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)
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)

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.

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.

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