5 questions to ask BEFORE buying IWBs

Interactive Whiteboards played a large role in my professional thinking this week after I received an email from a district level technology leader in a Southeastern state asking a question that caught me a bit off guard:

“Bill, I know you’re not a fan of Interactive Whiteboards, but what questions would you ask or criteria would you set if you were going to buy them?  How do you evaluate IWBs as an investment before spending your monies?”

Good question, isn’t it?  And I’m completely jazzed to hear from a technology leader who is interested in asking questions first and making purchases later!  Willy-nilly spending on silver bullets is literally sinking American schools.

While I have no money to actually spend—remember that I’m just a classroom teacher—here are five questions that I’d beg those with budgets to consider before dropping cabbage on Interactive Whiteboards:

How do IWBs align with your school’s vision for high-quality learning environments?  If there is anything clear about highly successful organizations, it’s that they align every internal decision with a convincing shared vision of the future that they’re trying to create.

For schools, that means imagining the kinds of learning experiences important for student success.  Good schools can tell you what they think the most effective learning experiences actually look like.  They can describe what teachers and students will be doing in the classrooms that they’re trying to create.

Knowing that stories are a powerful tool for persuasion, they may have even crafted a set of short bits detailing progressive classrooms—and they use those bits to guide every professional choice that they make.

If IWBs fit neatly into this vision of “learning in action” in your building, they’re likely to be a worthwhile purchase—and if you haven’t yet developed a clear and convincing vision, any money that you spend is going to be wasted!

Does your school have a strong culture of participation—instead of presentation—in place already?  If I were to write a clear vision of learning in action, it would involve heavy doses of participation on the part of my students.

In fact, the biggest change between the way that we’ve consumed content for generations and the way that our students consume content today is that no one does anything alone anymore!

Our kids engage in ongoing chats with other viewers while watching their favorite television shows.  Our kids join communities around their favorite bands.  Our kids fire up video games and become a part of  digital teams with members from across geographical borders.

To put it simply, our kids are standing waist deep in a culture of participation when they leave school, and yet our schools are often stuck in presentation mode.  We are still delivering information and expecting kids to absorb it without comment.

Sadly, IWBs tend to promote this presentation culture.

Teachers love ‘em because they can easily show videos to an entire class or access what they think are engaging clip art galleries.  Even teachers trying to innovate with IWBs get stuck thinking about presentations, dreaming about the kinds of engaging reports students can make if they just had access to a whiteboard.

While IWBs can play a role in learning—there will always be times when content needs to be delivered—they shouldn’t become the primary tool in your digital toolkit until your teachers are firmly committed to creating interesting opportunities for students to participate in their own learning.

Are you sure that IWBs are seen as engaging by your students?  If there’s anything that I learned from my time with an IWB in my classroom, it’s that kids are far less impressed with them than their teachers are.

While my students were enamored with our IWB for the first month or so, it quickly became old news to them.  In fact, when I opened the board up to student groups as a tool for brainstorming at the beginning of research projects, I had no takers!  “It’s not worth the hassle, Mr. Ferriter,” one group leader said.  “We’ll work here.”

Crazy, isn’t it? I mean, if you listen to the rhetoric that teachers spin about IWBs, you’d think they were revolutionary tools that captivate learners.

That disconnect shouldn’t be surprising, though.  Teachers love IWBs because they make traditional practices—lecturing, presenting, sharing websites—easier.  That is pretty revolutionary.  But if you’re a kid, lecturing, presenting and sharing websites has never been all that interesting to begin with!

The lesson to learn if you’ve got a pile of cash you’re looking to blow on technology:  Ask your students what kinds of things they’d like to do in their classrooms.  Find out what kinds of learning experiences they believe are the most engaging.

If IWBs can support the development of the learning experiences that your students describe, pull the trigger on your purchase.  If not, don’t bother.

Have you thought through a plan to evaluate the impact that IWBs have on student achievement?  I’ve been wrestling with supporters of IWBs for a while now (see here, here, and here) and in every conversation I ask the same seemingly simple question:

How do you evaluate the impact that IWBs are having on student engagement and/or achievement in your classrooms?  Have you conducted any pre/post surveys of your students?  Did you develop any performance indicators and then analyze results after your implementation?

Seems like a reasonable thing to expect, don’t you think?  After all, IWBs—especially when rolled out across an entire school—are probably the single most expensive technology purchase that you’ll ever make.  Costing anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per classroom, they’d better be making a huge difference on student learning!

Sadly, no one has ever been able to answer my question!  Sometimes, I’ll get responses like this:

  • My teachers love them.
  • My teachers say their students love them.
  • If my teachers say they need them, I’m going to buy them.
  • The IWB company tells me that they’ve done a ton of research, and IWBs work.

If this is your plan for evaluating the impact that IWBs have on student achievement in your building, you’re walking towards disaster.

Because the investment you’re planning to make is going to consume a significant amount of your school and/or district’s technology budget, you’d better have a clear plan in place for measuring the “value added” by IWBs before you buy anything!

How will the IWB company that you are working with support your long-term technology needs?  Let’s face it:  IWBs are like any other computer hardware purchase that you’ve ever made in your life.  Sooner or later, they’re going to be outdated clunkers—kind of like the 300 laser-disc players your district has sitting in storage somewhere!

That’s important for you to consider before making wholesale investments in IWBs.

Do you really want to put yourself in the position where you’re going to need to do “refreshes” every 5-7 years, replacing antiquated IWBs with newer models?  Can you count on having a never-ending funding stream to even make replacing your oldest IWBs possible?

How are you going to explain the new technology in some classrooms and/or buildings and the old technology in other classrooms and/or buildings to parents, principals and teachers?  Are you going to inadvertently create the appearance of “haves and have nots” if your budget doesn’t keep pace with your replacement plans?

Because these questions are so hard to answer, I almost always suggest that districts avoid spending their technology budgets on expensive hardware products.  Spending your money on Web-based services—things like Voicethread and Polleverywhere—makes more sense to me because those kinds of tools are always being improved.

If you’re going to buy IWBs, though, you’ve got to ask some tough questions of your providers before spending your cash.  Here’s a few to get your conversation started:

  • What guarantees has the IWB company you’re working with made about keeping their hardware current?
  • Are they willing to lease hardware to you so that you don’t get stuck with worthless tools in no time?
  • Do they have a track record of making enough improvements in their software packages that antiquated hardware isn’t a problem?
  • Will they guarantee that any new “add ons” developed for future boards—devices like student responders designed to communicate with their software packages—will be compatible with older versions of their boards?

If you aren’t convinced that your IWB company can answer these questions cleanly, don’t give ‘em a dime!

You know something:  While I was writing, I realized that my questions really apply to any technology purchase, don’t they?

If you’re not asking these kinds of questions before starting 1-to-1 computing initiatives, buying netbooks, selecting document cameras, choosing a wiki service, starting district-wide blogging projects, or picking a course management system, you’re just not acting responsibly.

Long story short:  Technology decisions are the toughest to make simply because the people with spending power aren’t always those who are working full-time in classrooms or those who have been surrounded by new tools for learning for their entire lives.

But that doesn’t mean technology decisions are impossible.  By starting with a set of careful questions—and collecting answers from a broad range of stakeholders—you can protect yourself against poor choices and wasted cash!