Taking the bored out of boards


Interactive screens could revolutionise the way lessons are taught. but teachers need proper training, says Tom Moggach

Britain leads the world in the introduction of interactive whiteboards; every class in my primary school has one. They work by connecting a computer to a projector, which then displays the screen on a touch-sensitive board that you control with your finger or an electronic "pen".

In theory, teachers can now engage children in the way they know best - by delivering the digital age to the front of the classroom. And the best lessons with an interactive whiteboard can be truly creative and inspiring. Children can start the school day by checking webcams across the world, and then use a video of the first moon walk as a stimulus for story-writing.

In a maths lesson, they could compete to get to the whiteboard to discuss their ideas about two-dimensional shapes, stretching, shrinking, rotating and flipping them. There are so many possibilities. In practice, however, the use of whiteboards in our schools is more problematic. Lack of training, information overload and the fact that the boards can be used simply to perpetuate the "chalk and talk" model of teaching are all proving to be obstacles in the way of realising their potential. Installation of the boards - they cost £2,000 each - is just the beginning of the journey. Although the Department for Education has invested £50 million in the hardware over the past two years, and schools have added more from their own budgets, money for training has been limited and support is patchy.

Teachers are spending precious hours trying to get to grips with the hardware and the proliferation of software that goes with it. "The boards were parachuted in, but for some schools they have been a burden," says Margaret Allen of Promethean, a manufacturer of interactive classroom technology. "If teachers don't understand how the boards work, it's not fair to expect them to incorporate the boards into their teaching. No business would operate like that."

Fears about the boards are voiced from all sides in the education debate. Technology enthusiasts such as Paul Hynes, an adviser for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, worry about a board's position in the classroom. They are installed at the front, and that can mean even more lessons in which the whole class passively watches the teacher, who is in control and doing most of the talking.

"The person who holds the electronic pen has the power, and everyone else is powerless," says Mr Hynes. "The whiteboards are keeping teachers in the comfort zone and haven't yet changed what they do."

Another problem is the temptation for teachers to use the whiteboards as a way of bringing virtual experiences to their pupils in place of the real thing.

Why bother with the hassle of collecting resources for a science experiment when you can download a flashy digital version? Why spend 15 minutes on the paperwork for a class trip to the local park when you can simply project photos on to the whiteboard?

Children learn best by doing rather than watching, by being active rather than passive. So the introduction of whiteboards has mixed implications. Not all teachers have the skills and experience to use the new technology to the full.

"The worst lessons are those when the children stare at the board for the entire 35 minutes," says Mary Rebelo, a whiteboard trainer. "They already stare at screens enough at home."

"It ought to be so much more than point and click," says Margaret Allen. "I passionately believe that the board should be used as a speaking and listening generator.

"The whole point is to use it to make the lesson meaningful, so that the pupils are inspired to express their own opinions." Interactive technology comes easily to today's children, who instinctively understand what it offers. They talk casually of projector bulbs, hyperlinks and screen glare.

"It's just a great big toy, an Xbox in the classroom," says Gethin Nichols, a schools advisor for RM, a leading company in the field of information and communication technology.

"The problem is that some teachers struggle to master technology that is second nature to their pupils."

There can be no doubt that interactive boards will play a key role in the classrooms of the future and that new technologies will promote greater pupil involvement.

Electronic slates and tablet PCs that let children control or write on the board from where they are sitting have been developed. Wireless voting systems - keypad devices that enable pupils to guide lessons and teachers to assess every pupil's response - are already on the market.

As teachers shake themselves free from the mesmeric effect of the boards, we are learning when and how to use them. True, teachers must break with their established routines.

But I believe that this thrilling new tool will allow us to offer children creative and memorable classroom experiences that have never before been possible.