Do Not Look Back


Because of the nature of schools and education, logically we’re always looking forward, but as one of the principals I worked with said re: eLearning and technology.

” I seem to be always forking out on the next shiny thing.”

Interestingly, there’s a few things we don’t always do,

one critical question often missed is, does the next shiny thing improve learning outcomes or is it just a distraction to the learning.

Currently, 3D printing and Virtual Reality are interesting case studies to consider.

We’re preparing students for the future so looking forward to the next technology trend makes obvious sense. However, we don’t always have the time or the energy to learn from our past experiences. In this article, I will explore what teachers see and have seen when they have the opportunity to reflect.

As with many other baby boomers, I taught for a long time. I started out with blackboards, this was back in the unPC days when, more aggressive teachers than me, were quite good at throwing the duster at the naughty student. I remember when dustless chalk was breathlessly welcomed as a significant innovation. I remember the tilted blackboards on the wall, with a tray at the front for chalk. Sometimes, the chalk came in different colours. The next new shiny thing for us to goggle at was the board that rotated toward the ceiling on rollers to give a continuous work space. (That’s “goggle” not “google”.) We were called “chalkies”, a term we still hear today. In time, of course, the blackboard mutated into the ubiquitous white board.

If ninety percent of teachers look over their shoulder today they’re probably going to see a whiteboard which has been a solid, reliable teaching aid for decades.

There are some useful things to learn from whiteboards, for teachers they were a significant improvement on blackboards. Whiteboards were also easier to use than blackboards and much quicker to both write and erase, unless of course, one made the  tragic but all too frequent mistake of pulling a permanent marker from your pedagogical holster instead of a whiteboard marker. (We’ve all been there haven’t we?)

However, if we consider what makes a good teacher, it’s often characterised by eye contact with students, voice projection, physical presence and subject expertise. If we could say one granite strong, gold clad statement about teaching it is this: Teaching is fundamentally relational. Students who comment on their “best” teacher invariably mention something like, “I felt like they were talking to me.” or “They knew me.” To that end, when weighing new technology, one must ask, what content and skill delivery package using technology can best support this dynamic? As soon as you start writing on a whiteboard, your back is to the class and often the class are passively copying. Does this foster the relationship? Is this good teaching and learning?

In short, no. It’s also inefficient, particularly for secondary teachers who commonly teach multiple classes of the same subject in the different rooms.  They can often find themselves writing on a whiteboard, only to then rub out their work before having to recreate it all again in another room.

Technology such as photocopiers, projectors IWBs and the like, (which I’ll talk about later) have alleviated some of this burden. However, with virtually every school I go into to, there are still a significant number of teachers writing on the whiteboard with their back to the class. One of the most frustrating occurrences as a teacher who has to share a classroom with other teachers (aside from the occasional inadvertent use of permanent markers) is to enter a room only to find whiteboard completely filled with text and diagrams accompanied by a note stating “please leave till Friday”. Sadly you would sometimes go back in a fortnight and the board was still full and the note still there.

I also still remember the days of projectors (non-digital) and film. In Victoria, you had to do a two-full day in-service to get your license to fly the machine. Then TV and video were going to be the solution. These are all now a real rarity in schools.

The trend in many schools is to implement, what appears to be a sound economic model initially, the provision of front of room displays.  For principals though, there’s a tension between what you’d like to purchase, what you can afford and how quickly the next “must have” shiny thing makes what you bought redundant.

Here’s an example of the problem. Flat screen TV with an Apple TV or Chrome cast dongle to provide interactivity have good penetration in schools. Similarly, projectors or interactive projectors are common. Certainly, these solutions are a long way from the TV and player on a stand, but they have their own unique problems.

The flat screen TV in many schools is sourced as cost effectively as possible from Aldi or the like and the school hangs them on the wall to keep costs down. Unfortunately, there isn’t that much we can do with a flat screen TV or non-interactive projector except show video, PowerPoint or the occasional website. In classes where we see this being done the students are often passive and attentive, but is there much learning and teaching going on. It could be described as a somewhat channeled or rigid form of content delivery. There are known health and safety risks to passive video consumption and it reinforces unhealthy patterns of sedentary behaviour.

To create interactivity, the teacher may have an iPad linked to an Apple TV or a similar set up. This has some similarities to the down sides of a teacher at a whiteboard. We now have a nine-inch space, that has the teacher often looking down and little opportunity for students to participate in any interactively.

(I mention this because much of the research points to the fact that if we use an interactive display as both a teaching and learning space where students rotate through and turn to explain their understanding, you get improved learning outcomes and teachers in that space don’t necessarily do this.)

Projectors, while initially a cost-effective solution, sometimes become expensive as projector globes fail, filters need replacing and then there’s the lost remote issue all too common in schools. They often project onto the existing whiteboard and there’s a flare issue from the light source. Also, many don’t have the brightness to cope with full daylight, so you may have the added expense of blinds.

There are other solutions where you add a device to your whiteboard which tracks the teacher’s movements. My experience with these in the school environment is that bits go missing, particularly in secondary where they need to be booked out and placed on the board before class then packed up at the end. Again, you’re very dependent on the quality of your projectors

Interactive whiteboards are an interesting subset of front of room displays.

Many teachers looking over their shoulder are going to see a combination of an IWB and a whiteboard (for some strange reason usually on the left).

There was a huge surge of IWBs in the days of BER money, but schools found they weren’t used as much as they would have liked them to be, considering the size of the investment. The common things we hear about this is that teachers received little training and when things didn’t work, they quickly reverted to their non-interactive whiteboards.

Many IWBs are coming to end of their life and are no longer supported. We also see the ongoing issue that they are often totally dependent on the quality of the projector. The projectors on booms often require calibration and interactive pens have an incredibly annoying habit of go missing rendering the board incredibly difficult to use.

Interactive flat screen panels (IFPs) are presently the gold standard for the classroom but schools need to be careful; not all are equal. Again, IFPs represent a big investment for schools so you want a solution which you know will improve learning outcomes and make the teacher more effective in the classroom.

There are a few different types and makes available to schools and many schools are replacing their aging IWBs with IFPs. Some brands have great software which is very focused on teaching and learning where as other come with very basic software or none at all. The beauty of IFPs is that the better ones behave just like a big iPad, so they’re easy for both the teacher and the students to interact with. Another attraction is their long life and the fact they’ll work in full daylight.

A couple of brands provide digital whiteboarding functionality so whiteboarding sessions can be saved, reused and pushed to student devices, this definitely provides more productive time in teaching and learning.

As an experienced observer of schools, as an ex-school leader and as a digital education trainer, my perspective may have value for schools considering new technology and the return on investment.

When you’re investigating IFPs look for a total solution where the hardware and software work in harmony to make the teacher more productive and the students fully engaged. What you should be looking for is a feature rich board with great educational validity and software to match. As budgets can be tight, you also want something that comes in a range of options to suit your school.  Also, a key factor is to make sure there is readily available content and comprehensive training for staff, so you don’t waste your money.

Hopefully you’ve found this interesting and helpful, the key things for me is that if we look all the way back to that blackboard, it’s still a living memory for many teachers, yet there are also teachers who have only grown up with IWBs. We often talk about students being digital natives but that’s often a gratuitous swipe at adults and in fact, many students’ competence in the digital world is quite narrow or superficial. However, in their world, immersive games, holograms VR, AR, AI and technologies yet unborn will be the norm.

If we look to the future, maybe the front of room display will support holograms or collaborative VR sessions.

To do this generation justice we must learn from the past and realize that simply deploying technology in the hope it will do the job is not enough. Worshipping the shiny and new because it’s shiny and new is a cargo cult mentality. Evidence, effectiveness and economics should drive the decision making. In five or ten years’ time the term “chalkies” should be quaintly meaningless. The baby boomers will have passed from the classroom and a new generation of education enablers will take their place.

So, when you do look back, think about creating a teaching and learning space not just a teacher display.

Apple tv in classroom

Apple TV in classroom


Technology in classroom

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Kevin Daly

Kevin Daly has many years experience with schools, he was an experiened school leader and eLearning consultant. He currently works part-time for BBCdigital in Port Melbourne.

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