Interactive whiteboards are appearing in a growing number of classrooms nationwide. They’re also proving their worth in reaching all students.

It’s a cold and dreary Thursday morning in Baltimore. The kind of morning that begs even the most enthusiastic students to stay in bed with the covers pulled up tight around their heads, preferring the incessant beeping of their alarm clocks to the thought of braving the elements for yet another day at school.

Outside the Cardinal Gibbons School, a private Catholic institution about five miles south of Baltimore’s wind-swept Inner Harbor, traffic blurs by, filling Jack Ames’ third-story classroom with a mechanical drone– background noise to the random chat-chit that accompanies his first-period geometry students as they trickle in one by one, many of them yawning, trying desperately to shake out the cobwebs before setting to work on the day’s lesson: defining the value of an isosceles trapezoid.

It’s 8:45 a.m. And his boys look tired. But the veteran teacher isn’t worried. He’s got the perfect tool to get his students’ wheels turning. Positioned against the far wall is a plain white projection screen–Ames’ empty canvas. Not five feet away, the teacher stands behind his computer and presses a button. A second later, the screen comes to life–and a dozen heads turn on a swivel.

Forget about archaic overhead projectors. Ames’ secret weapon is one of the hottest educational technologies to have found its way into classrooms in recent years: an interactive digital whiteboard from Canadian company SMART Technologies Inc.

The SMART Board is one of several types of electronic, interactive whiteboards appearing in more and more schools, as today’s teachers look to bridge the gap between cutting-edge devices and traditional chalkboard instruction.

“I think the biggest thing is that it’s a motivator,” said Ames in support of the board, which he uses almost every day to cover topics ranging from the previous night’s homework assignments to upcoming tests and daily lessons.

And he’s not alone. Interactive whiteboards are now present in 28 percent of all K-12 public schools in the United States, according to Market Data Retrieval’s “Technology in Education 2004” report. High schools are more likely to have the devices than elementary or middle schools. There are also major differences across states, the report says, with 58 percent of the schools in Missouri and Idaho using the devices, compared with only 12 percent in Iowa.

Advocates of the technology say there’s a good reason for the boards’ surging popularity among K-12 schools: They engage students with vastly different kinds of abilities and learning styles. And that’s an increasingly important feature in a world of tougher academic standards and higher expectations for all students, regardless of ability.

At Cardinal Gibbons, eight of the school’s 24 classrooms are equipped with the technology, which acts as a sort of digital dry-erase board, allowing teachers and students to write on the projection screen as they would a chalkboard with the aid of a specially engineered digital pen–or even just a finger.

“What color should I do it in?” asks a sophomore named Jeff as he stands in front of the board, preparing to go over a recent homework problem with the class.

“Make it rainbow,” suggests one of his classmates.

“No, no, make it purple,” shouts another.

“How about mustard yellow?” asks Jeff, smiling.

“That’s nasty,” someone says.

Maybe. But Ames doesn’t mind. From a teacher’s standpoint, he doesn’t really care what color students write on the board with–as long as they’re engaged in the lesson.

Remarkable results

In concept, the technology seems simple enough. But don’t be fooled, said Ames–interactive whiteboards are far more advanced than most people probably realize.

The rear-projection SMART Board used in Ames’ classroom and seven others at Cardinal Gibbons can project text, data, images, video, and sound from a computer onto a 66-inch screen using whatever programs teachers have running on their computers, including PowerPoint, Excel, AutoCAD, or a standard web browser. In addition, the board’s software allows teachers and students to write and edit notes over any projected application and save the annotated file as a new document.

As students come up to the board to work out problems in front of the class, Ames also has the ability to change students’ often-sloppy handwritten notes to text, using the board’s built-in handwriting recognition technology. Ames then can save or print out the day’s exercises, so that any students who are absent have the ability to pick up the notes they missed upon their return.

In his geometry class, Ames is able to display shapes from triangles to trapezoids without having to get out a ruler or eyeball the angles on his chalkboard. Using the accompanying SMART Notebook software, he simply uploads whatever ready-made icons he wants to use digitally, cutting down on the time–not to mention the uncertainty–of drawing diagrams by hand.

Among the whiteboard software’s most revolutionary features is a tool that allows Ames or his students to manipulate the different geometric shapes as they’re being projected on the board, making it possible to view the same shape from several different angles without erasing it and starting from scratch. This ability to illustrate hard-to-understand concepts (such as rotational symmetry, for instance) is a major benefit of the technology, and one that really appeals to visual learners, Ames says.

The pedagogical results of using interactive whiteboards for instruction can be remarkable, according to Brother Kevin Strong, the president of Cardinal Gibbons: “The SMART Boards are a blessing for both teachers and students at our school. Our students are much more engaged in the classrooms with interactive whiteboards. It grabs their attention, and when you’ve got their attention, they’re more willing to learn.”

Cardinal Gibbons, one of the first schools in the Baltimore archdiocese to extensively employ interactive whiteboards, didn’t start using the technology until Ames saw it being deployed successfully at a nearby sister school. Ames took it upon himself to draft a grant application to the Sheridan Foundation for monies to fund the purchase of eight whiteboards, one for every major discipline at the school, including religion, English, social studies, science, and mathematics.

The $55,345 grant, combined with a $19,530 grant from the SMARTer Kids Foundation, enabled Cardinal Gibbons to purchase the eight whiteboards in early 2004. The investment is expected to pay dividends for the school’s students very soon.

“We think we’ll see improvement in academic and standardized test scores. But already, we know we’ve come up with a tool that has parents ecstatic, teachers energized, and students eager to learn,” Strong said. “It’s the linchpin of our technology initiative to prepare our students for college.”

The ability of the whiteboards to engage or include all kinds of students in the instruction–from those with attention issues to those with learning disabilities–was apparent right from the start, according to Ames.

The interactive component of the boards, which require just the touch of a pen or a finger to move objects around, creates new scenarios that can provide answers to complicated problems, fostering a better learning environment, he said.

The boards stimulate an environment where students can work through their mistakes and are not afraid to experiment hands-on with new concepts on the screen, agrees Jesse Roberts, director of development and marketing for the school. And while self-motivated students want to demonstrate their knowledge in front of their peers, externally motivated pupils–kids for whom learning by itself isn’t a reward–also learn more effectively through this interactive medium.

The technology also enhances learning by allowing teachers to show web sites, DVDs, videos, and sharp-color presentations to an entire class. Visually impaired students can see details they wouldn’t normally see on a computer screen. Other special-needs students can benefit as well. For example, deaf or hearing-impaired learners, who rely primarily on visual learning, find that the whiteboards facilitate the presentation of visual material. And the screen itself adjusts to suit the needs of students, whether they are tall or short, seated or standing.

“I’ve got some students in my geometry class who are slower in note-taking,” Ames said. “With the SMART Board, those students no longer are at a disadvantage. I can print a lesson or post it to a web site for study notes or for absent students. The hassle factor of students trying to come after school to catch up just isn’t there any more.”

Teachers benefit, too

But it’s not only students who benefit from the technology. Overall, Ames says, the digital whiteboard has made a major difference in the way he’s able to teach geometry.

Students can use on-screen protractors and a graph-paper template to measure angles of geometric shapes and intersecting lines–and Ames can use these applications to demonstrate the concepts initially to the entire class. In addition, studies have shown there are fewer absences among students who are taught using the boards, according to a white paper, “Interactive Whiteboards and Learning: A Review of Classroom Case Studies and Research Literature,” published by SMART Technologies last April.

The white paper also notes that interactive whiteboards motivate teachers to adapt lessons to incorporate more digital resources. “Teachers respond enthusiastically when they observe positive attitudes and behaviors from students using interactive whiteboards,” according to the paper.

With a rear-projection board, students and educators don’t have to worry about casting a shadow as they stand in front of the device. And the dynamic of the whiteboard setup–with the screen at the front of the room, connected to a computer in the back–also can prove beneficial.

Explains Ames: “Some students are easily distracted, and when you turn your back on them to prove a geometric equation, they get a little fidgety. With the whiteboard, I never have to turn my back. I can keep an eye on everyone and make sure they’re all on the same page.”

Moreover, from the teacher’s standpoint, the technology is a welcome time-saver.

“I don’t have to [waste] valuable time every day putting different geometric shapes and equations on the chalkboard,” said Ames, now in his 10th year at Cardinal Gibbons. “I can duplicate anything in the geometry textbook on the whiteboard–and it’s always there for me.”

He continued: “It’s amazing how much time you can save if you don’t have to erase one lesson plan, put up another on the chalkboard, and then put the first lesson plan for another class later in the day.” In addition, he notes, with the whiteboard “you don’t have to reinvent the wheel coming up with the same lesson plans year after year.” It’s much easier to build a collection of learning materials that can be constantly updated, he said, simply by using the print/capture feature.

A more inclusive approach

Count Susan Cooper as another believer in the ability of interactive whiteboards to foster a more inclusive approach to instruction that can benefit all students.

Cooper teaches eighth-grade language arts in the hearing-impaired department of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, a public K-12 school that educates more than 750 sensory-impaired students on a 70-acre campus. The school’s student population exhibits a wide range of special needs, which poses a significant challenge to instruction: from completely deaf students to those with limited hearing ability; from the completely blind to those with limited eyesight; and students with varying degrees of multiple sensory disabilities, too.

“Using the SMART Board interactive whiteboard is a very inclusive experience for our students,” noted Cooper. “The interactivity keeps students focused on learning and motivates them. Students who might not have the best ability to explain their thoughts can easily interact with the interactive whiteboard and become really involved with materials they’re presenting as they explain things in sign or speech. It benefits the whole educational process.”

She added: “Because we have to rely on sign language to communicate with our students, they have to see us at all times. With an interactive whiteboard, I’m standing right next to the text, so if I want to change something or if I want to scroll down the page, I don’t have to move. Students can see the text and they can see me. Having the option to use my finger instead of a pen also frees up my hands for sign language.”

Cooper and a fellow teacher, eighth-grade math instructor Sue Clark, became the first teachers at the school to use interactive whiteboards when they wrote a technology grant to purchase the devices in 1999. Now, the school owns 64 boards in all, with an additional 14 to be installed this spring.

Besides equipping the deaf and special-needs departments, a few boards also appear in classrooms for blind students, to help those who have only partial blindness see the material more clearly.

“If you ask any teacher on campus, you’ll get a resounding ‘yes’ that it’s improving their teaching,” Cooper said of the technology.

A key reason for this is the ability for students to interact with the material. In her language classes, for example, Cooper projects the words of a sentence up on the board in random order. Students are called up to the board and are asked to put the words in the correct order, which they can do simply by touching a word and moving it into place on the screen with their finger. This type of instructional approach works well for students who are kinesthetic learners as well as for those who are visual learners, she said.

The reading textbook that Cooper uses has an accompanying CD-ROM containing all the content in digital format. This saves Cooper a great deal of time–she can simply pop the CD into her computer, fire up her whiteboard, and the text she is discussing appears on the screen for the whole class to see. Cooper or her students then can annotate the text as they discuss it and can save their notes for future reference.

Using the software that comes with the board, Cooper can color-code the various parts of speech of a sentence–red for the verb, yellow for the subject, and so on–to help students understand the various functions of the words and how these functions might change depending on the context. With a few clicks, she can change the size of the text on the screen to accommodate students who are visually impaired. And she can highlight important information for students to remember.

A side benefit of the technology is that it has increased the motivation not only of students, but of teachers as well, Cooper said. Using the interactive whiteboards has encouraged the school’s teachers to share their ideas with one another as their excitement about the technology has grown. And students have responded accordingly, picking up this enthusiasm and reflecting it in their eagerness to learn.

“I’d like to think it’s a combination of our whiteboards and our teaching–our teaching is getting smarter, thanks to the use of the SMART Boards,” Cooper explained.

Geometric proof?

Back at Cardinal Gibbons, students unanimously sang the praises of interactive whiteboards.

“It’s so easy to do research on a topic; we can surf the internet, just like we do on our computers at home,” said Jason, a sophomore. “It’s much easier to take notes and write down assignments.”

His classmate, Jim, added, “It really helps us learn more, because we can go through lessons at a much faster pace.”

Of course, cost will be an issue for some schools, said John Johnson, Jr., the school’s director of operations: “Like any piece of machinery, it needs to be maintained, and sometimes people don’t factor that into the equation.”

But Cooper, of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, noted, “In five years, we have not had a single instance of damage by a student. Students have been very respectful of the technology.”

How long does it take to become familiar with the interactive whiteboards? “We did the training in one day, but it probably takes about three weeks for most teachers to get comfortable using the technology and to realize its capabilities,” said Ames, who helped instruct the faculty members at Cardinal Gibbons who use the boards in their classrooms.

In Ames’ first-period geometry class, despite the early hour and the damp and dreary weather, students are really beginning to warm up to the day’s lessons.

“It sounds like a light is going off in somebody’s mind,” observed Ames after several students began calling out answers to their homework problems from the night before.

“That’s proof,” said one of Ames’ students as he leaned over, pointing to the whiteboard. “I never paid this much attention last year.”

Ideas for teaching with interactive whiteboards

Here are just some of the many ways educators are using interactive whiteboards to enhance students’ understanding. For more ideas, go to the EDCompass web site (http://edcompass.smarttech.com), which contains dozens of interactive whiteboard activities searchable by subject and grade level.

  • In social studies classes, teachers can use the boards to show students how to read maps, understand scales, and learn about geography, among other activities.

    In one demonstration, using a pre-existing template included in the SMART Notebook software, Cardinal Gibbons teacher Jack Ames called up a map of Africa on the screen. Then, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, he used the cursor on his computer to manipulate the various countries into their correct places on the map. As he did this, the students yelled out the names of each country and where they thought it existed on the continent.

  • Amy Gates, supervisor of instructional technology for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District in Missouri, described a squid-dissection lesson taught each year by one of the district’s science teachers.

    “This year, before her students actually performed the dissection, the teacher called up a virtual dissection web site on her interactive whiteboard so students could watch the process first,” Gates said. The teacher periodically stopped the video and made notes on the board, marking it up so students had a clearer understanding of the procedure. She labeled all the parts of the squid that students were to look for, then took a snapshot of the screen and printed it out so students could refer back to this diagram later.

    “When she brought the actual squid in, the kids were excited and were more tuned in to the learning experience,” Gates said. “They knew what to expect from the experience, so it wasn’t just ‘Whoops!’–and it’s gone.”

  • Interactive whiteboards come into play on the athletic field as well as in the classroom. At Cardinal Gibbons, the coach of the football team diagrams blitz packages and quarterback options using a SMART Board, like John Madden on the Telestrator, enabling every student athlete to visualize where he should be on the field during the course of each play as it unfolds.

    Jesse Roberts, the school’s director of development and marketing, who also is the varsity soccer coach, demonstrates plays by drawing in digital ink over the top of DVD footage to demonstrate play of Premier League soccer games. Students can go to the interactive whiteboard to suggest game strategies, and their playbook notes can be printed and updated for each player.

    Excerpts from “Interactive Whiteboards and Learning:
    A Review of Classroom Case Studies and Research Literature”

    Interactive whiteboards are an effective way to interact with digital content and multimedia in a multi-person learning environment. Learning activities with an interactive whiteboard may include the following:

  • Manipulating text and images;
  • Taking notes in digital ink;
  • Saving notes for review via eMail, the web, or print;
  • Viewing web sites as a group;
  • Demonstrating or using software at the front of a room without being locked behind a computer;
  • Creating digital lesson activities with templates and images;
  • Showing and writing notes over educational video clips;
  • Using presentation tools built into the interactive whiteboard software to enhance learning materials; and
  • Showcasing student presentations.

    Connecting to Learn: Student Engagement

    Learning has typically been a social activity for the simple reason that most human beings need to reinforce their beliefs and understandings by asking questions of others.

    Current learning theories promote student engagement and consider it to be a key component of knowledge construction.

    These learning theories include the following:

  • Constructivism: Relies on the learner to select and transform information, construct hypotheses to make decisions, and synthesize learning through personalizing knowledge.
  • Active learning: Learners actively engage in the learning process through reading, writing, discussion, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, rather than passively absorbing instruction.
  • Whole-class teaching: Brings the entire class together, focuses their attention, and provides structured, teacher-focused group interaction.

    Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of computer-integrated learning has been maintaining dynamic interaction with students while they sit in front of computer screens. Interactive whiteboards help overcome this challenge and enrich ICTs (information and communications technologies) by providing a large workspace for hands-on work with multimedia resources.

    Having a space large enough for everyone to see opens a channel to higher student interaction in both teacher-directed and group-based exchanges–one can interact with the tool at the front of the class, and everyone can feel involved because of the interactive whiteboard’s size.

    The interactive nature of the product and its accompanying software allow for the development of classroom activities that are engaging for students.

    Get Focused: Motivation and Attendance

    Motivation is best described as a student’s drive to participate in the learning process. Although students may be equally motivated to perform a task, the sources of their motivation may differ. Some students are intrinsically motivated to learn because they are driven to understand through self-reflection and participation in learning activities, benefiting self-esteem. Others require extrinsic motivation such as enticements, rewards, or educator-defined goals.

    Interactive whiteboards appeal to both types of students:

  • Intrinsically motivated students volunteer to demonstrate knowledge on the interactive whiteboard in front of their peers as a means of showcasing individual achievement.
  • Extrinsically motivated students are enticed by the “wow factor” of the technology and can become motivated learners as a result of the enjoyment they experience from using the product.

    Greater classroom enjoyment and motivation–particularly on the part of extrinsically motivated learners–can, in turn, lead to fewer student absences. Interactive whiteboards are captivating enough to successfully compete with a student’s favorite consumer technologies (e.g., game devices, cell phones, and MP3 players), focusing students on task, garnering enthusiasm, and providing additional motivation to attend class. More than a diverting gadget or game, interactive whiteboards successfully promote the computer skills students require for success in the 21st century.

    Reaching Out: Learning Styles and Special Needs

    Every day, educators strive to develop strategies and tools that will reach students with unique or diverse learning needs. Many of these learning styles–even the requirements of visual, hearing-impaired, and other special-needs students–can be addressed when lesson delivery and learning activities incorporate use of an interactive whiteboard:

  • Visual learners benefit from note taking, diagramming, and manipulating objects or symbols. As the interactive whiteboard is easy to use, it enables students of all ages to see their own writing and objects of their own creation when they use the product.
  • Kinesthetic or tactile learners, typically difficult to engage in traditional classroom activities that are usually more visual or auditory in nature, are able to reinforce learning through exercises involving touch, movement, and space on an interactive whiteboard.
  • Deaf and hearing-impaired learners rely primarily on visual learning, and the interactive whiteboard facilitates both the presentation of visual material and the use of sign language simultaneously in front of students.
  • Visually impaired students with some vision ability can manipulate objects and use text on an interactive whiteboard’s large surface and participate in computer-based learning in ways that would not be possible on a smaller computer screen.
  • Other special-needs students with individual learning requirements ranging from physical ability needs to behavioral issues, such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), also find the large, interactive surface valuable. Its large size and touch sensitivity facilitates ICT learning beyond the standard keyboard-and-mouse type of computer interaction, and its appeal can be used to promote good behavior.

    Making the Grade: Review and Retention

    There are many variables that factor into student retention of information. The majority of available research on student performance focuses on qualitative observations regarding strategies for information retention; some studies of interactive whiteboard use in education are statistical in nature, but many more provide qualitative impressions.

    A student’s ability to retain and recall information presented in class is subject to several conditions. Several of these conditions relate to student engagement and motivation during the class itself–the details of which are described above. A student’s success is also greatly aided by the availability of accurate notes after class for review.

    Learning with interactive whiteboards in the classroom enables effective student retention and review in the following ways:

  • Lessons are more memorable because students are more engaged and motivated. Students are able to focus more on the learning moment rather than on worrying about capturing everything through note-taking.
  • Several different learning styles are accommodated when learning is delivered with an interactive whiteboard, improving chances of student retention during class.
  • Notes generated on an interactive whiteboard can be printed or eMailed for distribution after class, ensuring the student has good review material to support information retention.

    Get Ready: Teacher Preparation

    Efficient use of technology by educators is essential to successfully enhancing student learning. Once educators have received professional development and an educational technology installation is up and running, ICT integration should mesh seamlessly with the rest of the curriculum and help streamline lesson preparation.

    Interactive whiteboards enhance teacher preparation:

  • They are easy to use for both teachers and students, shortening start-up time for integrating interactive whiteboards into lessons (with additional features and tools to learn and use as skill levels grow).
  • They motivate teachers to adapt lessons to incorporate and develop more digital resources. Teachers respond enthusiastically when they observe positive attitudes and behaviors from students using interactive whiteboards.
  • Teachers can save notes for use next class or next year. Interactive whiteboards make it easier to build a collection of learning materials that can be constantly updated and written on top of, keeping lessons fresh and interactive.

    Links:

    Cardinal Gibbons School
    http://cardinalgibbonsschool.com

    Market Data Retrieval
    http://www.schooldata.com

    SMARTer Kids Foundation
    http://www.smarterkids.org

    “Interactive Whiteboards and Learning: A Review of Classroom Case Studies and Research Literature”
    http://edcompass.smarttech.com/en/learning/research/researchLiterature.aspx

    Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind
    http://www.fsdb.k12.fl.us

    Freelance writer Michael Levin-Epstein, Associate Editor Corey Murray, and Managing Editor Dennis Pierce contributed to this report.