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Ed Tech Review: Smart Boards

Smart boards are becoming more common in classrooms

At first glance, interactive screens/white boards don't appear to be much more than huge flat screen TVs with touch functionality. Cool, but perhaps not much more than a flashy gimmick. 

However, on deeper inspection, most models come bundled with proprietary software tools that, under the right circumstances, open the door to some truly unique approaches to lesson delivery, quiz taking, and collaborative projects, among other things. And many of the teachers fortunate enough to have one in their classroom laud their ability to rejuvenate lessons and revolutionize the way children learn.

So, is an interactive board right for your classroom? Before you can answer that, you'll need to answer some other vital questions first.

Wait, so what are they again?

Interactive TVs and whiteboards are, as you might have guessed, essentially interactive screens that let you easily navigate and manipulate your lessons as you present them. They come in two general varities: large flatscreen TVs and whiteboards with an attached projector that (according to the manufacturers) can serve double duty as a more traditional whiteboard that works with dry erase markers when the projector isn't on. Both types generally offer touch functionality — some can support up to 16 simultaneous touch inputs to allow for maximum collaboration — and respond to both finger touch and special multi-functional styli that come with higher-end models.

The two major players in the market, SMART Technologies and Promethean, bundle proprietary software with their interactive whiteboards and TVs that enable teachers to create presentations, quizzes, polls, and interactive problems, projects, and other activities. On top of that, both companies provide extensive databases of lesson materials, including animated graphics, images, and other free assets that can be added to your own lesson plans. Promethean's ClassFlow Marketplace even offers full lessons that can be purchased individually.

Because these are web-based applications, you can build lesson plans on your home computer before you get to class, making it easy to take these materials for a spin before you debut them for your students. More importantly, this also means that students can access and interact with lesson materials using virtually any web-enabled computer or smart device. 

If you want a more detailed overview, this video is a bit dated (not to mention lengthy) but gives a good gist of what these boards look like in action, while also spelling out some of the differences between SMART's and Promethean's basic offerings. 

An image of a Promethean board taken at an ed tech conference

A Promethean board on display at a recent education technology conference. 

Can you afford one?

Interactive screens and boards range in price, but the newest models tend to cost around $4K. This, however, does not account for ongoing software license fees that some brands (like SMART Technologies) charge for their flagship software, though these fees can be as low as about $49 per year. The whiteboard/projector models use bulbs that burn out over time and need to be replaced, which can cost anywhere from $100 to $250

But by far the biggest cost associated with these boards involves equipping every student with the technology they will need to get the most out of them. Many of the coolest features associated with interactive boards involve the ability to "broadcast" lesson materials to students' devices, enabling them to interact in real time. This means teachers can incorporate student input directly into their lessons in real time as they teach, as well as display the results of quizzes, polls, and group problems. 

While there are still plenty of ways to use these boards that do not require every student to have their own computer or smart device in a one-to-one environment, most of the coolest interactive features do. So, if you're not teaching in a one-to-one environment, it would be wise to evaluate these boards solely on their merits as presentation tools.

Are they compatible with your teaching style?

Interactive boards are great for teachers who spend most of their time at the front of the class presenting their lessons, but they can also be a good fit for those who emphasize hands-on activities and small group collaboration — provided that they're teaching in a one-to-one environment. 

They're also best suited for teachers who love their gadgets and who are relatively tech savvy. The software that these boards use isn't especially difficult to navigate, but in a recent demonstration by Promethean that I attended, the presenter ran into a number of glitches that hampered her presentation. If you choose to put one of these in your classroom, you will likely have to put up with the occasional buggy feature (though you won't have to deal with software updates, since the programs are web-based).

In general, all but the most old fashioned types will likely find something useful or attractive about these boards. At the end of the day, they're mostly just making it easier to do the things you're already doing. 

Could you just use a regular old TV instead? 

This is where the cost/benefit analysis gets a little sticky. Since the software that these interactive boards come with can be used on any web-enabled device, there's really nothing to stop you from simply connecting your computer to a big screen TV and using a handheld, wireless mouse to navigate it.

This is no secret, of course, since both Promethean and SMART Technologies — and dozens of other software publishers you may be familiar with — have made tools like these compatible with virtually any type of hardware. Ultimately (in this reviewer's opinion) the biggest benefit of interactive TV/whiteboard hardware is the way that it lets you interact with the lesson on the screen, which is no small concern for many teachers.

I could go on and on, but by now, hopefully you're at least a little closer to answering the question we started with: should you invest in an interactive TV/whiteboard for your classroom or not? Everyone will have a different answer (give me your thoughts in the comments!) but I'll give you my personal take.

Given the price tag, an interactive whiteboard or TV might be somewhat difficult to justify, especially since you can achieve much of the same functionality using your existing computer and a cheaper, regular TV. However, there is something to be said for the overall cool factor of using a slick touch screen to present your lessons — they really do have the ability to make otherwise mundane lessons seem just a little bit cooler. And if an interactive board is something that gets you excited to prepare lessons and teach, your students will benefit from your enthusiasm, so why not go for it? YOLO!