Oct 12 2006

Cutting Edge: Interactive Learning Made Easy

Robert Scheier

Both teachers and students give whiteboards two thumbs up

SHORT ON TIME? HAVING TROUBLE KEEPING YOUR STUDENTS’ ATTENTION? TIRED OF WRITING AND rewriting the same lesson on a chalkboard for different classes? If so, an interactive whiteboard may be the answer. While some teachers and administrators fear that interactive whiteboards are too hard to use, others use them to save and share notes, excite their students and quiz special education students who often draw their ideas better than they write them.

Traditionally, the term “interactive whiteboards” has referred to products that allow users to put images from their PC desktops on displays. They are then able to interact with the displays using touch screens or special pens, saving the information back to the PCs. By contrast, the term “electronic whiteboards” refers to products used only to save and store in digital format notes written on the board.

Click HereToday’s interactive whiteboards typically offer both types of functionality and are easier to use, less expensive and more flexible than their predecessors. The mimio Xi, for example, is a portable and low cost device that attaches to any standard 4 foot by 8 foot whiteboard. About the same size as a ruler, the Xi captures infrared and ultrasound signals from special markers and erasers. When used with a data projector, the mimio Xi can also be used to interact with and control applications projected on any flat surface.

Educators find that whiteboards excite students with their interactive nature, while minimizing time teachers must spend manually writing, rewriting and erasing material on traditional chalkboards. And important lessons no longer disappear into chalk dust at the end of the day. Interactive whiteboards allow teachers to quickly and easily save lessons in digital format. Students can then access the coursework over the Web.

Making Learning Fun

It’s impossible to teach effectively if you don’t have your students’ attention— and getting students excited about learning is one of the primary benefits of whiteboards.

“I have relatively young students,” says Pat Norris, a fourth-grade teacher at Medlock Bridge Elementary School in Alpharetta, Ga. “If I want them to review something like math facts, or grammar facts, there are interactive Web sites I can go through that they can manipulate from the board. If they hit ‘three times five’ and then hit ‘15’ they get an immediate, positive result.”

Mike Ryan, a technology trainer with the Lake County, Fla. schools, also lauds interactive whiteboards for the excitement they generate with student. When he plays back his stroke-by-stroke drawing of an illustration on his whiteboard, his class sees “this magical, invisible hand doing the drawing. It grabs their attention,” Ryan says.

Barry Rose, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at the Blalack Middle School in Carrollton, Texas, uses his whiteboard to trains his students to do presentations. “They’d say, ‘Way cool, dude. Can we practice using it?’” They then got busy preparing the actual presentations so they could move on to presenting them using the whiteboard.

Saving Time

“The ability to create and save material so it can be projected on the screen for the next class … is a marvelous, marvelous tool for someone who teaches multiple sessions,” Ryan says. It prevents you from having to repeatedly write out the same lesson for different classes. For example, rather than recreate a series of drawings that illustrate the difference between a floppy drive and a hard drive, he can simply play back the animation of his earlier drawing and focus on the teaching.

Under Texas law, special education students must receive copies of the notes from classes “because their note-taking skills are pretty poor,” Rose says. Using his interactive whiteboard, Rose simply hits the “print” function and hands out the notes immediately. Previously, at the end of each class, he had to find the student who took the best notes and copy the notes for the other students—who usually didn’t get them until the next day. “This has cut down on my work quite a bit,” Rose says.

Rose’s other students also see the value of the interactive whiteboard. Now, when Rose writes information on the chalkboard, some of his seventh-graders say, “Mr. Rose, why don’t you do it on the whiteboard so we can get a copy of it off the Web later?” They have very quickly grasped how much the whiteboard has improved their lives. Rose can even make notes available to students who miss his classes. After using the interactive whiteboard to save notes from a particular class, “I can add additional notes, and then save it as a Web document” accessible by students who are absent that day, Rose says.

Because he saves and archives his lessons digitally, he can use and update them for future lessons. For example, if he likes a particular set of notes, he can use them the following year instead of creating new notes. He can also post the old notes on the Web for students who want to preview the material before learning it in class.

Other Uses

The whiteboard also helps Rose test some of his special needs students who lack the fine-motor control needed to control a computer keyboard. He remembers one special education student who hated to write, but loved to draw. On the mimio Xi, the student was able to draw the process of mitosis, capture the drawing, and thus give Rose proof positive the student knew what he was talking about. “I could use his drawing to judge his understanding of the concept and to give him a grade,” says Rose.

David Godby, the superintendent of schools in Logan County, W.Va., uses his interactive whiteboard during meetings to discuss which teachers to hire or to lay off, an often delicate process. With the whiteboard, he can easily demonstrate the rankings of teaching candidates according to the state’s seven criteria for hiring teachers, which include certification, experience, seniority and special training. “You can enter, change and print out one set of data, then go back and totally redo” the comparison, Godby says. “You lay out on the board the comparisons, for all to see. Then you merely calculate which person has the most qualifications in the most areas, and that’s your person.”

The Webster TS allows Norris to call up a Web site on her computer, display it on the whiteboard, and easily track what students are doing on the site while she’s helping other students. “I can even make a suggestion from acoss the room directing them where to look,” she adds. She also uses her whiteboard to introduce students to new applications before they actually use them in one of the school’s computer labs.

While some education professionals claim interactive or electronic whiteboards are too hard to use, several teachers strongly disagree. “My geography teacher isn’t a technology fiend like I am,” Rose says, “and she was able to pick this up and start using it right away. It’s truly plug and play.” Before use, the screen must be “calibrated” by touching specific points with a stylus. “You only have to touch the four corners, and even my fourth graders are perfectly capable of doing that,” Norris says.

The Future

Mike Dunn, CEO of whiteboard vendor PolyVision, predicts that whiteboards will become larger because “people will want to be able to project multiple images.” Several customers say their wish lists include voice recognition that will allow them to perform routine functions without having to touch their screens.

Some people may argue that interactive whiteboards are a fad whose attraction will soon fade. But Norris, who uses her whiteboard eight to ten hours a week, says the attraction “doesn’t wear off. My students absolutely love it.” Rose says students who were doing presentations using a whiteboard actually did better work. “They were all excited about it, because it was fun. And fun increases learning 100 percent,” he explains.

Interactive Whiteboards Help Teachers

1 Makes learning more exciting for students.

2 Reduces administrative work, such as writing and rewriting the same lesson, by saving class notes for re-use.

3 Makes it easier to copy notes for special needs students, or to post notes on the Web for absent students.

4 Offers another way to work with special needs students who lack the fine-motor control needed for computer keyboards.