs were respectfully dubbed a “window-to-the-world.”
Today, Futuresource Consulting reports that IWBs are positioned at the front of 45% of US, 37% of Canadian, and 90% of UK classrooms--a success story by nearly all definitions. Or is it really?
Despite these numbers, IWB manufacturers find the long-term educational relevance falling under question. In the U.S., Q2 volumes fell 15% below 2012, and this trend is predicted to continue for the next few years. Over the past few years, the annual International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of sessions talking about, or even referencing, interactive whiteboard technology. In fact, of the 1096 sessions offered at ISTE this past June, only 3 profiled IWBs.
How is it possible that IWBs lost their place in the same classrooms they so clearly occupied just a decade earlier? It’s valuable to identify the factors that plagued this industry:
High penetration. Low implementation. Although high market penetration of the IWB served as a sign of technology adoption, its correspondingly low implementation by individual classroom teachers served as a sign of eventual failure. That is, despite school district-wide decisions to order IWBs in high numbers, teachers didn’t fully adopt IWBs into their daily practice.
One explanation for this divergence between penetration and implementation lies in the complexity of the system. The IWB doesn’t function as a stand-alone item, but instead requires a collective technology quartet of an IWB, projector, computer, and desktop software. Each of these digital items presented an opportunity for technical malfunction and ultimately became a challenge to even the best technology support teams, let alone a single educator. When faced with IWB complexities, it was easier for teachers to carry on without.
Unfortunately, it was the enthusiastic administrator in search of a silver bullet to improve instruction who was slow to appreciate that although the IWB carried much promise, the actual transformation was dramatically overstated. And in a classic push-and-pull scenario, the ultimate success of IWBs was dependent upon the teachers’ willingness to transform their practice. Many didn’t.
Teaching is more art than science. Teaching is personal, and there is no uniform pedagogical theory that defines how any educator runs his or her classroom. If an educator is to adopt IWB technology in their classroom, he or she must feel some sort of ownership over its application in their practice. Simply put, adoption of transformational technology must be teacher-initiated.
In the IWB model, decision makers purchased the technology and then developed professional development plans to support the adoption by classroom teachers. Having created and supported many of these plans myself as an Education Consultant with SMART Technologies, I personally know how poorly this integration strategy worked. The amount of professional development required to support the implementation when the majority of teachers remain passive partners is simply unfeasible for even the wealthiest of districts.
A shift in focus. As anyone who has been in education for over 10 years knows, change is inevitable and the passage of time ushers in new instructional philosophies.
Case in point? The iPad. As the IWB technology was peaking in sales, this unexpected disruption caused decision makers to pause on IWB purchasing decisions. In the end, these orders remain unfilled. How did this device that was never designed to compete with IWBs single handedly throw into question the effectiveness of interactive displays? Timing.
Around the launch of the iPad, educators were shifting towards the new trend of student-focused instruction. The notion of an interactive display in the hands of every student, rather than at the front of the room being used by a single teacher, was just enough to pivot the discussion away from IWBs.
So what now? My years as both a classroom teacher and an Education Consultant with SMART have taught me three key strategies for effective implementation of transformational instructional technology:
Feed the hungry, not the full: If your teachers aren’t asking for the technology, odds are they won’t use it. That is, if they can’t describe how new tools will enhance instruction, they aren’t really looking to transform their instructional practice.
One teacher at a time: One instructional tool, one teacher. Technology intended to transform teaching was never intended to be shared. Since full adoption of any new tool that presumes to change one’s practice requires full commitment, invest in a permanent installation in one classroom instead of a school-wide implementation. Don’t go 1:1 across the board. Pick the early adopters--the ones who are hungry.
- Cluster: Cluster technology by grade, subject, hallway, or building. Cluster the technology in a manner that is in line with existing channels of communication. Organic or not, adoption of new technology is hard, and the more colleagues working together, the more likely successful adoption. Since true collaboration occurs between individuals with established trust, introduce technology that capitalizes on these preexisting channels.
At the end of the day, implementation of any technology tool requires buy-in from the teacher. Make sure teachers are a partner in all steps of product creation and adoption. Although the ultimate fate of the IWB is not yet sealed, its short history offers valuable lessons for educators and edtech entrepreneurs alike.