Graham invited me to state my case regarding the value of interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in language education.

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. References: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, 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: [no longer accessible]Moss, et al. 2007: The interactive whiteboards, pedagogy, pupil and performance evaluation:, J. 2006. Whiteboards under the microscope. et al. 2002. The aural enabler: creating a way of special needs kids to participate in the classroom lesson., H. 2001 SmartBoard evaluation: Final report. 


I must say I've been enjoying all the discussions which have recently emerged as regards the use of IWBs - for many of us teachers/trainers here in Brazil we've often felt not enough was being said about this in the world of EFL. In fact, Scott, I was amongst that group of teachers who heard you speaking about IWBs in Brazil two years ago (no offense taken on my part, not to worry...). So thanks for the blog entry and especially the bibliography.We did opt to adopt IWBs in our classrooms after a two-year-long period of research which actually began in December 2005 when we saw an IWB being used in the Rio office of the British Council (thanks Julian Wing). Some of the questions we had before we implemented the IWBs have remained with us, but I think that's part of the risk you take when you decide to opt for any type of new technology. I think that your text and the comments made raise a number of issues which we've been discussing here.  I think the first point is the issue of teacher training - the training provided by our IWB supplier was limited to an 8 hour session (I often wonder if in Britain it is as short as this?) and so we quickly saw we would need to supplement this. Training for us included short-term "basic board tool use" and a long term development process in which teachers experimented on the job, did action research and so on. This was our main line of action for 2007. We hire about 90 new teachers (we have about 650 in all) every year and we've now found that the IWB is no longer such a novelty - many teachers have come across them in one language school or other and younger teachers are already so technological that things are picked up quickly. So, my main concern in terms of training in 2009 is developing classroom management skills so that IWBs can be effectively used. It's not an issue of changing pedagogical practices - it's just seeing them from a new perspective. One of our main worries was whether the board would change a learner-centred classroom into a teacher-centred one - yes, this is an issue which we need to address explicitly. It is something we need to constantly remind teachers and encourage them to evaluate critically. The board has to open possibilities of exchange and interaction. This is also one of the issues which I believe many publishing houses have yet to deal with successfully - so much of the commercially produced material is a copy of the textbook for the IWB (but I imagine this will change)- it doesn't really foster interaction. In fact, this is another reason why we haven't opted for voters. Apart from the prohibitive cost, I still can't really see the use in the EFL classroom. Besides, it takes all the oomph out of teaching - nothing better than to get learners on task and create their own questionnaire and present results after going from class to class - it brings a real sense of learning to the lesson. We also felt that just because we had the IWB it didn't mean we would forgo on all the excellent pedagogical practices we've used for so many years - nothing beats a good piece of Blu-Tak every now and again! And yes, it is a question of health and safety I think - IWB projector lights need to be turned off sometimes! In hindsight the introduction of the IWB was great. Our teenage students think it's an innovative resource - teachers and students began speaking a similar 'language' when before the divide was far greater. It forced teachers to reflect more deeply on their practice and this was excellent. It also brought another issue to the forefront - it's no use being a really technological if you don't have an interest in other things in life - what can you add to the lesson through the use of the IWB unless you read, go to an exhibition, go to the park on the weekend with your kids? The teachers' profile has indeed changed - it's all about being an educator in the 21st century!  And as such, I'm not sure how much room there is for polarized positions - you can be a believer in the building of collaboratively learning classrooms with a touch of entertainment (if you so wish to call it that), which is also fair enough, especially cosidering monolingual students who probably spend several years learning English. This is our reality here in Brazil, within our very particular context of a specific EFL language school - but I know for sure our 43000 students would miss the IWB if we removed it from classes (as would teachers).   

Thanks very much for your comment, Valeria, which really helps ground the arguments, both for and against IWBs, in a defined context and real experience. Your point about teacher training is key: I've heard this complaint a number of times now - that the suppliers provide very little in the way of useful (and ELT relevant) training.All this makes me wonder if the Brazil experience has been formally evaluated and written up?  It would make an excellent research study: there are good studies done in mainstream education (like the ones I cite in my article) but, as far as I know, no long term studies in an EFL context. Perhaps you should be the first?! 

Great comments here!There is nothing really wrong with IWB per se or any other instructional tool for that matter, but if stakeholders think that they will radically change the classroom and bring them into the 21st century, then they are sorely mistaken. Tools never innovate learning in and of themselves. Neil Postman often talked about the Faustian bargain we make when we adopt new technologies. Something new is always gained (or promised), but something else is always lost (or never delivered). And, often that something "new" is not what was promised at all, and, in fact, may not be desirable at all. I think Valeria's perspective is a well balanced one it that "you can be a believer in the building of collaborative learning classrooms with a touch of entertainment...", but the best use of IWBs, in my opinion, is to give them to the students to use. We don't need more devices that keep the teacher in control at the front of the classroom while the students continue to sit passively and be spectators. Much of the time I see teachers using them as expensive projector screens, although I do acknowledge that there are some fantastic teachers out there who use them in very innovative ways. However, that is because they are very innovative and motivated teachers who are trying their best to make their teaching as interesting as possible, it is not because they have IWBs.This reminds of the latest vendor-driven, "reasearch-based" initiative here in the US by Robert Marzano and Promethean ( Jon Becker, an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, has done a wonderful job critiquing that research and has unveiled so many flaws and deceptions that would place it with the same dilemma as Faust. Yet, it is being used to support promises that cannot be delivered. Be sure to read his 4-part analysis here 

Thanks for your comment and very interesting links. It's reassuring to know that there are folk out there who are evaluating the research studies carefully and critically. I myelf have been accused of using research studies selectively, but the studies I cite are those that (a) appear not to have been sponsored by stakeholders, such as Promethean or Smartboard; (b) have the imprint of a reputable educational organisation, such as the Institute of Education, University of London, so that, presumably, their research methods have been rigorously scrutinised; (c) involve a large sample; (d) are conducted over an extended time period (12 months in the case of the Institute of Education study). Admittedly, some of the studies I cited (e.g. the one that reported high motivation in special needs learners using IWBs) did not meet these conditions (it was sponsored by Smartboard, was small-scale, and short-term) but that's because I could find no studies of IWBs that were both rigorous AND positive - and I was trying to present a balanced view. Also, as I said to Valeria, there seem to have been very few studies that target language teaching specifically, and however interesting studies are on the use of IWBs to teach maths or sciences, they can be of only limited applicability to the domain of TESOL.  That's why it would be very interesting to known if the Brazil experience is being studied: it represents an ideal case study for both qualitative and quantitative research.

[quote=Tom]One question: ... couldn't you -- rather than adapting that -- find ways in which you actually could use the new tech. so that it would be consistent... (or is that the same thing?)? [/quote]Yes, Tom, absolutely. This is what resourceful teachers have always done - even with pre-digital technology like audio-cassettes, video, the overhead projector...But to do that, you have to a have a theory of learning that is coherent enough, and robust enough, to accommodate your technology.  Otherwise you fall back into the syndrome of "Just watch this half-hour Mr Bean video while I nip out for a smoke" syndrome. It seems to me that some technologies are more open to this kind of abuse than others. We have all suffered, for example, "death by Powerpoint". But a relative few have experienced "death by Blue-Tak"!

Don't forget how difficult it is to fight human nature.I've worked with a large number of different teams of teachers using Powerpoint materials as a course book equivalent, in China, to groups of up 15-25 adult students.  Experienced or not, properly qualified or not, Chinese or 'foreigner', male or female, young or old, pretty much every teacher quickly fell back to the same thing: lecturing.Put a human in front of 25 students and place a giant movie screen behind them with the projector light shining down towards them from above, and it takes a real struggle against human nature to do anything but lecture.We can train people to use an IWB effectively, and we can monitor ourselves carefully to ensure we don't slip back into bad habits, but might it not be more efficient to work with something that doesn't need that much training and monitoring in the first place? Of course that human nature affects our use of course books (we want to follow them step-by-step regardless of the value of each section), supplementary activity books (constantly doing 'activities' instead of dealing with more authentic texts and language), and even our use of no materials (being slack and just 'chatting' instead of actively promoting effective learning) too... but course books and/or reading/listening texts seem, to me, to require the least struggle against human nature to be used effectively for language teaching. 

[quote=Scott Thornbury]We have all suffered, for example, "death by Powerpoint". But a relative few have experienced "death by Blue-Tak"![/quote]Scott,Again - your death by PowerPoint is simply an example of bad technology use by a human being. It's not the tool, it's the person wielding it. You see PowerPoint all the time, the last presentation of yours I saw was in Turkey a few weeks back. It was elegantly given and the slides were very attractive. Clearly, then, it is possible to use PowerPoint well - it merely depends on the person. You always make the same mistake of blaming the technology...Gavin

Gavin wrote: "your death by PowerPoint is simply an example of bad technology use by a human being."Yes, you're right! (and how could I say otherwise after your flattering comments?!)  But I guess what I was trying to say is that some tools are more prone to abuse than others (a stanley knife is a very useful tool, but just try taking one on a plane!) Powerpoint, in my opinion, rates fairly high on the list of potential brain-deadening devices. Followed closely by the venerable OHP.  But, in the right hands, (as the Pecha Kucha event at IATEFL demonstrated) powerpoint can become an art form!

Heath wrote:"Put a human in front of 25 students and place a giant movie screen behind them with the projector light shining down towards them from above, and it takes a real struggle against human nature to do anything but lecture."Good point, Heath.  I know this from bitter experience. The first time I taught a methodology course for teachers in a wired-up classroom, I decided to use powerpoint (and the occasional foray online). Because the room I was in had massive windows, we were obliged to draw the curtains, thereby cutting out the light, but also the marvellous view of Vermont hillsides in their autumnal glory.  Try as I might, I could never really galvanise the attention of the class (some of whom were visibly nodding off!), and to change the focus on to  pair or group work seemed much harder in these "lecture hall" like conditions.  I still use powerpoint on my courses, but much less obtrusively (I hope) and the screen is "off" for most of the time.  Last year I "subbed" for a colleage on a DELTA course, and resisted the temptation to use ppt, or even handouts. Although it was only five or six sessions, I was gratified by the fact that I didn't feel too handicapped, and that the quality of student attention and participation was consistently high.