Graham invited me to state my case regarding the value of interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in language education. Let me try.
As always when confronted by a technical innovation, we should be asking ourselves the question that Neil Postman famously posed: “What is the problem for which this technology [in this case IWBs] is the solution?”
What is the problem? One answer that is commonly cited is lack of motivation. IWBs help solve this by providing a change of focus, delivering interesting content, and offering multiple functions (including an interactive potential) that can keep learners (especially younger ones) engaged and entertained. Fine. There is some evidence to support this view. For example, a report on the use of IWBs with special needs learners over a month-long period found that “the most significant attribute was the attention and motivation the students had when working with the board. During the course of the study, there was no diminishment in enthusiasm and the students continued to want to complete most tasks using the board. The collaborative interaction within the group improved over time. This sustained motivation and persistence with the use of the board are the two key factors in aiding with learning outcomes.” (Salinitri, et al. 2002).
On the other hand, over more extended periods it seems that the novelty may wear off. In a one-year study of IWB impact on the teaching of three core curriculum subjects in London secondary schools, the researchers found that “although the newness of the technology was initially welcomed by pupils any boost in motivation seem[ed] shortlived” (Moss et al, 2007, p. 4). (Unlike the previously mentioned study, the opinions of the students themselves were solicited).
It seems that, as is the case with most teaching aids, their capacity to motivate diminishes quite quickly, especially with a generation less easily “wow-ed” by technological innovation. Also, the pressure on teachers to use the (expensive) new toy as much as possible could lead to over-kill. On the other hand, not to have IWBs – or to have them and not to use them – might actually have negative effects on motivation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many language schools are installing IWBs because not to do so would subject the schools to ridicule of the “how-sad-is-that?” type. (It would of course be interesting to see if the motivational potential of IWBs could be achieved using less expensive means, e.g. by using data projectors and networked peripherals).
The other problem for which IWBs are a possible solution is “the delivery-of-lesson-content problem”. IWBs deliver content better, arguably, because (a) they are networked, (b) they combine multi-media functions that were once distributed across audio, video, and computer media, (c) they are visual, auditory, AND kinaesthetic and (d) they are relatively easy to use. They also promote a “heads-up” classroom dynamic, and (if used to their full potential) they allow learners to interact with the content themselves, e.g. by manipulating it, responding to it, and even creating it. One report on IWB use in primary classrooms (Smith, 2001) summarises these advantages in the following terms: “The interactive whiteboard is an effective medium for teacher input to the whole class, and for reviewing the lesson. The teacher is able to present from the front, and is better positioned to observe pupils' response.”
Given all these benefits, one might expect a positive impact on learning outcomes. Otherwise, why invest in them? But again, the evidence from mainstream teaching is inconclusive. As The Guardian reported, with reference to a two-year study covering six LEAs carried out by Newcastle University and published by the government's ICT agency, Becta, “pupils in schools with whiteboards scored no better in key stage 2 Sats than pupils in schools without boards. Failure to make a difference was underlined by the fact that those teachers surveyed were deemed to be using the boards interactively and creatively. Moreover, around 85% of teachers believed the whiteboard would improve children's scores” (Nightingale, 2006).
Likewise, in a study sponsored by the University of Harvard on the impact of a massive scheme to install IWBs (using software called Enciclomedia) in every primary classroom in Mexico, the researchers found that “there were no significant differences in the knowledge abilities development, application and evaluation of the contents among those students that had access to Enciclomedia and those that did not.” (For a discussion in Spanish, see Aviles and Vargas, 2006).
But, irrespective of the learning outcomes (and we all know how hard these are to measure) there is a fundamental ideological divide that separates the pro camp from the anti camp. One of the assumptions underlying the “content delivery” argument is that teaching (including language teaching) is essentially the transmission of information. If this were the case, then IWBs are unrivalled (except perhaps by a data-projector hooked up to a networked computer). However, if you regard learning (and learning of languages) not as simply a form of information-processing, but as a process of socially-situated and socially-mediated activity, then the delivery capability of IWBs, while impressive, is of only marginal utility. According to this (socio-cultural) view the processes of language learning and language use “are dynamic processes in which regularities and system arise from the interaction of people, brains, selves, societies and cultures using languages in the world” (Ellis and Larsen-Freeman, 2006, p. 577). That is to say, language learning is not so much delivered as co-constructed. As Brumfit (1979) wrote, “Language teaching is not packaged for learners, it is made by them. Language is whole people.” Or, as Breen (1985) said, “The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process.” According to this view, what matters is the degree and quality of communicative engagement between people, either in the classroom or outside of it, and using whatever means (including social networking) that might facilitate it.
Therefore, if IWBs are to be truly facilitative, it is their (socially) interactional potential that needs to be optimised. But, in the words of a Futurelab report on IWBs, "the introduction of a technology with numerous embedded interactive affordances does not necessarily lead to a more interactive pedagogy" (p.8). A frequently voiced caveat on the use of IWBs is that they actually reinforce a transmissive, “sage-on-the-stage” pedagogy. This is not helped by the fact that (according to a contributor to the IATEFL Cardiff online discussion on IWBs) “the tools that could be said to make the IWB ‘interactive’ - slates and response systems - generally get left out of the package”. Even so, these tools allow the learners to interact only with the content, not with other learners or language users.
I’m not saying that IWBs couldn’t be enlisted to promote a “learning opportunities” (as opposed to a “teaching points”) view of learning (see Allwright 2005 for this distinction). But, as Mark Prensky reminded us at IATEFL this year, “Before you can take advantage of the technology you have to change the pedagogy”. The uncritical enthusiasm for IWBs generated by some users, and the exaggerated claims made for them by their merchandisers, are ultimately counterproductive. As Moss et al. (op.cit) note: “The lack of critical perspective on the [IWB] technology may make it harder to promote the necessary professional discussion of its relative strengths and weaknesses” (pp 8-9).
In the end, whether or not you are drawn to IWBs boils down to whether you construe language teaching as, on the one hand, entertainment and delivery, or, on the other, community and communication. And whether, faced with a new technology, your response is to adapt the pedagogy so as to incorporate the new technology, or you use the technology only insofar as it is consistent with your pedagogy.
Allwright, D. (2005) From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39/1.
Aviles, K, and Vargas, R 2006. Descubre Harvard que Enciclomedia funciona mejor en escuelas con luz http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/11/07/index.php?section=sociedad&article...
Breen, M. (1985). The social context for language learning – a neglected situation? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.
Brumfit, C. (1979) ‘Communicative’ language teaching: an educational perspective. In Brumfit C.J, and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, N. and Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) Language Emergence: Implications for Applied Linguistics—Introduction to the Special Issue. Applied Linguistics, 27/4.
Futurelab: http://www.futurelab.org.uk/resources/documents/other/whiteboards_report [no longer accessible]
Moss, et al. 2007: The interactive whiteboards, pedagogy, pupil and performance evaluation: http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR816.pdf
Nightingale, J. 2006. Whiteboards under the microscope. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/jun/20/elearning.technology
Salinitri et al. 2002. The aural enabler: creating a way of special needs kids to participate in the classroom lesson. http://www.smarterkids.org/research/paper12.asp
Smith, H. 2001 SmartBoard evaluation: Final report.
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