There’s another one of those ‘interactive whiteboards are evil because all they do is encourage slavish kowtowing to technology and blind the users to any other methods, tools or approaches’ arguments going on in the ELT world. It started in the forums on the Cardiff Online Site and has since spilled over into Twitter with a few contributors keeping the debate alive.
I said pretty much all I wanted to say about IWBs in an article entitled ‘Interactive, Quite Bored’ over three years ago, the major points of which I will restate here:
- They’re a waste of money unless you have the money to waste
I heard a lot of protests to this argument, mostly along the lines of ‘prices are coming down and soon we’ll all have one’. Yet, a few years later, it is still only the elite of teaching centres that do actually have them. Prices have come down, of course, but not significantly – and in most schools which balk at replacing CD players, they are still only a dream. In a profession where teachers get little CPD, I would still rather see spare cash spent on people than on machines. And, of course, in countries where the electricity supply is unreliable, or where kids often don’t get three square meals a day, I’d rather the money was spent on remedying those situations.
- They *can* lead to a more teacher-centred, heads-up, lock step approach.
I stand by this, because I’ve seen it happen a lot. Mostly this has been due to a lack of training for teachers, or a paucity of decent materials with which to work. However, I think it’s worth noting that this is not the fault of the IWB… Indeed, where training has been given (the UK state system, as one example), I’ve been lucky enough to observe some very creative, and participatory, use of IWBs. Clearly, then, it is possible to use them in other ways to the ways we often see them being used – and that comes down to training and experience. And that argument holds true for coursebooks and any of our other tools.
- ELT materials for IWBs are rubbish
They were over three years ago, and they still are. I don’t need a workbook in IWB format. Being able to interact with listening material on a big board is about exciting as watching paint dry. And about as useful, too. I have, however (as noted in my original article) seen fantastic resources for maths, science and other subjects. Perhaps IWBs aren’t suited to ELT, or perhaps we just haven’t been very good at exploiting them and designing for them yet.
- There’s not much interaction
Studies carried out by the British Council in that time concluded that learners seldom got a chance to ‘interact’ with the tool, and I would imagine that’s the case still. If you want plenty of interaction you can invest in voting eggs, but how much fun can they be on a long term basis?
- Those pens make my skin crawl
Like polystyrene, the sound of those pens scratching and banging on a hard surface really test my concentration and comfort levels. Admittedly, that may just be me, but when using one I generally find myself typing on the keyboard (the real one, not the useless ‘virtual’ one.
I do wonder, though, how many of the detractors have actually used one for longer than five minutes, and in an actual teaching or training context… I’ve had IWBs on various teacher training courses over the past three years and have, on occasion, used them. But I still can’t shake the feeling that you really can do most of what an IWB offers with a data projector and some imagination (and a decent Net connection). The pleasure of the little ‘reveal’ tools and highlighting gadgets, etc., is short-lived. It often takes longer to set these things up than it does to use them (as with things like voting eggs).
Indeed, inventive teachers such as Tim Rylands get fantastic results with a copy of an old computer game and a date projector – not an IWB in sight. But that’s not to say that he couldn’t incorporate the IWB in the amazing work he’s doing. He incorporates graphic design, music composition, desktop publishing and a myriad of tools. And perhaps that’s the point – having a wide repertoire and knowing what tool, method and approach works best in each context. Surely that’s blindingly obvious.
But at least I have used them, more than a few times, and for more than thirty seconds. If you’re a ‘pedagogical detractor’, how much time have you spent using them? Do you base your criticisms on your own practice, or on examples of bad practice that you cling to to support your arguments? Or have you only truly seen examples of bad practice and moronic devotion? I think we should be told.
I don’t have much truck with people who write them off piecemeal as the devil’s work. Slavish devotion to any tool, or indeed any method, will make for an unbalanced approach to teaching and learning. I’ve yet to see an IWB devotee spend their entire class standing at the front using the board – good teachers tend to choose from a wide repertoire of tools, approaches, methods and activities – so why should the IWB change their habits? Where I have seen them used creatively, it has usually been as a tool for calling up net-based resources and using them as a basis for a class. Whether that merits the investment is dubious at best.
But most detractors will try to convince you that teachers who use IWBs have become beholden to the technology, blinded by the ‘point and click’, shrouded in the ‘wow factor’. To me this suggests a complete lack of faith in teachers, as if we’re saying that our trained, experienced professional workforce are blinded by the lights of the one-armed bandit of education. Surely we must have more faith in the people we work with – if the ‘wow’ factor is so demonstrably short-lived in learners, why do we struggle to conclude that the same might happen in teachers?
An IWB will not perforce make a stimulating teacher less or more stimulating. It will also not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear of a teacher. But then neither will an ‘approach’ or ‘method’. If you’re dull as ditchwater and your learners are dull as ditchwater, then ‘teacher and learner as sole resource’ isn’t going to get you very far. Or is that an impossible scenario? Is it the case that poor teachers can be easily misled and blinded by science, but we can’t envisage the case that teachers and learners might actually (on occasions) be a little bit dull? Why does technology rile some people so much? Where does their fear or disdain come from?
What I think is the following:
- An IWB is another tool in the arsenal for teachers. Whilst some would have us throw out every tool available to teachers (audio, video, PowerPoint, photocopies, computers, coursebooks, etc.) I say it would be better to help teachers towards an understanding of the potential and the pitfalls of each tool or resource and let them decide which would be useful in each context and with each group of learners. Teachers can be clever, thinking people – let them decide what they need.
- Eschewing technology – or suggesting that teachers are too uncritical of technology – suggests a holier than thou attitude which does nobody any good. Why do we assume that teachers can be critical of everything apart from technology? Are teachers with technology like the Gollum with ‘the precious’? So blinded by the buttons that we lose all reason? No, frankly I don’t think so.
- Let’s not feel threatened by the popularity of technology – it’s the modern world, you know! The days of slavish devotion to other media, methods or tools may be over and we too have to move on a little. Of course, some things from the past still have merit and we should take them with us, but instead of thrusting forward with them alone, let’s try to integrate them into the 21st century with the good things of the current age, because there are some. In fact there are many – and the teachers I know do not adopt each new tool blindly, but rather they experiment with them, test them, probe them and think about how they might enhance their teaching. Then they try them out, reflect, rethink and move forward. These teachers understand the concept of communities of practice and leverage the good of technology to push the envelope of their teaching. They are not hapless slaves of flashing LEDs – let’s give them a break!
- Let’s not assume that we know better than younger, less experienced teachers all the time. We grew up in an age when the person standing at the front of the class was all-powerful, whereas younger people have easy access to a range of experts online and have learnt how to weigh all the options and opinions to their advantage. We are one voice amongst many and we will need to prove our worth in any argument – basing it on our own practical experience (in the cae of IWBs) would be one good place to start…