Five ways to win with interactive white boards

Five ways to win with interactive white boards

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"My school wants me to use my SMART Board more, but I don't know what to do with it. The kids are too old to be amused by the animations, and I've been trying to move away from lectures. What do you suggest?"

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square, recently said: "To me that is the pinnacle of technology — when the technology disappears completely." Interactive White Boards (IWBs) too often defy this maxim. They become the focus of a class when used as directed by company-appointed trainers. The accompanying software is also hard to use. Let's face it: IWBs are a bigger source of frustration for teachers than any other hardware. But they're flippin' expensive, so if you have one, your school really wants you to use it. So let's talk about how to use the IWB as a portal, not a destination. In Jack Dorsey's words, let's make it "disappear completely."

1) Go beyond the board's accompanying software

Every IWB training I've attended focused on the board's accompanying software. Unfortunately, these trainings propagate the myth that IWBs have a singular function -- namely, displaying and allowing interaction with that software. However, good use of an IWB does not require using its proprietary software. Think of the board as a giant touch-sensitive computer that you and your students can play with during class. This seamless access to your computer is its primary instructional purpose. If you're using it effectively, then it's your computer, not the board or its software, that's enriching your class. In fact, the interactivity offered in the software is often a gimmick that does little to encourage actual learning. We want to add substance, not style.

2) Bring the outside in

In that spirit, IWBs can help you bring rich, real-world content into your classroom. Frighten your students by showing them the US debt clock in the context of an economics lesson or while talking about the Great Depression. Walk students through a dissection using 3D Toad. Watch speeches instead of describing them. Walk around the Colosseum using Google Earth. See the Uffizi with Google Art Project. If something is on the Internet, then it can be in your classroom, too. Instead of lecturing, join your students in exploring ideas and information using primary and secondary sources. Discuss and break down the content with them--not for them--and do it easily from the front of the room with the IWB. By reducing the IWB to a tool that enables you to teach your class, you're actually using it exactly right.

3) Combine with web apps

IWBs also become a powerful tool for collaboration when combined with web-based apps. For example, in a lesson on thesis statements, students put their sentences in a shared document on Google Docs. I pulled up the document on our IWB and the class guided me through revising each one.

Another collaborative and enriching activity is backchanneling. During a lecture or discussion, students can submit comments and questions to a live feed. By displaying that feed, the moderator of the discussion or the lecturer can receive feedback without interruption, address questions promptly, and even encourage multiple simultaneous discussions in a single class.

Once during a lecture on the causes of WWI, my colleague used a Twitter hashtag for backchanneling purposes. Students submitted questions and reactions, some of which he responded to during the lecture, and others he assigned for homework by retweeting them after class. Though it might seem distracting to us teachers, these experienced "task-switchers" were even more engaged with the lecture and easily switched between watching their teacher and monitoring the backchannel displayed behind him.

Besides enriching class, this very public backchannel reinforced a series of lessons that were part of our advisory program regarding professional uses of social media. Any opportunity to help students be mindful of their digital footprint and assume an academic (and not purely social) presence online is worth taking. Of course, with younger students or for more sensitive conversations, privacy is important; for these cases, I'd recommend the private backchanneling service Chatzy.

You can also use web apps for live, formative assessment. Socrative is a phenomenal and free (!) cloud-based student response system (like the SMART Response clickers).  Students can use their phones, tablets, or computers to submit answers to quizzes, give feedback on a lecture directly to you, submit exit tickets, and more.

By sending questions to the students' devices during her presentation, for example, another of my colleagues can dynamically display students' reactions for the entire class. Socrative requires very little set-up but adds meaningful interactivity to her class. She also evaluates students' understanding of core concepts and adapts subsequent lectures to the results after class. Sometimes, she'll assign homework that addresses the questions that were most challenging for students during her lecture. By displaying the results on her IWB and interacting with it, she and the students can work together to direct their learning.  

4) Don't use it all the time

Sometimes IWBs are just not the right tool for the job. Good technology integration means using tech effectively but not necessarily frequently. If you want the students to work collaboratively on a project or sit in a circle and have a discussion, then don't turn it on. Often I hear teachers say that they're using it to prove to their principal that they've used it; make sure that you're using it for the students, not the administration. In other words, make the technology work for you; do not work for it.

5) Let the kids use it

Although they have phones more than a hundred times more powerful than the computer on board any NASA space shuttle, students are for some reason always amused by IWBs. While you might feel protective of the expensive tool that your school bought for your classroom, find meaningful opportunities to let the students interact with it rather than just playing endless games of "Hangman."

When students give presentations, for instance, ask them to integrate primary and secondary sources from the Internet. Encourage them to set up a backchannel conversation--and then respond to it when they're making a presentation. Let them annotate a piece of writing in front of their peers. Leverage their excitement to elicit more meaningful work.

Good use of your IWB is essentially good use of your computer. Always think about how the Internet or some software could enhance your class. Used this way, IWBs allow you to expand the horizons of your class in a way that makes good use of a very expensive tool. Do not be intimidated by it; it will become whatever you want it to be. Ideally, it will "disappear."

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