Smartboards: It’s about the technology and it isn’t

I’ve been watching a discussion (partially in jest i believe) between four of my favourite UK people @daveowhite @josiefraser @mweller @hallymk1 about doing a debate at a conference about whether ‘it’s about the technology’. This idea of finding a technological solution for the various crises, real or imagined, in our educational system is one that has been ongoing as long as i’ve been in the business and, really long before. I’ve been in any number of debates where one side says “it’s not about the technology” and the other side says “it is”… and while mulling over the mootness of it all today I turned to thinking about smartboards and why they are loved/derided by people and how they can be a nice tool for looking at this question.

Smartboards: what is the technology?
First ‘smartboard’ is a genericised trademark (and an eponym, thanks @angelynnodom). ‘SMART Technologies’ is a company that makes ‘smartboards’ and there are other competitors that make touch sensitive white boards meant for instructional use. And that’s just what they are, there are many different variations, but essentially you’re taking what is on a computer screen, projecting it to a special white board that is sensitive to being touched by hand and ‘written’ on by special markers. There is often software that comes with it that allows you to save work that you’ve done on the smartboard, bring in saved work, play video etc… the software doesn’t particularly provide functionality that isn’t available elsewhere, but it does provide it in one, integrated package. so. that’s a smartboard

Why people tell other people not to buy them (like i usually do)
cost
The smartboards i’ve been instrumental in buying have cost somewhere in the $1500-$10000 range, depending on the model and whether they include a projector. When you are trying to outfit a school with these you are both setting yourself up for a huge one time cost as well as the ongoing cost of replacing those bloody bulbs that cost 3-5 hundred bucks. That can be a huge investment for alot of learning institutions. You are also going to invest in a fair amount of aculturation. By this I mean to say that ‘training’ people to use a smartboard is not particularly useful, but making them feel comfortable with integrating them into a classroom is necessary… how does it change teaching models, where are you going to be able to scribble if you want more space… things like that. For those people who aren’t currently using a computer in their classroom it also forces that adjustment as well… so it’s a big investment. Then there’s teacher turn over… and the second and third run of ‘buy in’. (of course, you could look at it the other way and suggest that it could be used for recruitment… maybe)

use
Some people love these things and swear by them. There are many other smartboards that simply take up space, trip students or otherwise get in the way of people being able to do things. I’ve heard many teachers talking about them ‘keeping students engaged’ but if you are going to be using a ‘new thing’ to keep students engaged then I think you’re going to find that that isn’t going to keep doing that for long. If you’re a teacher whose teaching style is about engagement, this would fit into the toolchest, if it isn’t, this isn’t going to change that.

It’s not about the technology… it’s about the people

However, it is about the technology
However, there is something about the technology that embodies a certain epistemic principle, or at least a pedagogic one. The software that accompanies the smartboard suggests that sharing and recording your work is acceptable… simply by having that functionality built in… it give permission to share and work together. It also allows for more learner friendly methods of input, it suggests that allowing students to do stuff on the board is valuable… thereby giving permission to do this as well. As these are things that I personally think are good for the educational space, the technology then be seen as contributing to the classroom.

so…
But this is just it. We can look at the methods and methodologies (and epistemic foundation) implicit in the machine and recreate those in our classrooms without the purchasing the brand. A wireless keyboard available in a classroom can work just as well, as can simply having people talk to each other and write down the upshot of their conversation. The thing that makes the smartboard a challenging (if not a bad purchase) is that it suggests that that collaborative spirit, that idea of sharing is ONLY available with a smartboard.

So its about the technology, in the sense that it can embody an (in this case positive) principle and give people implicit permission to perform it, but it is decidedly not about it when that thing that were being given permission to do ‘working together’ is so fundamental to the human condition that it requires 12 years of concentrated schooling to beat it out of us.

13 thoughts on “Smartboards: It’s about the technology and it isn’t

  1. I think “smartboards” have been embraced by many schools because they don’t change the classroom environment. The teacher remains in total control, with the Big White Electronic Board. No distribution of power, and engagement only on the teacher’s terms.

  2. Great post, as I too often wonder how this expensive tool became the rage. As stated in your post, these thing could’ve easily been accomplish with a wireless keyboard, mouse, and/or a tablet computer connected to a projector. However, the rush to put these in schools, in every classroom tells me the difference between someone looking to be cutting edge. Cutting edge is great, but questionable in schools who’s mission is more in line with best practices. For many of these schools, it becomes more about marketing than what works best. I see it as being about people first and meeting those needs first.

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  4. Harold is right of course… I was thinking primarily of those people who’ve described the wonderful things they’ve done in a classroom with a smartboard… and the ones that the vendors talk about in their sales pitch.

    You are quite right, they allow people to control just as they did before… also implicit in the system.

  5. Thank you for this post Dave. I’ve often felt schools overemphasize their use SmartBoards as evidence of their technological prowess. Unfortunately I’ve seen this expensive piece of hardware chain teachers to the front of the room as they lecture from a glorified whiteboard. Give me some open source software and a wireless keyboard / mouse instead.

  6. I usually feel that Smartboards, like ereaders, are a technology that appeals to decison-makers; not, necessarily, to kids. I am invariably shot down by the observation kids love SmartBoards but I feel that so of a nobrainer AND misleading.

    The SMARTBoard is sort of the one piece of technology we let students touch — so of course they “love it”. Students appreciate those areas where we share and get over the ‘keep out’ tendencies of our system.

    One of my major concerns is that the main appeal of SMARTBoards is the bundled professional development provided by the vendor. And, to a some extend the proliferation of pretty ‘curricularly cheap’ tools that suit the medium. Who will remain nameless….

  7. I use smartboards every day for IT training (Staff and Students at University) and it’s extremely useful, not only for being in front of the class rather than behind a desk, but also to allow me to interact more.

    I like the fact you can write on them (a live PC screen) to highlight & emphasise then save the results and send to the attendees to help aid learning.

    I did like Russell Prue’s idea (at the #jiscrscnw09 conference) of ‘flat’ smartboards as an interactive desk, and wonder why there are not more options for hinges that allow an interchangeable screen/desk.

  8. Note: I think a projector, Wii remote and software (or equivalent) would do the same without the need for the ‘brand’ – and then be portable! So I do understand the point.

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