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Monday, November 7, 2011

The End of the Interactive White Board?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron writing at TweenTeacher describes interactive white boards (also known as smart boards, after the first successful ones, Smart Boards, from Smart Technologies) as the laserdiscs of education. In short, she feels that are a fad that's soon to fade specifically because they promote the "sage on the stage" (aka lecture) form of teaching and learning. My understanding is she's thinking of them in the context of teaching traditional middle school subjects - English, math, science, etc. She argues they are used simply as computer projectors and rarely take advantage of the interactivity.

But what about smart board use in GIS education? I remember the first time I saw one used in GIS. It was in the early 1990s and I was doing a presentation with an Esri partner for a big state GIS education contract. We did our demonstrations on an interactive white board and illustrated how students might "come up to the board" and "push" the buttons. Back then, I recall being very impressed with the technology.

Now, however, as I look back on my experiences as a student learning GIS in training courses, I remember the "big screen" (a projection screen) as a crutch. I'd use it to "follow along" when I could not figure out what to type or which buttons to push. I wonder how many instructors are brave enough to do such training without sharing their screens with the class via projection or smart board? I wonder how many try to use their teaching skills to help students (the whole class, a small group, or an individual) to think through the logic of the task to encourage the students to find their own way to a solution? My experience as a student "following along" is like following a recipe ("cookbook"), and is sometimes referred to as "bottonology." Learning GIS without that crutch is far more akin to real problem solving involving both the logic of GIS analysis and the logic of the software interface.

I suspect it's easy for the smart board to become a crutch. When I taught online I used a similar type of crutch: Jing. It allowed me to make little videos of my screen, with my own narration, and share them with students. I'd use them to walk a student through a tricky workflow or interface. In reality, I stole some problem solving opportunities from them. On the other hand, I used that same technology, Jing, to have my students create their own presentations that were shared with and discussed by the whole class. (A favorite limitation of the free version of Jing: a five minute limit for the videos!)

Wolpert-Gawron goes further than just saying the smart board is doomed. She points to its replacement: the smartphone/tablet. That solution puts a device in each student's hands, helping to democratize and hopefully engage everyone. And, perhaps there'd be no projection system to follow... and that in turn might mean more "doing" and less "watching" or "following along."

The greatest value of the smart board or the smartphone/tablet (or any technology really) is to create engaging lessons. I'd suggest such lesson often have no or almost no "teacher at the board or in front of PowerPoint." That's the hard work of teaching GIS or any subject. It's far more than simply displaying cookbook GIS training segments on a smart board or putting the textbook and its multiple choice quizzes onto an iPad.

I'm not sure we need to toss out smart boards or necessarily embrace smartphones or tablets. Instead, we need to rethink their use beyond the "sage on the stage." Said another way, it's not the technology that's good or bad, it's how we use it to teach.