For whom are Interactive White boards Interactive?

I get asked a fair bit, are interactive white boards (IWB) a worthwhile investment for schools? The answer I have to say, is no. To follow my reasoning, first ask the question for whom are they interactive?

They seem like they are interactive for teachers. They give the teacher the opportunity to interact with material and to demonstrate materials for students in a more engaging way than the traditional white board. This is provided that the teacher has the time to develop the materials in advance for the students, or the time to find said resources that have been shared by other teachers. It is also provided that the teachers have been given some training on how to use the IWB as very few teachers will experiment and figure out the full potential use on their own.

This is a false interaction though since given that the teacher has invested the time and training into developing the materials themselves, they are not interacting, they are intraactive instead. The teacher is reacting to their own creation, rather than something new created by someone else which we could really call interactive.

If we allow students to use the IWB a real problem is suddenly you’ve turned a parallel activity (as in an activity in which all of the students are doing something) into a series activity (each student takes a turn doing something). Changing parallel activities into series activities is inherently inefficient and in the classroom, inefficiencies lead to kids who are not engaged, who do not have something to do. The activity will be interactive, but only for the small number of students who are actually engaged in using the IWB.

So don’t spend your money on IWB for your school. Spend it on individual devices for the student, or a class set of video cameras, or some other device which is really interactive. Spend it on staff training in the use of technology for all of your teachers. Spend it on anything which will introduce real interactivity into your classrooms.




  • I couldn’t agree more. There are strong opinions on both sides, as I found out when I asked why I need an IWB a few months ago!

    I can’t help but feel that those who really think about learning (rather than about teaching) are ‘on our side’.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    I use an IWB and love it.
    I am not “anchored” to the front of the classroom. It is used as one single tool in my kitbox of teaching strategies. Any teacher who knows how kids learn will use it as a resource, not the sum total of their teaching. I work with a high percentage of EAL learners and the visual representation of words etc is an effective tool. I never spend hours creating a massive resource. Google it. Show the class how to research, scan and “use” the net and electronic resources.
    Enjoy your IWB, I do.

  • David Wees wrote:

    While I’ll agree that you can find ways to use an IWB, wouldn’t you be better off with a bunch of iPod touches (or similar Internet devices)? You can get a half-class set for the same cost as 1 IWB and multiply your interactivity 15 times compared to the IWB.

  • This is an interesting topic. I have recently moved from the UK (where pretty much every class has an IWB) to NZ (where most classes don’t). Instead of having an IWB I did have a white cloth and a projector (which was later upgraded to a fixed pull down screen. The majority of things I used my IWB for before I could still do e.g. showing kids how to use the internet for research (as suggested by someone above) but all this was without the expense of an interactive board. I do miss my IWB, there were certain tools that I did enjoy using however I can probably see the point of just having a projector and screen and using the rest of the money on something else. With regards to the point made about just having one student at a time being the interacter, I think that is very dependent on how the teacher and class are used to engaging with each other. You could say the same thing about when a child answers a question – at the time it’s only one child answering but are the others really just sitting there doing nothing? Hopefully not. This topic has had lots of discussion on it here: with some interesting points (I just read it). One of them suggests that actually the interactive board isn’t the expensive part, it’s the projector in which case, I would not do without this.

  • I agree about the interactivity piece, the IWB is a more interesting way to present the material in the classroom, but that being said, I love them in the resource room. The IWBs have allowed some of our special needs students with fine motor issues and verbal challenges to be able to demonstrate their reading and writing abilities. By taking the pen and paper away as well as the need to be verbally expressive we have been able to see what they are able to do rather than being blocked by what they are unable to do. I don’t know if we could have done this without the IWBs. The notebook software is a great teaching tool that all teachers can use because of the IWBs licences are multiple. This allows many of the same things to be done without the purchase of the smartboard.

  • David Wees wrote:

    Actually I had not thought of their use as an adaptive aid. For students with motor or visual difficulties, they could be very useful, so I see your point there. You want more of them in that case so that the ratio of students (who need to utilize the extra large interface) to each device is not too high.

  • We never have more than 2 working with the Board and 1 SEA. SEAs love it.

  • In one of the local school districts, an IWB was just bought for every classroom in each of 6 schools, which is a lot of IWBs. I was sort of horrified at this. I haven’t come in to much contact with IWBs as a student, but usually the teacher doesn’t know exactly what to do with them or they do some stuff that’s different, but not a whole lot. I’m disappointed that so much money was spent on that. I emailed the superintendent. This blog gives me some ideas for what to say.

  • I’m a computer-savvy maths teacher and I love my IWB for presenting interactive Mathematics to students. The kids rarely get to touch the thing, and that’s fine with me — I agree with your point about inefficiency. Is there something wrong with a subject-matter expert imparting knowledge in the most interesting way he can think of? I don’t think I’d get much value out of a class set of iPod touches. I have access to class sets of laptops, and I love getting the students to do rich activities on them. But that’s occasionally, not all the time, whereas presenting stimulating material that prompts questions and discussion is an everyday activity.

  • David Wees wrote:

    I’m okay with that, but then the interactivity lies with the teacher and not the students. Furthermore, the vast majority of teachers with an IWB use it in ways which are not at all interactive.

    I spend maybe 20 minutes in a class lecturing at the front about something relevant for the day, and usually a lot less time. The rest of the time is spent with students working on mathematics exercises (iPod touch would be a calculator substitute here), solving interesting mathematical problems (now iPod touch can be used for research relevant to the problem), or taking what they’ve learned and publishing it in a different form which requires analyzing and synthesizing mathematics (iPod touch could be the tool they use for this construction of knowledge).

    The IWB is a teacher-centred tool. If that’s what you want to do, it’s understandable. Teacher centred has been the dominant pedagogy for thousands of years, it seems reasonable to me that many teachers would want that to continue.

  • David Wees wrote:

    @nishaheen just mentioned on Twitter that IWB are not at all interactive for blind kids, and of course this applies to other kinds of visual impairments as well. What a good point to bring up! I just thought I’d add it as a comment to this post.

  • I have never questioned the usefulness of IWBs. It would be great to have one in every classroom in every school but only if funds were unlimited! My concern since the first time I attended a sales presentation for an IWB was, and is, the cost benefit ratio. The costs far exceed the benefits. As your post suggestions, spend funds on technology that will do more for the students than IWBs.

  • I’m a big fan of IWB’s having used them in both the private sector (for training) and public sector. For example, during the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I had some Japanese students in my class along with the majority Canadian kids. I immeditaley pulled up a cnn video showing the tsunami and we watched it as a class. There was no need for me to go and photocopy a bunch of resources – there it was on the 100 inch screen, as it was happening. Riveting. Then I went to the National Geographic website and pulled up a video displaying plate techtonics so my students could IMMEDIATELY see what was casuing this – instant science lesson. Once again, no running off to photocopy resources for 15 minutes. It was teaching in the MOMENT. That’s priceless. Sorry, I wouldn’t even consider teaching a class without an IWB. Try it before rendering judgement. Ipods? Please. No comparison. As always, you need to know HOW to apply the appropriate tech to your desired learning outcomes. If done properly, IWB’s are a fantastic tool. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t tried or didn’t use the right tool for the desired outcome. It’s that simple. It pisses me off whnever an educator dismisses a tool out of hand. Very short-sighted.

  • David Wees wrote:

    None of the uses you suggest requires the use of a Smartboard, they require the use an LCD projector. Learn the difference. If what you describe is all you are using a Smartboard for, then you are missing 99.9% of their potential, and aptly proving my point.

    As for your assertion that I’ve not used a Smartboard before, I’ve actually been using them for about 6 years now, in 2 different schools, so my description of the issue is based on my experiences using them, not on an eye in the sky perspective.

  • Richard Bester wrote:

    Confusing the attributes of a data projector with those of IWBs seems to be really common. It makes me wonder what schools think they are getting when they buy the word “Interactive”. If they are hoping that the interaction is student-student, or student-world or student-teacher, then they’re going to be disappointed. Having bought “Interactive” we hope we have bought “Collaborative” and its close relative “Increased Engagement”.

    What we have bought is a really expensive pointing device. Give me a wireless optical mouse any day – move through presentations from practically anywhere in the room; pass it among your students for them to point and link and create and show from right where they are sitting. Or better still, if you want collaboration around your technology, buy a class-worth of those individual keypad voting remote units [We’ll be trialing these in year 7/8 very soon]

    I am not a huge fan of touchscreen operation, a category which IWB falls into. Of course touch has its place, but really it’s a compromise so that small devices such as phones, tablets and laptops can be used to point, link and move without the bulk of a mouse defeating the purpose of having a small portable device. Two buttons, a wheel that scrolls and clicks combined with an eye for movement. Why would I sacrifice that sort of versatility if I don’t need to? I think we think it’s cool to appear a bit like Tom Cruise in “Minority Report”? I for one think our aspirations for technology in learning should be higher.

  • Its definitely the right question to be asking! I have been a big supporter of IWBs since I first saw one and my jaw dropped. Since then I have convinced two schools to dip their feet and they are now widespread in both. I think I agree with the view that the interactivity benefits the teacher as a user most, but that, as such – if used to its potential – it can benefit students as well. I like to think I know what I am doing, but, like most things, there is usually more potential there than you think. Where I work I am lucky enough that it doesn’t have to be a choice and in this case, I would not want to be without an IWB. I consider it part of the evolution of teaching and learning tools and would miss it horribly. This makes me think about a priority list I would make if I had to….

    1. Computer for the teacher (I guess many teachers still don’t have this)
    2. Digital projector (obviously no use without the above)
    3. Computers for students (and/or handheld devices) – I might put this first, although it seems unlikely to happen without the top two.
    4. IWB software – I have found this particularly useful with or without an IWB and for making tasks that students can do with computers.
    5. IWB

    In this sense I am definitely agreeing with the notion that devices for individuals are of more value than an IWB and if a straight choice were required then it would be easy. BUT I will still defend the IWB as an evolutionary device that would be part of my ideal classroom! If a future classroom would have no board at all then fair enough, but if a place to write, draw, create and record etc. is of use then mine would be an IWB – Although – I have heard of a school developing the concept of a Interactive wall – minority report style – Now that gets me going!

    Thanks for making me think! I am now thinking about what I would say are the top 5 reasons I am glad I have an IWB – If I can’t do that then I’m in trouble

  • I haven’t used an IWB yet so I’m not sure what to comment on. But I think it’s the kind of teacher that matters…you can have the most modern or sophisticated tool for teaching but if the teacher is not really motivated to teach and help the student to learn, then it’s not going to be an effective tool.

  • You make a good point about teacher vs. student and parallel vs. serial interactivity. If I had to make a choice, I would rather have a class set of TI-Nspires and an emulator or a class set of Ipads than an IWB. I would still hate to give up my IWB, though.

  • David Wees wrote:

    If you have an IWB, it’s probably better to find ways to use it, while thinking of how to use it in ways which are more student centred. It’s been paid for already, after all. I’m mostly critiquing purchases of new IWBs. There are better ways to spend our already stretched education dollars.

  • I love, love, love this post! I have seen the instructions regarding making your own IWB and have been considering this for next year. (I did buy my own LCD projector this year.) I’ve been trying to figure out what are the best uses for an IWB, and how to overcome the problem of only being able to have one or two students interacting with it at a time. It makes me think about looking into polling apps for handheld devices… do you know of any you’d recommend?


    Mme Aiello @ Teaching FSL

  • David Wees wrote:

    I like Poll Everywhere. See You don’t need the IWB for a polling system though, the LCD projector is enough.

  • Amy Lurie wrote:

    I share a room with two other grade levels for academic enrichment of students who have IEPs and for whom preteaching, reteaching, modifications, accommodations, etc. are relevant. The other classrooms, inclusion classrooms have white boards. We did not. It is very very difficult to have a classroom with tons of valuable visual support when you can’t even leave anything on the white board. I have made use of an LCD projector and my computer with some external speakers. However, as we get our new Smart boards I am excited that my students will have a way to get up and move more with some engaging visuals. Having them even touch the board gives them muscle and visual memory. Having them see how to and practice navigating the internet on the big screen as others watch more attentively because it is a Smart Board seems really important. Teachers who are not used to the white board and then get one no longer have that wipe board to use and are forced to use projection more – LCD does not force teachers to develop computer skills. When they do use the computer and kids do too then the kids are becoming more fluent in these skills. Some would like to consider students all “Digital Natives” but I teach some 7th graders in a rural NC community who have never had a computer and don’t even know how to cut and paste. They have never done a Power Point! The use of a smart board is constant contact with a computer, something they do not have otherwise. No access to computers except once a week and that is not even instructional time regarding how to use computers!!! It is horrible. So, I see some real benefits of the Smartboard. I do see how higher level skills can be missed in this and that the tool has its limits. All tools have limits. I believe in this one. Boy, do I. When I get to use it I plan to make the best use possible. Geddit, Kahoots, Poll Everywhere, etc… Then they can use their cell phones. Those with no “voice” in class can be heard and the more disruptive ones are hooked on the technology. Soon, the interaction will grow and they will be able to collaborate via groups online more and more in real time. This will take computers. But until we have that our phones and white boards are all we have. They need to get used to use of these technologies and many more. Low Tech can be great. But I want that Smartboard.

    Has your perspective on interactive white boards changed in the years since your first article?

    Do you now think one is “worth it?”

    Amy Lurie – EC Language Arts Inclusion and Resource 7th grade, Asheville, NC

    I am excited to have found your blog. As a special ed teacher and one who has a significantly skewed skill set I struggled with math a lot. It has been a lifelong statement of intent…”I am going to learn to do math when I have a midlife crisis.” My son is in 3rd grade and I am developing math skills I didn’t have. I am amazed. However, I also have some real concerns and ideas about how different math programs are being implemented in our community and how families are being left out of the dialogue. Look forward to learning more from you. I might just learn the content enough one day to be a very strong EC math teacher. You see, I believe I need number sense visuals, interactive and constructivist activities, strategies, self-reflection, individuation/differentiation, and serious vocabulary development. Story helps to root learning in meaning for me. Quantities without realities were always just floating symbols and useless.

    Wish me luck!

  • David Wees wrote:

    Hi Amy,

    The applications you described for your special education students seem meaningul and useful. I think there are definitely use cases to be made for IWBs, particularly when the gross motor skills of the student are such that a smaller surface is difficult for the student to manipulate. As it turns out, this describes my nephew to some degree, although with just extra large paper and much practice, he is now writing in a much smaller font-size.

    I still wonder though if the IWB is the right tool for the other issues you describe. If teachers want to students to build computer skills, it seems to me that investing in individual computers (or even the 5 or 10 computers you can get for the same price as one IWB) is a better way to go than investing in a touch-sensititive surface. Remember also that I am not opposed to the use of an LCD projector. My ideal classroom has enough computers for at least each pair of students, a document camera, an LCD projector, and mobile information-gathering devices (like iPods).

    As for building your capacity to teach mathematics, I have two recommendations.

    1. Find a trusted colleague. Do math together. Talk to each other about the mathematics. Read about ideas in mathematics education literature (such as professional development books for elementary school educators).
    2. Ask your students questions and listen to how they talk about and learn mathematical ideas.

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment on my post.


  • I’ll go further and say that investing in individual computers is becoming an essential. Which the rapidly dropping price and high ROI, it’s harder to justify why not.

  • I agree with your article. My school recently had this debate and people were heated on both sides. However, in my experience as a teacher and a student they are not that effective. As a student I rarely if ever saw a teacher use one in a way that couldn’t have been done with a white board and a projector. However, most of them were never used because teachers were afraid of breaking them. Then as a teacher I had to use it with fifth graders and while they liked seeing the interactive textbook displayed that way they were just as if not more engaged as when I asked them questions about what they were doing instead. When they were simply watching the IWB some would have to be reminded to pay attention to the board and the one child up there. I have to agree with your article, the money would be far better spent on giving more students technology in order for everyone to be involved.

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