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Exploring the impact of interactive whiteboards on learning: Lessons from the UK

19 November 2010 | Margaret Allen, European Education Strategy for Interactive Learning Technology Provider, Promethean

Abstract. Interactive whiteboards are being adopted in classrooms around the world. They have generally been well received, with many teachers claiming they could no longer teach without one. Others are naturally more sceptical. The article examines the evidence regarding the impact of interactive whiteboards, focusing on experience in the UK, which was one of the early adopters of the technology. A practical example from a primary setting is used to illustrate how interactive software can be used to support the delivery of teaching objectives. A number of benefits are identified. These include impact on presentation, on teaching practice, on the learning environment and on learning itself. Ultimately, it is in the latter area that the real potential of interactive whiteboards to transform education is felt to lie. Notwithstanding this, there are clearly a number of factors which affect the degree to which benefits are realised. These include practical issues, such as frequency of use and access, the teacher’s attitude and skills and the process of change management when the technology is first introduced. To ensure maximum benefit, implementation therefore needs to be well thought-out and accompanied by discussion of pedagogy to ensure that the technology is effectively embedded in the learning environment.

Keywords: IWB, Great Britain, effective learning, teaching experience.

The interactive whiteboard (IWB) is fast becoming a global phenomenon, appearing in learning environments for all ages on all continents. Indeed in 2010, over a million more interactive whiteboards are forecast to be installed (Futuresource Consulting, 2009). The adoption of the IWB has been supported by governments around the world based on research pilots which have pointed towards the transformative impact of interactive whiteboards on teaching and learning. However, with austerity measures now being required across Europe, it is inevitable that the value of this investment will come under increasing scrutiny.
The UK was one of the earliest adopters of the IWB and, as such, countries are increasingly looking at its experience to assess the impact that the technology has had to date.  72% of all UK learning spaces are now equipped with IWBs (Futuresource Consulting, 2009), with take-up accelerated as a result of the Government’s Interactive Whiteboard Expansion initiative (2004/5) when £50 million funding was allocated following a series of successful test bed cases around the country. IWBs have therefore been in situ for a number of years, and research findings are gradually emerging which paint a picture of their impact.
According to Becta (1), 95% of teachers believe the use of technology is raising standards in schools and colleges (Becta, 2009), with IWBs in particular offering a valuable way of introducing ICT into the classroom.
The design and interface of the IWB is reminiscent of a traditional board, making interactive use of ICT more accessible, even for the less technology-savvy of teachers (University of London, 2002).
As a presentation tool, it offers a powerful, clear display; easy integration of multimedia content and regulated access to the internet (DCFS and BECTA, 2007). As such, it enables teachers to demonstrate a wide range of concepts, while removing many of the time-consuming elements of writing on a traditional board. For instance, diagrams can be easily drawn from the internet and annotated in real-time, increasing the pace of delivery and allowing more time for quality teaching. In addition, the ability to save, record and print flipchart files saves time, supports revision, and promotes the sharing of resources among students and teachers (Becta, 2004).
More important, however, is the transformational effect IWBs have had on learning. They appeal to different learning styles, and through the process of participation, they promote high levels of interaction, support links between learning episodes, and encourage individuals to take ownership of their learning (Cambridgeshire ICT Services, 2008).
Indeed, teachers often report evidence of change, such as students producing higher quality work, becoming more independent learners, and wanting to use the resources in their own time (Prior, 2010).
Yet, it is also clear from the research that to fully realise the benefits of IWBs, training and promotion of effective pedagogy around the IWB must accompany the introduction of the technology (University of Stockholm, 2006; Becta, 2004).
Schools and teachers still differ vastly in their attitude and approach to implementing technology. Those who are more enthusiastic about the IWB tend to embrace its use and want to explore the opportunities that it brings to the classroom. It is therefore important that schools and teachers are aware of the IWB training available, both face-to-face and online. In addition, regular access to IWBs is essential as it enables teachers to practise their skills and become confident users of the technology. Similarly, providing access to software outside the classroom makes it far easier for teachers to prepare lesson content and explore its versatility (University of Stockholm, 2006).
Furthermore, as IWB use continues to evolve, the technology is increasingly being seen as a hub to which you can attach additional solutions. A technology that is proving particularly popular is Learner Response Systems, which allows individual students to participate through handheld devices and provides teachers with instant insight into their understanding. There is also a growing interest in Visual Presenters, which enable teachers to capture, display and annotate still and moving images.

A practical example in the primary context
To illustrate the potential of the interactive whiteboard in a primary context, I will discuss an example based around making Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream more accessible to younger children. This is a lesson I have delivered regularly in training schools on making best use of interactive whiteboards.
With a relatively young audience it needs to be approached with obvious learning objectives clearly defined. This is particularly pertinent today when children’s attention span has been defined by their natural gravitation towards fast moving technology and multimedia. 
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about relationships and people: a superb mix of comedy and drama based around three worlds of lovers, fairies and mechanicals. Using different facets of the interactive software, learners can be encouraged to think about characters, explore language and discuss the impact of settings and context. A range of devices within the software can be deployed to support this, and once learners are engrossed in Shakespeare’s plot, this can be used as a springboard for further creativity, leading the class to develop their own characters and scripts, subsequently recording and playing back this new story, again using tools within the interactive whiteboard and accompanying software. The way this learning unfolds is described below.
It is important to use images which naturally lend themselves to discussion of character and personality. For example, the interactive whiteboard could be used as an introductory «big book», used to present images relating to certain aspects of the play – such as the fairies.

A flipchart is then composed out of layers of images including: 

* A background
* Characters
* Text 
* Handwritten annotations

This page offers the teacher the chance to pull in characters.  These characters may be stored just off the edge of the page or within the library of resources. It may well be appropriate to have a clean page for each character. Using the pen allows the teacher to transfer comfortably skills from using a conventional whiteboard to engaging with basic annotation on an interactive whiteboard.
The fact that characters can be resized means that even within this page, whichever character is being discussed it can become more prominent by use of resizing.  Dragging «handles» is hopefully a trait that has been used within other software platforms.

Another useful device is to have speech bubbles «available» to drag in as receptacles for pupils’ suggested dialogue; this type of resource or tool can easily be prepared in advance thereby not interrupting the flow of the lesson.
Here aspect/size ratio is clearly identified, with two «smaller» characters in the background, offering discussion around character and plot. 

The use of text within a page is an obvious progression from using handwritten words.  Within this page the text can be pulled in from the edge or can already be in place.  Highlighting words that are significant using the highlighter pen is obvious, but an alternative would be the use of the fill bucket which allows words to be individually coloured.


So far we have concentrated on text and images, but there are features which allow for much more interactivity. There is a danger if pages are merely seen as large on-screen versions of a book then the IWB’s true power gets misconstrued.
The use of a circle in the middle of a page is a very versatile and effective way of generating quality discussion, debate and information gathering.



This simple drag and drop activity means that comparison of personalities could be made by, for example, dragging in Helena and Titania.
The focus is on the middle of the circle and the teacher is able to drag and drop words or more pictures in.
Resources within the flipchart pages can be enhanced through the use of hyperlinks to other resources such as:

* Another document or file
* A website
* A sound
* Another page in the flipchart

In this example, the character, Bottom, is about to receive his ass’s head.

It would be very easy to replicate this page, click on Bottom and the duplicated page has him now complete with ass’s head. This type of seamless integration of hyperlinks offers an element of pace to a lesson. Another use of the hyperlink facility enables teachers to activate page notes on each page by clicking on the icon. 
In this example, although there is some background information about the page within the page’s notes, there is also a suggestion for use. 

Changing the background would just be a case of replacing an image.
If Oberon and Puck were moved to another setting how would this affect their conversation?

If the play were set somewhere else, how could this affect the way the three groups operate and interact with each other?
Shakespeare has set the play in Greece but, by introducing the «mechanicals», he grounds it in England.  The pages can be printed so that the pupils can use them as a stimulus for writing.
Using this page the children could look at writing a scene in a particular genre for the characters shown. 

Sound could so easily then be included.  The children record their voices as the different characters and these sound files, stored on the hard drive of the host computer, could be linked to each of the images.
To summarise, I have tried to consider the most effective use of an IWB to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom by adding pace, interest and interactivity. These include:

* Children need to recognise how a background forms the basis of a story. Adding characters and then changing the background offer excellent discussion opportunities.  Oberon and Puck move from the forest to downtown Portsmouth at the click of a button.  How will their conversation now be affected?

* The camera snapshot tool, available in most IWB software, allows images of any shape to be added to a page.  Therefore the above image could easily be broken into several pictures as could any photo or image to which the school has access.  To be able to “storyboard” the story in this way offers pupils a very sound writing platform.

* Having a page of text clearly displayed on the IWB allows for so much more than just reading.  It becomes possible to annotate over the text, for example with words which reflect the senses, additional adjectives and their antonyms. What makes these words much more inspirational is that they can be moved around the board; they can be moved to a “clean” page, where the picture, having been the stimulus, will not now act as a distraction; the words can be resized according to their significance in their description.

* Being able to record sounds just by clicking a button – voices, musical instruments or sound effects.

* Using a choice of different pen widths and colours to model writing, adding interesting words for further discussion.

* Using the «fill» facility to highlight specific vocabulary by changing the colour of individual words.

* Using the countdown clock to add further engagement.

* Using the blind to expose only parts of the page at a time.

* Using the spotlight to draw attention to a specific word or character.

* Children drawing onto a photo imported from a digital camera.  The photograph can obviously be anything, from a known place or from a trip or place recently visited. 

* Having the IWB continuously available for spontaneous use will clearly encourage some children to explore. Children very quickly understand how to find pictures and even with limited reading skills can often find what they need.  Having a folder which links to a topic or theme that children can access is an easy way of encouraging independence.

* Focus circles – Arrange a number of words and/or pictures around a circle.  Dragging two or more of these into the middle allows for children to create interesting sentences.  This is particularly effective when looking at a specific topic where children’s prior knowledge can be explored.  How are they able to combine various key vocabulary?

* Modelling difficult concepts on the board for children allows them to see how they might approach a problem, or how they may record their findings. Rearranging food on the table and recording the different arrays using the camera tool is a perfect way of teaching about a systematic approach to how many ways can you rearrange three items of food. Children can then use this model in a practical activity to develop their understanding.

Lessons for teachers
IWBs and technology will not guarantee an effective delivery of the curriculum, but has the potential for creating a rich and exciting environment which can accommodate a range of learning styles both for the teacher and the children. Developing an engaging and stimulating environment for young children to grow in confidence and become motivated to find out about their world is crucial in any classroom.  Offering a range of activities that foster independence as well as allowing for adult intervention means that each child’s needs can be catered for.  Today’s children, born into our multimedia world will be the creators of tomorrow.
Teachers need to own the way in which technology can be developed in order that children can engage with its full potential. They should create learning activities which suit the needs of their learners.  IWB software should not be limited by prescriptive functions and but should work in tandem with content providers who have a wealth of materials that need to be digitised if their continuing true value is to be realised.  Formative as well as summative assessment as well as discussion and opinion gathering should be built in as part of the technological experience.  The user of learner response devices can be a tremendous bonus to the IWB, and will further support teaching and learning potential.

Interactive whiteboards are more about communication than technology, a comfortable catalyst for speaking and listening. The power with which they grasp their audience means that attention is both focused and purposeful. Alongside learning objectives, lessons should reflect a learning journey allowing the travellers to make wrong turnings and discover new territories. Stimulating discussion by manipulating text and images exploits the full potential of an IWB, but this exploitation is not at the expense of experienced practice.  Primary teachers are creative and imaginative in their teaching. They are skilled communicators who recognise that children are extraordinary in their limitless potential to accept and engage with new concepts.
A dynamic presentation on an interactive whiteboard can raise opportunities for collective engagement, offering varied and exciting ways in which learning outcomes can be achieved. They can form the basis for effective use of multimedia including websites, video and audio, interactive software and other digital equipment including electronic microscopes, cameras, scanners and digital presenters. Many children today are visual learners, images, pictures; colour and other visual media help these children learn.  They have been born into a multimedia world often reflected by their bedrooms and home life and they have no fear when it comes to accessing technology.
By careful use of the tools within the software the teacher is able to motivate pupils in a much more stimulating way, engaging the children’s attention as well as making it more appealing to teach. If the children learn things in lots of different ways they are much more likely to remember as well as genuinely understand. The most exciting aspect of using an IWB is that it enhances teaching and learning in the classroom.  A collaborative approach, using a variety of different techniques, means that there is an ownership from both teacher and student of the outcome.

The reality is that IWBs have now become an integral part of the fabric of many classrooms and offer teachers a valuable tool offering a number of benefits, both in terms of the practical advantages for teaching and the transformational effect the technology has on learning.
However, like any tool they must be used effectively to achieve their potential. A clearly defined training strategy and continuing dialogue about pedagogy and IWB use will help teachers to reap the rewards of the technology and ensure innovative and effective use in the classroom.

Margaret Allen is a former primary teacher in the UK and now works as head of European Education Strategy for interactive learning technology provider, Promethean.  

(1) Becta (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) was a non-departmental public body of the Department for Children, Schools and Families in the UK prior its demise following the change of Government in the UK in May 2010.

Becta (2004), What the research says about interactive whiteboards, http://partners.becta.org.uk/page_documents/research/wtrs_whiteboards.pdf
Becta (2009), Raising Standards, http://publications.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=41516
Cambridgeshire ICT Services (2008), Action Research Project for the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, http://c9s.e2bn.net/e2bn/leas/c99/schools/c9s/
DCFS e BECTA (2007), Evaluation of London Challenge Schools Whiteboard Expansion Project, study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills.
Futuresource Consulting (2009), Quarter 4, http://www.futuresource-consulting.com/
Prior E. (2010), Wellington Primary School, Test Bed Project Case Study.
University of London (2002), Impact on Primary Teaching, King’s College, University of London.
University of Stockholm (2006), Study commissioned by the City of Stockholm comparing use of ActivBoards and Smartboards, Stockholm.