What I’d buy instead of an interactive whiteboard

This week was a real humdinger for me.  I spent the better part of it buried under hateful emails from a district technology director in Louisiana who had read my recent post arguing that Interactive Whiteboards were a waste of money.

I was really taken aback by the venom and spite in his words.  His first email expressed “shock” that “someone like me” could ever be named Teacher of the Year in any district.  He called me “self-centered and self-serving” and suggested that my writing was a “poison” corrupting conversations about technology.

He went on to suggest that my resistance to learning “modern technology” was failing students and that I should be ashamed of myself for my ignorance.

Me?  Resistant to learning modern technology?

I’m assuming he’s never looked through my Digitally Speaking wiki, my monthly column on technology in Educational Leadership, or the stand alone articles that I’ve written on technology for Educational Leadership and Solution Tree.

I’m also assuming he won’t be buying my upcoming book—Teaching the iGeneration:  Five Ways to Introduce Essential Skills with Web 2.0 Tools—which is due to be published in June.

Now, his central argument throughout the week was that Interactive Whiteboards can revolutionize learning in the classroom for students with learning disabilities.  I’m just not going to rehash that argument, considering how many times I’ve written about it recently (see this post or this post—and read the extensive comment sections in each—if you want to learn more).

Instead, I wanted to show you how I’d spend the $5,000-$6,000 that a good IWB package—including a board, data projector, set of student responders, mounting kit, and a tablet for the teacher—will cost you.  From that point, you can decide whether IWBs for every classroom are worth your investment.

Give me $5,000-$6,000 to spend on a middle school classroom with 25 students and I’ll buy:

5 Netbook Computers  Cost:  $1,250

The most motivating lessons that I’ve ever taught give students the opportunity to interact in small groups around content.  There’s something about social interactions and communication that results in engaged students and more learning.  Yet we continue to invest in tools like Interactive Whiteboards that don’t enable any kind of group work or social interactions.

Give me one netbook for every 5 kids in my classroom and I can create instant workstations for groups.  I can also create remediation and enrichment stations for students.  Both are responsible models of instruction that we say we want to see in our schools.

The best part about having sets of netbooks is that you don’t even need to buy student responders.  Instead, you can use free polling tools like Poll Daddy to administer quick surveys designed to collect formative assessment information on your classroom instruction.

 

5 YEARS of VoiceThread for my Students   Cost:  $300

While I haven’t done as much with Voicethread this year as I typically like to do, it remains one of my favorite tools for structuring asynchronous conversations between students.  With little digital skill, kids of all ages can interact in Socratic style conversations on school related topics with one another both in and out of school.

Essentially, Voicethread allows teachers to steal the online attention of their kids.  Given a meaningful school based conversation, they’ll turn away from the junk-food browsing that they do every afternoon and start talking with one another about content.

As an aside, I don’t think this investment should even count against my $5,000. After all, if you decide to buy the IWBs that everyone loves, you’ll have to replace the bulb in your data projector every 4 years.  That’ll cost you $400.

Wouldn’t a never-ending subscription to a constantly improving tool that encourages conversations between kids be a better use of that cash?

And in the interest of full disclosure, this purchase is a bit frivolous.  After all, you can get a completely free educator account for Voicethread that works just as well but doesn’t allow for individual student accounts.  I spent the first 18 months of my Voicethread experience working with a free account.  It was no sweat.

 

5 YEARS of Brainpop Access for my Classroom  Cost:  $731

Brainpop is a service that creates short (3-5 minute) animated videos on topics across the curriculum.  Each video is paired with an activity and a review quiz, allowing teachers to easily monitor progress.

There are math videos covering concepts ranging from ratios, proportions and percentages to graphing and statistics.  The social studies section is full of videos covering important events in World History.  Science videos on concepts ranging from the Carbon Cycle to Natural Selection and English videos on tricky grammar principles round out the ever-growing collection.

And while Brainpop videos aren’t designed to be the primary tool for in-depth studies of any topic, they make GREAT tools for remediation and/or enrichment.  Teachers with access to Brainpop in their classrooms can easily extend or reteach concepts without the burden of tons of extra planning.

 

(If you’re adding along with me, I’m at $2,281.  That’s just a bit more than what you’d pay to buy this PolyVision Whiteboard WITHOUT any kind of projection tool, student responders, or slates for teachers.)

 

5 YEARS of Access to Poll Everywhere  Cost:  $645

Now, this is another frivolous purchase for me considering that there are PLENTY of completely free polling tools that teachers can pair with computers to collect information about their classrooms, but considering that I haven’t even come close to spending the $5,000 that I’ve got to spend, I figured I’d throw 5 years of Poll Everywhere into my shopping cart.

What makes Poll Everywhere—an online application that allows teachers to create and deliver quick surveys—unique is that students can respond to surveys via text message from their cell phones, making the need for student responders obsolete in most middle school classrooms considering the number of students carrying cell phones to school each day.

You can also track responses in Poll Everywhere at the individual student level, providing the EXACT SAME level of feedback that you’ll get from a class set of clickers.

I also think that this price shouldn’t count against me if you’re planning on buying student responders with your whiteboards either simply because you’re going to have to replace batteries and broken devices over time.  I’m not.

What’s more, my tool is going to constantly improve as Poll Everywhere adds new features.  Yours will be a dinosaur in no time.

That’s got to be worth something, right?

 

A Mid-Range Data Projector   Cost:  $595

Now, I’m not foolish.  I know there are going to be times when direct instruction to an entire group of kids is an important teaching strategy in every classroom.  As a result, I’d definitely want to have an LCD projector in my room.

That way, I could show Brainpops to the entire class, we could instantly see the responses to Poll Everywhere surveys and we could look at interesting strands of conversation in ongoing Voicethread presentations together.

But I don’t need any high end Cadillac projector—and unlike classrooms where you’re planning on pairing a projector with an IWB, I don’t need any ceiling mounting hardware.  That’ll save me about $125—which I’d use to buy another year’s worth of Poll Everywhere.

 

Camtasia Screencasting Software   Cost:  $179

This is another frivolous purchase considering the wide range of completely free screencasting tools that are available online.  I’m not even really sure why I’m putting it on my shopping list.  After all, Screentoaster is free and it works fine.

But considering that I’ve still got money to burn, I figured I’d add it to the list.  Camtasia allows teachers to create easy tutorials that they can post to the web.

Want to show kids how to diagram a sentence?  Work it out on your computer screen and record it with Camtasia.  Want to talk kids through the elements of a great essay?  Work it out on your computer screen and record it with Camtasia.  Want to show kids how the order of operations work?  Work it out on your computer screen and record it with Camtasia.

Do I need to go on?

 

At this point, I’ve spent $3,680—just over the price that you’d pay for this Smartboard/refurbished projector combo which doesn’t come with any student responders or slates. 

For the same price, I’ve gotten computers that I can use for group work or stations, services to promote ongoing conversations beyond school, services to collect formative assessment data on my students, services to provide remediation and enrichment to my struggling students, and a software package to record tutorials from my computer screen.

Now, I’ve still got anywhere from $1,310 – $2,310 to spend before I get to my $5,000-$6,000 ceiling.  My temptation is to continue to add years to my Poll Everywhere, Voicethread and Brainpop subscriptions or to buy a few more netbooks.

But I think I’ll put that money in reserve.  After all, who knows how technology will change in the next five years.  I don’t want to drop tons of taxpayer cabbage on tools that will be antiques in just a few years.  That IS one of my criticisms of tech directors who are drinking the IWB Kool-Aid, after all.

Better yet, maybe I’ll give my remaining cashola BACK to the taxpayers.  That’ll catch ‘em by surprise!

Any of this make sense?  What would you add to my list of purchases?  What would you take away?  What am I forgetting about here?