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?

16 thoughts on “The Great Interactive Whiteboard Swindle…a 70s themed post!

  1. Hey Richie.

    I totally share your frustration in the amount of money schools spend on IWBs or WMDs as you so nicely put it.

    I have heard school leaders “bragging” the WMDs on school tours to potential “clients” coming through the school front doors. It seems to be a popular selling point to potential students. I’ve heard the oohs and ahhs from parents all too often.

    If only further research was done into the money spent on these IWBs and alternatives to using this money to enhance student learning over a gimmicky IWB. I personally ended up buying 11 iDevices through generous contacts over time and researched online as to how to use them as tools to enhance learning and support the class program only to be “told off” as I wasn’t being fair to other staff members in the school because they didn’t have the tools my students had (despite the fact that the other teachers could use them when they chose [timetable] and did).

    It is a breath of fresh air reading posts like this. Great to see people leading the way in education as opposed to purchasing WMDs for school classrooms because “Joe Bloggs'” school down the road has them so we must do the same for our school as well. Wrong!

  2. I too share your frustration. We have IWBs in most classrooms and while I sometimes appreciate being able to use them as a projector or for amplifying sound to share my own or student’s work, this could be done with much more basic technology.
    The interactive feature has never been useful to me. Even as an engaging gimmick it was a failure in my classroom because, as you say, all attention had to be focussed at the front of the room with just ONE person having fun dragging things around on the screen.
    A few years down the track and hardly any of the IWBs are working. Those that do cast an eerie yellow glow on everything you want to show.
    Just another example that embracing technology isn’t about the hardware!

  3. Great post Richie.
    I sure need to shake a few things up to maintain my relevance as a teacher, don’t I? I need to ‘flip’ the where, the when, the who of the learning. I don’t see the IWB of too much help in this.
    The learning already looks good in my room without the IWB. It looks messy and social. It happens out on the verandah – quietest place for filming. It smells like an earthworm farm. It also happens in the evening when our families are making blog comments together on the class blog.
    Somewhere did I go wrong, that someone didn’t see the rich IWB-less learning going on? How can I help my school leaders make better pedagogy-based decisions with their money? Do they want to? The IWB-filled rooms of my school make it look like it’s on the right path. Isn’t that enough? And a minor detail that it’s a different path from the one my young learners travel.

  4. Well said Richie. How do we get more classrooms & schools that have that synergy between the space and the pedagogy – this is a question I constantly grapple with. How do we support teachers to step away from what they have always known and explore the unknown?
    When do we reach the tipping point – where we have more teachers who have an understanding of modern classrooms than those who don’t?
    I wish I knew the answers – I just know that I will never give up.

  5. Hey Rich,

    I really enjoyed the post. And being a staff member of a school that I believe is innovative or at least, has tried to be so over the past six years, IWBs have been the ‘stayer’ over that time. I am not in charge of the ICT budget in our school but I am aware of the amount of money spent on these things. Particularly for repairs, new globes and blinds for a selection of classrooms.
    I actually feel a little unsure as to the answer at the moment. I always attempt to use the IWB as little as possible and leave it to the students where appropriate. But as you stated, it can only ever be one student at a time.
    We just purchased some more iPads and we now have enough for a class set (to be shared across 7 grades so get in quick!). I’d like to hear from others as to the best way to tether these to an IWB or something, so we could be more collaborative and share instant learning.

    Thanks for the writing. It really struck a chord with me as an educator.

    Rick K-T

  6. BYOD (handhelds and phones) are the answer I would look like. The other containment on learning and creativity is the classroom itself. It is a paradigm whose time has past. We need to abandon it right now.

  7. An interesting and thought provoking post which echoes the situation I suggest in many “developing” countries including my own – the UK.

    All too often I have seen schools where the IWB is simply a projection screen and the revolution in education promised at the time did not transpire because they were and are not fit for purpose. However also, part of the issue was the reluctance of teachers to embrace them or to be adequately trained and upskilled, and I have similar concerns over mobile technology.

    Simply providing a set of tablets for a class will not tartansform the learning of the students, it will not necessarily instantly engage them or motivate them more. Teachers need to adapt teaching styles in order to make effective use of this technology and to change teaching methodologies.

    Then we will see a transformation and be able to set our learned free to soar and develop.

  8. Hi,

    Thanks for the interesting points raised in the post, I was forced to think about my own practice as an ICT-competent 2nd year grad.

    I agree with the majority of what you have said – schools being ripped off, knee-jerk spending for ’21st Century learning’ etc.

    I often shift my classroom setting to create differentiated learning groups of between 4-6 students (sometimes more). I engage with the Open Space outside my classroom on a daily basis, and I share an open wall between my grade 3/4 classroom and the one next door. My students learn with each other and from each other. 

    However, my practice is still greatly supported and enhanced by the presence of my IWB. I believe that there is still a place for explicit teaching and reflection, and in my classroom it is the technologically versatile IWB that caters for this. Yes, it is attached to the wall. Yes, sometimes my students have to look at me as the main focus in their learning. This time is centered around a central meeting place, in our case, the IWB. Therefore, I don’t think that the concept is entirely doomed. 

    I think as we see the increase in teachers who are confident to integrate this technology effectively we will see much more return on our investment. Understandably so, the benefit of hindsight is always more pronounced when it comes to the rapid-paced technology advancement we are seeing each day.

    Oh and yes, those bulbs are bloody expensive.

  9. Hi Teddy, thanks for your comments. I agree that there is absolutely a place for explicit teaching, and that IWBs are very useful. I used them myself as a teacher everyday. I also agree that hindsight is a wonderful thing. My point is, as an administrator buying equipment for a school, the question should always be asked: ‘does the benefit justify the cost?’

    Now, perhaps 5 years ago, for junior Primary/Elementary school classrooms you could have mounted an argument for the anser to that question being ‘yes’. Beyond that I don’t think there was ever a case for IWBs. We have entire secondary schools fitted out with these things. What for? A projector would have cost $2000 at most. What are secondary school teachers doing with an IWB that they couldn’t do with a projector that justifies the school spending an extra $6 – $7000 per room?

    And more frighteningly the industry continues to be a huge money spinner. Imagine your school leadership said: “We’ll give you a choice. You can have a 60″ LCD screen on a trolley, a large mobile whiteboard and $7000 to spend on ICT gear for your students. OR we’ll put in an IWB, blinds and pay for replacement globes for the next 5 years.”

    Which would you choose?

  10. Hi Richie,
    We are also planning to move away from interactive whiteboards as the ones we have slowly die – I agree with your point of view. I’m interested in your idea of having an LCD screen on a trolley, enabling it to be mobile – changing the focus away from the front of the room.

    I have a few questions as to how you achieved this. What kind of trolley do you use? Is it stable? Can the display be seen by the whole class if necessary, as well as small groups?

    Also – what are the interactive LCD screens you mention, that flip over and turn into interactive tables? Sound interesting.

    I’d like to head in this direction, but I’m sure these are questions that will be asked by others at my school.

  11. Hi Linda,

    There are plenty of brands of trolleys for LCD screens on the market, several of them specifically designed for education. We had some of ours designed and built specifically for our needs, with a lockable compartment at the back of where the TV sits to house a Mac Mini. We started with 42″ TVs, and the teachers felt these were a bit small. We now purchase TVs that are between 55″ and 60″ and they’ve been really good for both whole class and small group teaching (this of course depends on how far you are sitting students away from the screen and how you position your tables in your room).
    As for interactive LCD screens that flip into tables, a quick Google search will answer all you need to know. I’ve never used them but as with the IWBs, I think you really need to challenge yourself to justify their cost before you head down the road of considering purchasing one.

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  14. hello, I was searching through google and i found this, it is a very eye opening post and it made me wonder about my school. Then i saw Brad Ovenell-Carter’s comment and thought about how much i can relate to that, because at my school it hasn’t been refurbished since 1938! when it was built! the classrooms are very square with huge arched roofs and stone/wooden floors, and may i add, heating in the ceiling for god’s sake! they have huge chalkboards at the front of the classrooms and desks facing it with very old cupboards along the sides of the class room with a computer and a printer (both that i doubt work since they’re probably from late 80’s) in the front corner near the teachers desk. it isn’t quite what you’d call a modern learning environment…

  15. oh, i almost forgot. we do have a couple of huge tv’s, on trolleys that we play tapes on sometimes when we’ve finished a level of work or something. doesn’t quite cut close to those LCD touch screen things at yours though, ha ha.

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