Forsyth County School District, just outside of Atlanta, serves more than 24,500 students and employs 3,100 full-time employees in 24 schools. This fall, we completed the initial implementation phase of our 21st Century Classroom Initiative, through which we have installed interactive whiteboards in 1,500 classrooms district-wide.

Our district had been investigating the application and impact of interactive whiteboards in the classroom environment for a few years. As a result of the positive impact we have seen in our classrooms, we allocated funding for retrofitting all of the district’s 1,500 classrooms with electronic whiteboards and projectors as part of a multi-million dollar bond referendum that included new construction, facility upgrades, and a major technology component. This bond referendum passed last spring with 88-percent approval.

After securing this funding, we began an in-depth evaluation and selection process. This process, which included a product “shootout” among some of the top interactive whiteboard manufacturers, was one of the keys to what we believe will be a very successful initiative, because it allowed us to compare products closely and choose what we think is the very best one for our needs. Here’s how we carried out our shootout–and what we learned.

We invited all of the whiteboard manufacturers we knew about (minus one that we’d already ruled out, based on our previous experience with the product) to participate in this day-long event. Each vendor was asked to make a brief presentation to our 75-member evaluation committee, which consisted of instructional technology specialists, media specialists, administrators, and teachers from each school. The purpose of these presentations was to answer questions and demonstrate features and functionality. The vendors were given a list of some of our evaluation considerations, as well as features the group had an interest in seeing and questions to answer. We requested that the presentations focus on the specific instructional attributes of each solution.

Each vendor had 30 minutes to present, and no other vendor was allowed in the room at that time. The evaluation committee members also were given a list of considerations and were asked to complete an evaluation form where they ranked the usefulness of specific features and the ease of use for other items. Some vendors chose to share marketing information and not concentrate on the agenda we set for them; consequently, they did not fare well in evaluations. Later, in the afternoon, an hour was spent with each vendor and its product for more in-depth demonstrations, comparisons, and questions and answers regarding specific features and functionality.

Each vendor’s whiteboard was kept on site at the board office for another two weeks while additional evaluators further tested and assessed the products. Many committee members made appointments to come back for additional hands-on time so they could provide more informed input. Committee members provided comments and graded the solutions on usefulness and ease of use of features and functionality. Of course, our experienced whiteboard users who were already demonstrating our vision of using this powerful resource were asked for their input as well.

The manufacturers who participated included 3M, GTCO CalComp, SMART Technologies, and Promethean. After the shootout, the selection committee narrowed the final choice to SMART Technologies’ Smartboard 580 and Promethean’s ACTIVboard. Finally, we discussed pricing, installation services, warranty, durability, and–most importantly–how the company’s solution dovetailed with our school district’s goals. Based primarily on its durability, depth of instructional resources, and the ability to pull off such a large-scale implementation successfully, we chose Promethean’s ACTIVboard, a component of the company’s “Collaborative Classroom.”

One of the key factors for us was durability. We believe that electromagnetic boards are preferable for our classrooms. We’d previously piloted some resistive technology boards and found that, over the summer with the air conditioners off, humidity built up between the membranes of the resistive boards, and they did not function when we returned in the fall.

The ability to implement a project of this scale successfully was a secondary factor in our decision. Promethean’s reseller, Logical Choice Technologies, already had a history of successful large-scale implementation projects with Forsyth County Schools.

The lesson creation software that comes with the boards was a third area where there were differences. The feature of a searchable resource library was a key factor in our decision, as was the ability to share teacher lessons over a network. Evaluation committee members were impressed with the depth of instructional resources provided with Promethean’s ACTIVstudio application.

Of all of the technology rollouts we have done, we think this initiative will make the greatest positive impact on the learning environment. So far, teacher and community response has been overwhelmingly positive. Even techno-phobic teachers are on board. We have listened to voice mails and read eMails from teachers in all subject areas and grade levels that were positively ecstatic. It is not only the technology itself that causes this positive feedback, but how well it integrates into today’s classroom environment and enables the types of interactions that today’s students need and expect.

Gary Davidson, principal of Settles Bridge Elementary, adds, “I am very proud to have been a participant in the selection process … It is going to have a tremendous positive impact on the children in Forsyth County.”

Bailey Mitchell is the director of Forsyth County’s Technology and Information Services department.