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Published April 29, 2014 | English (Second Language)

The Scene of the Crime

Maybe because I was the go-to guy for technology in the department or at least for the language lab, I received release time to learn how to use it and teach its use to the department. I'm interested in exploring technology; however, don't ask me to say that technology is a panacea. Use with caution!

In the Winter of 2010, three new interactive whiteboard equipped classrooms became available. I thought it might be an interesting experience, got assigned a room and went in not knowing what I was going to be doing. Essentially I had a one hour basic training session on how to use the equipment and was expecting to incorporate the technology by adapting the course that I usually give. I didn't spend a lot of time developing new interactive whiteboard specific material because if I had more than one group in any given semester, I would not likely have the equipment available for both. I wasn't interested in two preps.

As I started the course, the way that the classroom was set up seemed to be the biggest obstacle for me from the start. There's a regular teacher's desk except with an integrated computer which worked fine. Off to the left was the interactive whiteboard. On the right-hand side of the classroom was a big screen TV with the same presentation as the interactive whiteboard and then a traditional whiteboard in the center between the two screens.

Interactive whiteboard equipped classrooms

Interactive whiteboard equipped classrooms

The first time I used the interactive whiteboard, which was in Week 2, the students arrived and sat randomly in the classroom. When I turned it on, there was an ooh and ahh, and everyone was really excited. When I picked up the blue-programmed marker, it wrote blue; an identical-looking green- programmed marker wrote green. I appreciated the ooh ahh moments, and the students did, and that was very motivating.

The second interactive whiteboard week, all my students sat on the left-hand side of the class, lined up in front of the interactive whiteboard. The layout of the class, however, meant that for me to use the interactive whiteboard, I was pinned in the front left-hand corner of the classroom because I'm right handed. I ended up feeling like I was a slave to the technology and dissociated from my class. By interactive whiteboard week 3, it felt like it was all bells and whistles, and there was no ooh aah moment anymore. The inconvenience of manipulating the technology was greater than manipulating a marker.

But, there was still the other factor that I was excited about which was using the interactive whiteboard to keep a digital record of what was written on the board. Unfortunately, in order for me to use the interactive whiteboard as a chalkboard, I couldn't sit at the desk. To save the image, I had to remember to go across the room to the computer to indicate that I wanted to save that image before erasing. It didn't always happen. Although it was just a question of learning to do new things in the flow of the action, I suspect that that it would have worked better if the architecture had been more convenient. I didn't use the technology interactively after the third week but only as an overhead projector. During exams I would put stuff on it, but it just slowed me down.

Now that more of my colleagues are requesting the technology, our interactive whiteboard is in high demand. Personally, I'm happy to call it an experiment that didn't work for me and leave it for the time being. It would also be interesting for me to see how the technology would work in a different physical layout which could certainly be arranged.

I guess if I could be guaranteed interactive whiteboard access on an ongoing basis for all my 101 groups or my 102 groups, then I would probably invest the time and energy into thinking about how I would fundamentally rework the course to exploit the technology rather than to use the technology to do what I already do. The real question for me is whether it is worth investing the time and intellectual energy to rework my course without having any assurance that I'm going to have access to the room on a reasonably predictable basis, and that still doesn't address the question of room layout.

I'm definitely not anti-technology. I like our new digital language lab because of the flexibility that it offers. I like that there are all sorts of things that I can do in it that I can't do in a traditional language lab. We use the new lab a lot for listening exercises as this is the prime use in our department culture. The new lab allows me to do the listening exercise that I want to do, and then allows the students who are quick and finish the material easily to have lots of flexibility to do other activities such as online grammar support or research. I really like that, and I can suggest material that students can work on at their own pace which leaves me the flexibility to circulate, help and listen to what they're doing.

Even the new digital lab, however, has disadvantages when compared to our old lab. What bugs me is that on a computer platform it takes at least five minutes and sometimes ten minutes to turn on the computer, and if there's any kind of hiccup in terms of internet access, then you're adding a whole other layer of complication. Nothing comes without some sort of price to pay. What I learned from my experience using interactive whiteboards is that the negatives can sometimes outweigh the positives. Let the buyer beware.

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    Marcel wrote June 4, 2014 at 10:55 PM

    Hello, Derek, In a certain way, you seem to have experienced what so many primary school teachers are experiencing nowadays with the SmartBoards. After the initial ooh-aah moment, the SmartBoard becomes way more of a projector than a smart tool, except for showing movies - way simpler to start and much better quality. It is a bit odd that the tech guys decided to place it in the right hand corner, particularly as it seems to be no architectural or structural reason for this. Most primary schools that I have seen have it right down the middle of the classroom, replacing the more traditional board. The long term solution to some of the technical problems that you faced seems to be the IPad. When you connect the SmartBoard to the IPad directly, you have way more freedom in teaching. Imagine yourself moving around the classroom not only while teaching but also as your students do a grammar activity in pairs or in groups - you see an error on their paper or in the textbook. You take a picture of that page and the picture is instantly on the board. Then, you go `So, who can tell us what is the error in here?`. Unlike the SmartBoard, the IPad will save it (if you decide to click on save ...). Even better, and this is something that you can take up with your tech guys, the IPad does not even require a Smart Board - a regular projector should do (although you might need to buy an Apple TV - about 100 CAD). It even makes more sense financially: one good projector is about 1000 CAD, whilst one Smart Board is 3500 CAD. At 500 CAD an IPad, you can actually buy four of them (Apple TV included) with the same money that would cost to have the Smart Board. I do not think that there are more than four teachers using the same classroom. I know this is elementary math and it does not seem related to your problem but, at least in my humble view, it actually solves your basic question: The real question for me is whether it is worth investing the time and intellectual energy to rework my course without having any assurance that I'm going to have access to the room on a reasonably predictable basis, and that still doesn't address the question of room layout. If you can use your IPad in each classroom (I am assuming that you have a projector in each classroom), then you are guaranteed to have the kind of access that you thrive for. Sorry for the really long way of answering your question. MM

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