Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Interactive whiteboards: A Comparison + Some Alternatives

Guest Post By Matt Shufro
Editor's Note: Too many schools are not smart when it comes to interactive whiteboards and other projection devices. This is a smart and insightful look into what projection device might make the most sense classrooms.
Over the last ten years, smart boards have become mainstays in K-12 classrooms.   Many educators believe this interactive whiteboard technology enhances classroom learning with increased student engagement and focus.  However, one of the downsides of this technology is the cost-per-implementation, which can be thousands of dollars per installation.   Fortunately, today there are less expensive alternatives that offer similar functions.  In some cases these substitutes offer unique advantages over existing smart board technology.  Budget conscious decision-makers should evaluate all available options before moving forward with a purchase.   

What is an interactive whiteboard?

An interactive whiteboard (IWB), as defined by Wikipedia, is “a large interactive display that connects to a computer. A projector projects the computer's desktop onto the board's surface where users control the computer using a pen, finger, stylus, or other device. The board is typically mounted to a wall or floor stand.”  Two of the biggest manufacturers of IWBs are SMART Technologies and Promethean.
SMART Boards:
SMART Boards command a significant portion of the K-12 interactive whiteboard market. All SMART interactive whiteboards enable users to write notes in digital ink using a finger or pen.  Features include:
  • Smart Pen(s)
  • Widescreens of various sizes and resolutions
  • Projector
  • Access to SMART Notebook software and SMART Exchange
Key Feature Spotlight:
SMART Board offers collaborative learning software, called SMART Notebook, which boasts over three million users.  SMART Notebook enables teachers to create and share lessons and access other education content. SMART Exchange is an online library that offers more than 60,000 free lessons and teaching resources.  
  • Approximate Cost: $4-11K per single installation. (Bulb price ~$200)
  • Optional Half-Day Training:  $1K
Purchase considerations:
A key decision criterion for purchasing a SMART Board should focus on the SMART Notebook and Exchange library.  Many teachers enjoy building lessons using the SMART Notebook while others complain that the resources available in the Exchange library are of variable quality.  There can be a steep learning curve associated with these applications which may require expensive professional development training.  It is also important to note that many of these SMART IWBs are not mobile.
Promethean Boards:
Promethean offers a range of interactive whiteboard systems.  Promethean, like SMART Board, has captured a large percentage of the K-12 interactive whiteboard market.  Promethean features include:
  • Touch and/or ActivPen
  • Widescreens of various sizes and resolutions
  • Projector
  • ClassFlow, ActiveInspire, Promethean ActivOffice
Key Feature Spotlight:
Promethean offers ActivInspire software which helps teachers create lessons that make use of the Promethean board functions.  In addition, teachers have access to 90,000+ resources on Promethean Planet, which offer teachers assistance building lessons.  Finally, ActivOffice is a plug-in for PowerPoint that lets users incorporate collaborative features of ActivInspire within PowerPoint to create two-way presentations.
  • Approximate Cost:  $4-6.5K per single implementation. (Bulb price $90-$200)
  • Optional Half-Day Training:  $1K
Purchase considerations:
Once again, a key decision criterion for purchasing a Promethean Board should focus on the accompanying software and available resources.    Like SMART Board, the featured software can be a challenge to master and may require expensive professional development training.  Finally, it is also important to note that these Promethean IWBs are not particularly mobile.  
Applet TV/ iPad/Mac:
The key feature in this implementation is called Apple Airplay.  AirPlay lets the user wirelessly stream content on an iOS device (e.g. iPad)/Mac to a HDTV and speakers via Apple TV, or mirror exactly what’s on the iPad/computer display to the big screen.  Teachers can easily display notes, steps and processes to problems by wirelessly streaming/mirroring to a HDTV from an IOS or Mac device.  This technology is used to present media, such as audio, pictures and video.  In addition, most “smart board software” which converts the iPad to a touchscreen can be duplicated by applications available for iPads now in the Apple App Store.
Features include:
  • HD TV widescreen of various sizes and resolutions
  • Apple TV
  • iPad(s), Mac computer(s)
  • Access to iPad software
Key Feature Spotlight:
With the Apple TV and wireless iPad setup, a teacher does not need to be at the front of the classroom during classroom instruction.  At the same time, because an iPad is easy to use, teachers can easily toggle among applications.  Students who have iPads can also take turns connecting their iPads to mirror presentations and display other interactive activities.  Since using an IOS device is familiar to most students and teachers, there is a relatively easier learning curve when introducing this technology into the classroom.   
  • Approximate Cost:  $1K per single implementation (Projector, Apple TV, iPad, router)
Purchase considerations:
An Apple TV, combined with an iPad, can offer similar, if not superior, functions and flexibility when compared to a traditional smart board at a comparatively lower cost.  This implementation is also scalable and allows for increased student/teacher mobility relative to SMART Boards.   The Apple App store offers many useful educational, productivity and collaboration applications.
Document Cameras:
Product description:
Document cameras, also known as visual presenters, digital overheads, or docucams, are image capture devices that display an object(s) to an audience.  A document camera can magnify and project the images of actual, three-dimensional objects, as well as transparencies.  Document projectors are best understood as the modern day equivalent to the traditional projector.  Today’s document projectors can easily be hooked up to a DLP/LCD projector directly or through a computer.  Unlike the previous alternatives outlined, document projectors are not accompanied with educational software.
  • Approximate Cost: $100 - 500
Key Feature Spotlight:
Simplicity:  Document scanners are easy to set up and operate in the classroom.  
Purchase considerations:
Document projects are inexpensive and easy to use.  While they lack software similar to the other alternatives, they can easily be paired with most laptops or computers.  As such, Docucams offer a compelling, cost-effective alternative to more expensive interactive whiteboards.
Chromebooks and Chromecast
Product description:
A Chromebook is a personal computer running Chrome OS as its operating system. The devices are designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet, with most applications and data residing "in the cloud.”  As such, Chromebooks are relatively inexpensive.  
  • Approximate Cost:  $200 to $400 per notebook.  
Key Feature Spotlight:
Chromebooks are easy to setup and manage.  The Chrome OS is almost identical to a Chrome browser.  Consequently, the learning curve required for this device is minimal.
A Chromecast is a thumb-sized media streaming device that plugs into the HDMI port on a TV.  Similar to the Apple TV, the Chromecast can send media and more to a TV using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.   
Note:  In addition to a Chromebook, any notebook (Mac or PC) can stream to Chromecast device via a Chrome browser.
  • Cost:  $30-35
Key Feature Spotlight:
Chromecast allows teachers and students to stream directly from Chrome web browser.  Hence, teachers can easily mirror/stream browser-based applications and media to a connected TV.  
Important:  Teachers and school administrators have voiced concerns regarding students connecting their smartphones (IOS or Android) to a Chromecast without permission.  This issue is worth monitoring until Google updates the Chromecast software with additional accessibility/security controls.
When evaluating the various interactive whiteboards, it is important to recognize that selecting one of these options does not guarantee a “smart classroom” transformation.  Too often, schools purchase expensive SMART and Promethean interactive whiteboards only to discover that these tools did not fundamentally alter how teachers engaged students. 

Rather than promote active learning via increased student interaction with the smart boards, teachers simply replicated teaching methods associated with traditional projectors, chalk or dry erase markers.  This issue is further complicated by the proprietary nature of these IWB technologies.  Many interactive whiteboards require a substantial learning curve. Of course, this issue can be alleviated by purchasing training from these same companies, further increasing the total cost of adoption.  
Alternatively, we expect the advent of wireless streaming and mirroring technologies will increasingly compete for a share of the IWB market.  This technology, as evidenced by both the Apple AirPlay feature and Google Chromecast, while not only cost-effective, may prove to be a superior learning technology.  Collaboration software developments for these platforms are still in their infancy and we expect this capacity will continue to grow.   In addition, most teachers and students have a familiarity with these platforms and do not need significant training.  Also, expect Microsoft to offer similar product configurations in the near future.

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