Part of my role as ILT Liaison Officer at South East Essex College is to train tutors in the use of interactive whiteboards. Across our campuses in Southend and Thurrock we have over 50 boards including Promethean and Smart interactive units and training can be arranged at any time via an online booking form on seeNet (our VLE) for both groups and interested individuals.
Are ordinary whiteboards in our learning centres obsolete?
Alas, the short answer is no. Our first boards were Promethean and early versions of the software proved to be unreliable and unstable, often crashing unexpectedly and fatally without warning. Unsurprisingly, many tutors found this ‘seat of the pants’ experience unacceptable when trying to do something as simple as writing on a board in front of their class. This is a ‘bread and butter’ aspect of teaching and learning but suddenly it became a complex, nerve wracking task accomplished only by the bravest, most IT literate members of our teaching teams.
Fortunately, things have improved with progressive software updates but there can be no denying the damage that has been done. First impressions of any new technology are vital. If users can’t see the benefits of new systems immediately why should we expect them to use them at all? As innovators, pushing the use of technology, we continually skate along a thin knife edge, being first to pioneer technology and systems while continually running the risk of alienating and ‘putting off’ the very people we want to be using that technology when things don’t work as expected. Three questions spring from this which can be applied to ILT in general and not just to the use of interactive whiteboards:
1. Should we wait for ILT systems to be 100% reliable before we push for their use?
2. Can IT based systems ever be 100% reliable?
3. Is there any point in over-complicating something which is relatively simple by using state of the art technology?
Firstly, IT based systems can never be 100% reliable. If we were to wait until they were we’d never get to use them. This is why Microsoft often gets blamed for releasing ‘unfinished’ or ‘buggy’ products which they later patch with updates. It’s impossible to find all the bugs in a complex piece of software and often fixing relatively small bugs leads to the creation of new, more serious ones. We need to test and use software and systems in the real world to discover problems and issues which may not surface until they are used on mass in the environments they were created for.
The risk of alienating or ‘putting off’ users through using technology which may not be 100% reliable is a risk we have to take. If we didn’t take this risk we’d never make advancements. There’s no doubt that undoing the ‘damage’ caused by the whiteboards early unreliability and rebuilding faith in their use is one of the largest barriers I have to face in increasing their use across the College but this can be achieved.
As for over-complicating something as simple as writing on a board through the use of technology, the benefits of the interactive software are huge and tutors receiving training are amazed at the potential the software offers. Importantly, interactive boards haven’t replaced the existing dry wipe boards; they co-exist in the same room, tutors have the choice to use either depending on the needs of the session. We’re not replacing the ‘bog standard’ board but merely offering a system with huge flexibility and scope that can transform the dullest ‘bread and butter’ element of teaching and learning into something far more stimulating.
Ultimately, first impressions do matter but they can be changed.