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Published June 2, 2013 | Multidisciplinary

Exploring Alternatives to Interactive Whiteboards

My REPTIC at Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, Daniel Bourry was coordinating a pilot project funded by the school to investigate the relationship between student success and the use of iPads linked to computers controlling data-projectors as a possible replacement for an interactive whiteboard. The pilot study would explore whether this technology would increase motivation, improve understanding, and importantly improve student participation to increase success rates. Thanks to the study, a classroom in the school was enabled for this arrangement using a program called Splashtop.

A Reason to Experiment

The original volunteer from the département des Langues wasn't able to participate in the project and a replacement was hard to find because our courses are generally communicative and involve few activities where the attention of the class is focused on the blackboard. I then volunteered to participate because I was teaching Linguistics which is a content-based course. Students must transcribe English into the phonetic alphabet, master these symbols and draw syntactic trees. These kinds of activities require interaction between the student and the exercise, not the student and other students. I thought the technology would be a stimulating change from using the traditional blackboard. Although, in the beginning there was some excitement, that quickly passed.

You could navigate from a ‘p’ sound to an ‘r’ sound to an ‘s’ sound to a vowel sound and just see what the inside of the mouth looked like. I circulated the iPad, and students could just click on whatever sound was interesting to them. The class participated as well, suggesting, "Click on the ‘r’" or "Give us a ‘t’". It was easy and good and there were no problems there because all that they had to do was click on a letter.

Interactive Saggittal Section

Interactive Saggittal Section

A Reason to Stop

I would walk around and give the iPad to one student at a time, and they would type or write an answer to be projected on the whiteboard. When it came time to construct syntax trees, which are really long and complex drawings, however, working on the iPad was painful and labourious. It would have been a lot easier to just send four or five students on the chalkboard and give them each a chalk to do or correct the homework while other students were doing something else. And then our attention would be focused on the four exercises one after another, rather than one at a time at intervals, as working on the iPad necessitated.

A Reason to Persevere

Although that activity was one of many fiascos, there were some successes too, but I designed something like 10 activities that were meant to test this technology, of which only three really succeeded well. They could easily have been replaced, however, by having one student come up to the front of the class using chalk or accessing my computer.

I can’t say my activities were teacher-centered, but everybody looked towards the front of the classroom as opposed to classes where students are in groups and they’re focused on a task. Using the iPad limited participation to one student working at a time, and there were not enough alternative activities to do during this activity. This was ironic because the tool was supposed to be interactive and in my classroom it became the center of all things.

Notwithstanding, negative results in the classroom, I found that some activities were really cool. One that really worked involved a website that had a sagittal section of a mouth which articulated certain sounds in the three languages, English, Spanish and German, that students study in Profil Langues.

Taking Stock

One problem that emerged with more complicated exercises, however, was what Daniel Bourry called ‘fine motor skills’. Because the menus from the computer were what appeared on the tablet, they were unusually small. We had many problems just enlarging and reducing the image. Students accidentally hit another button which happened to be ‘delete’. Some of the kids in fact responded that they’re hoping that the next generation will do better at this because they still don’t have the kind of dexterity to deal with an iPad.

I gave students one fifteen minute activity out of four hours using an iPad activity pretty much every week. It was half-way through the semester when one of the students said, I don’t want it; it makes me feel too old. This was a student who had deleted all his previous work. He had hit the wrong key or just grazed it with his pinkie or whatever. I had similar reactions from other students too. I realized they just didn’t have the fine motor skills. Then again maybe I was using activities that were too complex.

Moving On

Several other departments, Physics and Leisure, used touch sensitive computer screens instead of iPads and had fewer problems. I think it would have been interesting, if we had had four or five iPads, one per group. Then, students could write things to one another and send things to one another and interact among themselves. In my class, the students never got to work as a group with the tablet. If they had, as a teacher, I could have controlled which image was projected to the board.

Another pilot study using eight Microsoft tablets in a class has been approved for next year at Vieux-Montréal. The main differences between such a proposed arrangement and the grouping option in our current language lab would be that the tablets would encourage students to interact by working together to control the tablet at a much lower cost, as the other aspects of a language lab are not required. As well, the equipment could be used in any classroom.

Are you using Interactive whiteboards in your classes? Have you ever felt that there was other less expensive, more portable technology that could fulfill a similar role?

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