This is not your father’s classroom

I really didn’t expect to see this at the conference of educators I attended over the weekend – about 25 participants gathering in a darkened meeting room … dissecting a frog.

But this wasn’t the kind of sometimes-disturbing frog dissection I remember from middle school. No, this time there was absolutely no mess. In fact, there was no frog.

This very clean, very humane, very un-queasy dissection took place on a Smartboard, the leading brand of interactive whiteboards that are replacing chalkboards in classrooms throughout America (other brands include the Promethean ActivBoard, Luidia’s eBeam, Mimio, and PolyVision). Using a whiteboard, a computer and a projector, this class of teachers sliced and diced the virtual frog wide open, revealing the amphibian’s anatomy as well as one of the many awe-inspiring features of this new marvel of classroom technology.

Trainer Naomi Harm demonstrated the SmartBoard, and the participants were as captivated as, well, a pinned down frog.

For me, this was nothing short of amazing. I caught myself with my jaw hanging slightly open, like a kid watching a puppet show. I am somewhat of a tech gadget geek, and I work for an education association, so it surprises even me that I have never before seen a SmartBoard in action. I have heard and seen enough about them to instinctively know they are cool and useful but I had no idea about the incredible extent of their abilities to enhance learning, raise student interest, help teachers manage their curriculum – and their students – and make education so much more insightful and fun.

And while I knew they were becoming increasingly common in classrooms, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are permeating schools until Naomi told me that 74% to 88% of classrooms in her area at least have access to one. (In many cases, that means more than one classroom share an interactive whiteboard on wheels.)

I don’t have space here to go into all the things a Whiteboard can do – and I couldn’t possibly do it justice anyway – but you can get an idea by watching this YouTube video.

One thing I learned that I didn’t know before is that the image on the whiteboard is projected from a regular old computer or laptop equipped with special software. I guess I thought the whiteboard had a computer inside of it. Not the one I saw Naomi demonstrate. Another cool application of an interactive whiteboard, I learned, is that the teacher can record a lesson so students can review it later – maybe because they were absent, either physically or mentally.

According to Naomi and some of the teachers I talked with, many of the interactive white boards in use were purchased with grant money, including recent federal “stimulus funds.” Others were bought with targeted money included in school district referendums. But, of course, many school districts don’t win the grants and just can’t afford them.

As you can imagine, the things are not cheap, although they are not quite as much as I thought they might be. Naomi gave me some general figures which I calculate as suggesting you can get an entire package – the board, cart (wheels), computer, and projector – for around $3,000. But we all know that school district budgets are going the other direction. And whiteboards, unlike the old fashioned chalk boards, require a lot of professional development in addition to the hardware and software. Yes, the software accomplishes amazing things, but that means that teachers have a lot to learn about it to make good use of it. And, as with any software, the training is ongoing. And, as with any technology, I suspect there are ongoing maintenance issues and costs.

So that all leads to this growing dilemma: If classrooms are going to teach students in ways they can best understand, and in ways that they find interesting, and in ways that will truly prepare them for our technology-dominated world, they are going to have to keep up with technology, and interactive whiteboards are in many ways the epitome of that technology in the classroom. Yet, the demand is growing for this expansive – and expensive – technology at a time when schools can least afford it.

How is this all going to play out? Educators, students and parents are anxious to find out. And so are a lot of very nervous frogs.

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