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Interactive Whiteboards – When does the “tipping point” become a plateau?

kmmwriter Posted by kmmwriter in Community Hub on Jun 15, 2012 6:40:29 AM

A few weeks ago, I asked my nephews how many of the teachers in their school had a classroom interactive whiteboard.


“All of them,” said the sixth grader.


“Mine too,” said the other, a tenth grader.


“How do they use them?” I asked.


The tenth grader described a mixed bag of creative uses of the interactive whiteboard, preferring it in science class, where his teacher uses it to animate cell respiration and other processes.


The sixth grader chimed in. “My teacher uses his as a coat rack.” Hm...


Why do some teachers use their classroom interactive whiteboards while others don’t?

When I last taught in a high school classroom, a few tech savvy teachers were beginning to experiment with interactive whiteboard technologies. Six years later, we still seem to be hovering on an extended tipping point in which interactive whiteboards are not yet the staples that pens and notebooks are now. I’ll have to check with Malcolm Gladwell, but what is the shelf-life of a tipping point? What is it about this technology that some teachers love while others remain lukewarm?


I decided to talk to a few teachers who are finding out what works best in interactive whiteboard technologies in their classrooms. When a friend and educator mentioned a few excellent teachers she knew who were using the interactive whiteboards effectively, I jumped at the chance to talk to them.


Interactive Whiteboards


For anyone unfamiliar with SMART Boards®, Promethean Boards, and similar technologies, the interactive whiteboards can be used to project anything from a computer to a large white board where students and teachers can manipulate the images. Accompanying software, such as the SMART Notebook™ collaborative learning software, links what students do at their desks to the central board, giving teachers immediate feedback on student work.


Jim Yeaton, Fifth Grade Teacher, Winthrop Elementary School in Melrose, Massachusetts



Now in his 14th year of teaching, Jim Yeaton was experimenting with technology long before his school provided SMART Boards® for every classroom. The precursors to the SMART Board were the overhead projector, dry erase board, and the chalkboard.


“The difference with the SMART Board is that it’s interactive. Anything  passive can be boring, whether it’s technology or anything else. But this is engaging.” After trying a roaming SMART Board shared by multiple  teachers, Yeaton realized this was more than a “special occasion technology.” He even bought his own MimioTeach™ interactive system, a portable device using infrared technology instead of touch.


“For me, technology like this is being presented as use for a special  lesson. But I think it needs to be used every day. SMART Boards draw students in. Kids love them.  And they make teaching easier. Not necessarily better−that takes more than a new technology−but it adds convenience teachers haven’t had before. You need the technology in your room all the time to do that, and most teachers I see have really taken to it.”



Photo: Jim Yeaton and a student

Julie Klipfel, First Grade Teacher, Fuller Meadow Elementary School, Middleton, Massachusetts


At 23 years old, Klipfel is in the first generation of teachers whose own education included SMART Boards®. Though her familiarity may predispose her to using new technologies in innovative and intuitive ways that the rest of us have to learn more intentionally, she is also quick to point out it is not all about age.


“I grew up with  technology as a large part of my life,” she says. “It is easy to figure it out. My mother is a teacher as well, and she uses her SMART Board all the time.”


From a morning calendar that incorporates math skills and days of the week to weather graphs the children manipulate and songs that reinforce learning, Klipfel incorporates interactive puzzles, games, sounds, animations, and graphs to engage students.


She also uses the SMART Board as one of multiple learning stations in order to individualize reading instruction. While some students are creating order from jumbled word games on the SMART Board, others use computers to work independently on interactive literacy activities while Klipfel leads a reading group with students reading from paper books.



Photo: Julie Klipfel

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Why don’t all teachers use their interactive whiteboards?

       > Greater Need for Training and Support

Yeaton emphasizes the importance of training and support for teachers when introducing a new technology.


“We all got introduced to it a little bit. My district hired someone to go to all the elementary schools and provide training. If you just throw everyone into it, it doesn’t work.”


This may seem like an obvious point, but there are still too many situations in which a technology with potential is plopped into teachers’ laps with little guidance, with the expectation that teachers should seamlessly incorporate it into their classroom activities. Administrators who are frustrated with expensive technologies sitting idle in classrooms can carve in time for teachers to observe tech-savvy educators, such as Klipfel and Yeaton, in action.


       > Loading Time and Glitches

Klipfel says some teachers become frustrated with the delays and dysfunctions that can occur with any technology. Just as producers know silent air time is the kiss of death for ratings, many teachers hear the “tick tock” of technology’s wait time as lost instructional time. Because the interactive whiteboard technologies need to align with the image on the computer or information from the online source, this challenge exists every day.


Klipfel uses the delays to enhance instruction. Sometimes she has students count to ten in the language they are exploring in their morning greetings that month. Or, students count by tens, or backwards from 100. Teachers in other grade levels and subject areas can adapt this approach for their classrooms.


       > Increased Front-End Preparation

Finally, some teachers are deterred by the added time commitment required when first using the interactive whiteboard, including added preparation time to load units and find the best visuals to incorporate hands-on interaction with content. However, Klipfel and Yeaton agree that the increased time is worth the increased level of student engagement.


“It takes time to do all this,” says Yeaton. “I used to use the overhead often when I first started out. Now I don’t have to rewrite a million times every time I want to improve a lesson. Now I have all these math lessons done. I can print them out, give them as notes, and tweak and make things different and better  as I learn year to year. Teachers can create this huge database. The initial work was not small. But now every day I just look over the lesson asking what can I add and how I can make it more interactive.”


       >  Frighteningly Tech Savvy Children?

When it is expected that the teacher be the expert, some teachers new to technology are reluctant to instruct in an area where students are sometimes the experts. This is another reason for more training, but some teachers worry that they will still be far behind kids who have been using technology for years.


In my view, if a kid can shine in the classroom--especially in a challenging content area—this could be the bridge that brings the student a few inches closer to the tough subject. If it happens to come with a chuckle at our expense about what we don’t know, big deal. It shows that we’re learners too. At the very least students need to see we’re willing to be in the vulnerable place of learning we want them to embrace.


Klipfel and Yeaton are inspired by their students’ sometimes surprising level of experience with technology.


Klipfel recalls her first experience with a technology delay in the classroom.


“Students didn’t immediately know what the pencil slot was for on their desks, but they clearly knew how to deal with a technological delay. ‘Don’t worry Ms. Klipfel,’ my first graders told me. ‘It’s just loading!’”


Yeaton sees the same proficiency in his classroom.


“The kids pick up on things I don’t, and I’ve used the SMART Board for years and know what I’m doing. It is fairly intuitive and person friendly, but it’s amazing how kids intuit even more. I had an old book with two sentences for every day for students to correct. It’s a great book, but it’s all on paper. Over the course of a year, I transferred it onto Notebook software. By October they know exactly how to use it. They knew which pen does what and how to erase, move things around, everything. So now they work on sentence skills giving me time to go around reviewing their homework.”


Great Teaching + Powerful Technologies = There is hope for us yet!

When I interviewed Klipfel and Yeaton, what struck me most had nothing to do with interactive whiteboards. I was traveling in a state in which the airwaves are already saturated with negative political ads in preparation for the presidential election. It seemed everywhere I turned I was hearing one more reason we're headed into oblivion if the other guy wins.


This blog is not a political commentary, but just listening to Klipfel and Yeaton offered an encouraging contrast. When you get good teachers talking about their work, they can't help but get carried away--and you cannot help feeling hopeful. Once they get going, they talk very quickly; one thought piles over another about all their students are doing and what their goals are for improving. (You have to be a fast typist to interview them from your car between appointments, thank you very much!)


It may be hard to let go of the classical image of the classroom teachers many of us remember from our pre-technology classrooms. They wore their badges of hard work as chalk-smudged faces and sometimes donned the attractive chalk-dusted hairdo. They scribbled passionately on the board between paces around the room as they engaged in excited banter with the class.


Despite whatever purist or romantic notions of the hard working teachers in our memories, we need to widen the narrative. Commitment and passion will remain the central arc of this important and hopeful story. With interactive whiteboard technologies still hovering on the tipping point of usage across the country, it may be time to find somewhere else to hang our coats.


Resources Julie Klepfel suggests for the SMART Board®:

FullerMeadow - portal that teachers and students use throughout the year

ABCya! Kids Educational Computer Games & Activities 

Spelling & Vocabulary Website: SpellingCity

Storyline Online
Johnnie's Math Page - Fun Math for Kids and their Teachers
We Give Books - Read a book. Give a book.

Resources Jim suggests for the SMART Board®:

SMART Exchange: Easy-to-access educational content - SMART Technologies

Scratch | Home | Imagine, Program, Share - the Scratch program out of MIT teaches kids how to program computers, make their own video games, etc.







Please post your thoughts in my discussion,
How do teachers in your school use interactive whiteboards in innovative ways?



Kaitlin Murphy ( has worked in education for 16 years, primarily as a middle and high school teacher, but also as a college writing instructor, a teacher at an incarceration facility, a GED program for teen mothers, a town community school and currently at a community college in New Jersey. She worked at the DC Public Schools for three years as a writer and is a freelance writer, writing coach and communications consultant.


Other blogs by this author:

The robots are coming... Will technology ever replace teachers?


Can you be linked in, online and all over the world, and still…be still?


Technology in the Classroom: Are you a Skeptic, Believer, or Somewhere In Between?


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