The Great Interactive Whiteboard Swindle…a 70s themed post!

I was watching a TV series set in the 1970s during the week. My wife and I marveled at the different sets that had been recreated perfectly to reflect the 70s. We openly wondered at how long it must have taken producers to search the suburbs for houses that hadn’t been renovated inside for 40 years. These houses were a wonderful glimpse into the past, complete with 70s fittings, wallpaper and tiles.

The show then moved to a series of scenes set in a High School. All of a sudden, the 70s didn’t seem that long ago. The school the producers chose for the show was one of many that they could quite easily walk into, make very minimal changes to the odd chair and table, and bam: its a 70s school again! An observer on Twitter noticed the same thing, making a comment that it was a sad sign of our public schools that the school in this TV series that was set in the 70s was virtually unchanged to what he knew it looked like in everyday life in 2012.

So why as an education system have we found it so hard to up-root from the past and make fundamental changes to our pedagogy and our learning spaces?

It is happening, but slowly and inconsistently. And often not together. In some schools, forward thinking management has totally redesigned the classrooms to be open learning spaces, yet the teachers are still teaching in the same old ways, and complaining about how noisy it is! Elsewhere, innovative teachers do their best to overcome hideously limiting old style box classrooms contained within closed corridors. Every now and again I walk into a school where the pedagogy and space change has aligned and it is a wonderful wonderful sight. Rare, but wonderful.

One of the exciting things about the dramatic developments in new technology over the last 10 years has been how it has afforded our classrooms to change. Traditionally classrooms were set up around the front of the room. Why? Because that’s where the information was dispensed from. The blackboard and the teacher were the source of all the knowledge that had to be memorized by the students.

Now information and knowledge is everywhere. As a result the focus and method of our teaching should have changed. As one of the founders of Wolfram Alpha, Stephen Wolfram has said; “In a time where answers are as ubiquitous as they are, the value is now defined by the ability to ask a better question”.

A focus on questioning, and on finding out and synthesizing information rather than being fed it, should have had a huge impact on what our classrooms look like. No longer is there a need for our rooms to be built around the front of the room, because that is no longer the source of all information and knowledge.

So it has been very frustrating that perhaps the most major, and sometimes only change, to many classrooms in the last 10 years is the interactive whiteboard (shortened to IWBs, which seems appropriate because it reminds me of WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction) I say this because it is a device that is usually fixed at the front of the room, and predominately operated by the teacher. A modernization of the 1950s that up until this year at least, it seemed every classroom just had to have.

Compounding this embarrassment for all of us in education is that IWBs are not cheap products either. A few years ago, schools were handing over as much as $9000 a pop to purchase the projector, the interactive board and the speakers and have them all installed. They then quickly realized that the long throw projectors these boards came with (which in the age of ultra-short throw wide screen projectors now seem positively pre-historic) were no match for daylight of any sort, so they spent more thousands of dollars getting blinds put in every room. It wasn’t long before schools started to see the globes of these projectors failing, and spending more money to replace them. Schools are dusty places, and I doubt any of the smooth whiteboard salesmen that made a fortune off our schools happened to mention that dust is the number one enemy of projectors. They sold us replacement globes at greatly inflated prices. They almost gleefully removed our once new projectors as circuit boards in them failed due to dust penetration and had to be repaired for several hundreds of dollars at a time.

One school I went to was being charged $350 for replacement globes by the company that had installed their whiteboards. I caught the manager of the company on one of his visits to the school and challenged him as to why he was charging the school so much for these globes when I could get them in for half the price. He told me that only the cheaper generic globes sold for that price and they weren’t as good. I said to him that’s simply not true, and put to him that he was charging the school unfairly and in the process making a more than healthy profit for himself. He left angry, but contacted the school the next day to offer them the globes at half the price ‘as a gesture of good will’. It was later that I realized that his company had installed almost every protector in the school in a shoddy way, often not even meeting basic safety standards. Not only that, most of the screens were installed far too high for small children, and so they were standing on boxes or platforms just to reach the stupid things.

In short, that school, like so many others, was ripped off as part of the charge by all of the schools in that neighbourhood (and just about every other) to get IWBs into every classroom.

These companies are still going around and are still making money off people in schools that don’t know any better. I had another IWB salesmen try and sell me a tablet device that would control my computer and IWB! What an amazing invention! I could go anywhere in the classroom and be writing on my IWB through this tablet. And it was only $1500! His face went pale white when I pulled out my iPad and showed him one of about 20 apps that did exactly the same thing….for free.

This outrageous industry continues to this day, but in slightly different forms. Epson are very proud of their new interactive projector. No need for the whiteboard component of an IWB now. It’s cheaper…but its still the same thing.

We now have also have interactive LCD screens. They even flip over and turn into interactive tables. Fantastic. And stupidly expensive.

So if you want to spend over $6000 on an interactive LCD screen/table to sit at the front of your room, do me the favour of at least taking the time to calculate how many tablet devices you could put into the hands of your students for the same price.

Or perhaps, like my school, choose to go for the best of both worlds. A consumer 55” LCD screen is plenty big enough. The last one we purchased was $895 (ex GST). Spend the rest of the $5000+ on a bank of tablets for your class. The last batch of iPad 2s I purchased for school were about $360 (ex GST). By my calculations you could get about 14 tablets for the money you have left over.

So that’s tablets in the hands of more than half the students in your class, plus a screen big enough for them all to see, but small enough to be mobile, on a trolley that enables it to move anywhere in your classroom, for the same price as a hulking big screen stuck to the font of your room. (The screen has to be able to move doesn’t it? Surely the forms your classroom take move and change depending on the activities you are facilitating for the students? Surely there’s no reason to have a ‘front of the room’ any longer?)

You can tell I’m a little angry about all of this. And that’s for two reasons.

One: schools without a lot of money have been fleeced of the little they have by IWB salesmen who in many cases ripped them off and continue to do so. These schools did so believing they were doing something that was necessary to bring their classrooms into the 21st century.

That brings me to the second reason I’m angry: that we as schools remain so depressingly fixed to past models of what a classroom looks like that we can’t see clearly enough to create what a modern classroom should look like. We spend money on stupid products that are modernisations of the past rather than those that support the truly innovate practices of the future.

It is 2012 and we are still talking about the 21st century like its sometime in the future. We still preach from the front of the room. We still photocopy worksheets. We still use text books. We still give kids of all different interests, talents, abilities and learning strengths the exact same activity at the exact same time. We still get kids doing work that only their teacher will ever see.

This is no longer ok. Its fast becoming an absolute disgrace. And the penalty for all this is simple: irrelevancy.  Universities are already the first to be finding themselves irrelevant. High Schools will be next.

So let me ask you this: how relevant to the lifetime success of your students is the education your school is giving them?

And how much have your classroom learning spaces changed since the 70s?