The sparks for my passion on this topic were lit all the way back in my first year as a teacher, during the rise of the "Smartboard Revolution". About midway through that year ('07-'08) I was talking with an administrator about how we, as classroom teachers, could leverage the power of web tools to engage students in the learning process. I told her that making laptops available for classroom use or lowering the student-to-computer ratio in some way would make the biggest difference. I wanted and requested to get technology IN THE STUDENT'S HANDS. She encouraged me to 'write a grant' and assured me that these 'innovative' (not really) ideas wouldn't go unnoticed. In the months following this conversation the district proceeded to initiate a privately-funded pilot program deemed "21st Century Classrooms". The centerpiece and highest priced piece of each $10,000 upgrade? A Smartboard.
I will admit that I was excited about the package deal being offered to teachers who would take a leadership role in adopting these tools (board + laptop, doc cam, clickers, A/V system). After being accepted, however, I still was longing for more access for the students to work on web projects in the classroom. Hauling the class down to an antiquated computer lab was just not very effective. Nevertheless, the students were excited. The parents were exited. The district announced the project with ceremony and the Foundation providing the fundraising was extremely proud. Everyone was enthralled with this big screen that you could come up and touch. But as Wes Fryer points out, therein lies the problem. Interactive White Boards are only engaging at the surface level*. *In most cases.
As I would find out over 3 full years of teaching with an IWB, it just didn't change what we did that much. I constantly tried to do new things in new ways, but usually having students come up and touch the screen was more for an attention-grabber than for anything truly empowering. On several occasions I asked if I could "trade" my Smartboard for the equivalent value of laptops or the (then new) Netbook. People looked at me like I was ungrateful for what I had. But when you can replicate the act of a student clicking on the screen by handing them a $30 wireless mouse, I just felt that having a computer connected to a projector and a simple screen or whiteboard would suffice for the visuals needed in the learning process. Changing that item on the "21st Century Classroom" budget would allow us to invest in devices which facilitated project-based learning and learner-centered activities.
Those concerns and ideas on true 21st Century learning fell on deaf ears. To date, my prior district has spent more that a HALF-MILLION DOLLARS equipping 50+ classrooms with essentially that same setup first envisioned in 2007. As I packed up my 4th grade room for the last time, I sadly watched as several $3,000 Smartboards sat in the hallways and classrooms, ready to be installed over the summer. No doubt the teachers and kids in those room will be thrilled. But I will also bet that the type of learning activities in those rooms next year will look pretty similar to 2007. And 1997. Just fancier and much more expensive.
Educators are actually TRAINED to replicate traditional teacher-centered when these things arrive. To my dismay, every teacher who got the "21st Century" upgrade went through at least 3 full days of SMART training over the course of the year. And what does SMART teach you to do? Use the SMART software, of course. Want to create a 'interactive' lesson that will bring your old material into the 21st Century? Great! They will spend a half of a day working with you to add wizz-bang effects onto your slides and places on the screen where the kids can touch and amazing things will happen. I have two major issues with this: First, simply making curricular content cleverly touchable clearly does not change the traditional pedagogy of the class sitting there watching a lesson happen. Being taught a vocabulary word, a math strategy or a grammar rule within this expensive software may keep the students' attention a bit more (enthrall), but in no way does it give them any meaningful or lasting control over this learning. Second, it is completely unrealistic and unsustainable to ask teachers to spend hours creating these souped-up slideshows for their entire curriculum. So while they may walk away from the training with a few cool lesson files, when are they going to find the time to create dozens more? And is that really what we want them spending time on?
In early 2011 I challenged every administrator in my prior district to weigh the decision about purchasing more Smartboards in the context of more individualized devices. But I don't think they will stop spending tens of thousands of dollars at a time and sending teachers to days and days of Smart-sponsored PD until every teacher has one. And then what? Will we all look back at the students graduating in 2015 or 2020 and say "These students are really prepared to enter this digital world on their own because of Smartboards"? or "Those Smartboards really changed the teaching and learning in our buildings and provided students with amazing learning opportunities"? I doubt it.
They are flashy. They are fun. But a single big screen that turns your finger into a mouse does not make our schools significantly better. Every dollar spent reinforcing traditional classroom models is selling our students short. Let students bring out the devices from their pockets or start providing access to laptops and tablets...or maybe both, but don't spend more than $30 making the front of your room something that the students can touch, or worse yet..something that the teacher just ends up controlling like always.