The Interactive Whiteboard (IWB): Weighing the Pros and Cons

Today it seems you can no longer teach foreign languages without the latest Web 2.0 applications. The best teachers are thought to be those who manipulate Interactive Whiteboards (IWB), set up Wikis for their students, show clips from YouTube and go to Google whenever a question pops up in class. All these multimedia inventions are, indeed, spectacular and may add extra spice to a language lesson, but they will never rescue a program or course that is failing for lack of a substantial corps. Before leaping into the acquisition of an expensive new "fun" tool, I believe we should have a serious look at the pros and cons.

Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) mania

Let’s talk about the ‘Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) mania’. I know I will be accused of being a ‘wet blanket’ when I say that getting an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) will not solve all the problems. But if having a permanent 2m by 2m reproduction of your computer screen on the wall is the be-all and end-all of your aspirations, you risk becoming mighty disappointed. Here are my reasons. Sales representatives tell us teaching with an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) will help direct all eyes in the same direction towards the screen—and students will be fascinated by what they see and hear. But teaching with an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) is a very teacher-centered activity. Students will be answering questions one after another, as the teacher continues the “ping-pong” type of teaching that has been going on for centuries without achieving the hoped for results. Teacher talking time (TTT) will continue to be at least half if not more of the entire hour, and consequently individual student talking time (STT) will be very limited. Dividing 25 minutes among 20 to 30 students doesn’t give each student much time to express himself. You can do the math yourself. Moreover, if students come individually up to the board to do exercises, each one uses up at least three to four minutes leaving even less time for the others.

Fascinating but for how long?

But then the sales rep will mention all the fascinating software programs with all the videos, audios, drag and drop or cloze exercises included with the board. True at first glance this may seem very entertaining. All eyes will be turned towards the teacher by the board, but the latter must continually come up with mesmerizing images and activities to keep the students focused. Imagine some students saying, “Oh no, not another lesson on that board. It’s always the same thing!” That can soon become the reaction, if for every class in every subject the teacher goes to the whiteboard. What starts off as novelty provided by a ‘miracle’ technological device may after a short time seem tedious, tiresome and even humdrum—particularly if the work ends up being the same as doing ordinary textbook exercises. Students may very well become "bored with the board"! Limited use showing illustrations of what we are saying, songs with words we want students to memorize and the students’ own productions would be fine—but then you can do all that with an ordinary video projector connected to a laptop.

An ecological solution?

The sales rep will of course add that an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) is a very ecological way of teaching. But he fails to see that a great deal of energy has been consumed while producing it, is consumed while using it and will be consumed when it comes time to recycle it. So trust me, it is not ecological at all.

Better than nothing?

Many teachers may reason that getting an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) is better than nothing. If a school is all out in favor of such an investment, is willing to pick up the tab and thinks it will benefit the reputation of the school, then it may perhaps be impossible to say, “We would like to do something different with this money. We would like an audio language lab instead or equipment for filming activities.” I truly believe that teachers should have the right to choose the equipment that will guarantee the results that are looking to attain and not just have the decision imposed on them. We are living at a time when it is vital to use materials that are cost-effective, i.e. really worth the price. If using paper materials—that are lent out and not given out—combined with audio equipment can assure the best results when it comes to speaking, then that is the direction that should be taken. Even if it seems less spectacular.

Build your own Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) with a Wii mote

The electronic whiteboard mania will above all bring lots of profits to the companies selling them. We should not be deceived by their publicity. If you wish to experiment with an electronic whiteboard, build one yourself with a Wii mote . Go to an excellent demonstration as how to do it called "Low-Cost Multi-touch Whiteboard using the Wii mote"with Johnny Chung Lee, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.

Speaking more than forty seconds each hour

You may think I’m being unnecessarily negative and that I refuse to see the applications, primarily because I have not used an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) myself. This may be partly true, but I feel that the result counts much more than the attempt at getting somewhere. If we want our students to speak English, they will have to be speaking it more than forty seconds each hour. And consequently, they will have to be speaking to someone other than the teacher during the rest of the hour. So it is this speech production among the students that we will have to encourage during class time. As for listening and even reading, these skills are best practiced by the student alone—either with an audio player of some kind and in front of a computer screen—or even with a book. Why not? On the other hand, speaking requires a listener and some feedback to make certain the speech production is correct. And this cannot be done with a board.

What to use when teaching

So what should we be teaching and what should we use to teach? It depends on the curriculum. If the object is writing, then projecting essays on the board for all to see and help with could be useful. If it is reading, then again the board could play a part. But wouldn’t students prefer to read on their own? Isn’t nicer to be able to choose your own reading materials? Wouldn’t you prefer to stop and look up the meanings of words as you go along at your own speed? The same goes for listening. With a whiteboard system all students will hear the same thing at the same time. I believe we should allow students the possibility to navigate on their own through listening exercises, stopping to rewind when they don’t understand what is being said and getting the key to check their comprehension at the end. There are many ways to do this today either in an audio language lab, in a computer room with individual headphones or just an an iPod/MP3 mini lab where you lend out mobile devices to students. You no longer have to force all the students to listen at the same pace and at the same time.

STT = 75% of the time

If the goal of our teaching is to enhance speaking skills, then I definitely believe we should focus on speech production, i.e. getting the students to all speak or at least listen very attentively 75% of the time. That is best done in pair work with the students looking at each other and not at a board on a wall. There are countless exercises and activities that will do just that, i.e. get the students to be in charge of their own language training. I have already spoken about such activities in the article on “Intensive Pair Work” and I suggest you take a look at it. Interactive Whiteboards may be interesting for a short period during the class hour, but intensive use could lead to indigestion, frustration and boredom. Let the students be their own language trainers, using the Internet for assignments but speaking all the time in class—rather than listening and watching passively. If students are to progress they must interact verbally. You can daydream in front of an electronic whiteboard, but you can’t let your mind wander elsewhere if YOU are the speaker and YOU are producing language. So let’s search for all possible ways to make our students creative artists when speaking English!

For more information and ideas go to the article on “Intensive Pair Work”.


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