How smart are smartboards really?

Smartboards are easy to hate: Firstly, they require the all-knowing teacher to learn new things. Secondly, they have a pretentious name. And finally, in our set of teaching tools they are the smart-arse type who claims to be better at everything.
Perhaps we should hold on for a minute and see, how much of this is true.

A smartboard is a combination of a digitizer surface, a data projector and a computer. You can have them as a set of three different devices or as one device integrating these three components. You use digitizer pens, or in some cases, in an almost god-like fashion, your finger to conjure up the writing on the wall.
If this impresses you, think again: You admire three sophisticated devices and some electricity performing a trick which has been pulled off with some chalk and a slate since antiquity. We’d better try to find some more arguments for smartboards. Here they come.

Smartboards are motivating.

No, they aren’t. As long as they are new, they may stimulate children’s curiosity. Just like a dead rat in the corner would. But initial curiosity will soon be followed by indifference, boredom, destruction. All right, the last one is no real danger, because system failure from negligence by the school board’s maintenance plans will be faster.
However, it is generally unrealistic to expect a long-term effect on motivation from something flashy, like a new piece of technology, a hip new teaching method or a better colour concept of the school’s interior design. Only well-prepared content can generate interest, and a smartboard is nothing but a presentation tool for content.

Smartboards represent modern teaching.

So what? In teaching, we should never do something, because it is “modern”. Your Didactics professors might have told you otherwise, but usually they have their own agenda. We decide for techniques which we find best suited to serve our purpose. Whether they are untrendy or fashionable is not our concern.

Smartboards are interactive

Not true. Smartboards are electronic hardware. They can be on or off. Nothing else. Software can be interactive. So, go and check which software is available for your classes and don’t forget it comes with its own price tag. I am pretty sure this will sober you up. Apart from that: If interactivity is a key feature for you, we should be talking about student PCs and not about smartboards.

Smartboards beat blackboards hands down

Y…o. Their strengths are pretty obvious, though. You can

  • present images, video, sound from one device and, thus, integrate them seamlessly into your lessons
  • use technology without carrying stuff around and setting it up
  • prepare sophisticated layouts and schemes for your learners instead of those crude cave paintings you usually create on your blackboard
  • save the visible results at the end of a lesson

OK, the last point is rather weak. If your lessons go as planned, you don’t need to do this, and if they don’t, you have bigger problems than smartboards. But the first three points are quite impressive.

So where are the weaknesses of smartboards?

  • If you want to produce the same quick-and-dirty lines and letters you produce on a blackboard, there are no drawbacks. You can do that. Of course this would be completely pointless, because a piece of chalk is just fine for the job.
  • Smartboards are considerably smaller than blackboards. It will take you quite some effort to save and reload canvas contents. Screen real estate is expensive.
  • All the nicer smartboard tools require an orgy of points, clicks and settings to be properly used. This is time you spend with your back to your class. Not the most preferable way of teaching. (Unless you call it “modern”.)
  • Smartboards don’t like sunlight. If you don’t want to be affected by poor visibility, you will also need to invest in good sun blinds. Flatscreens are better suited than data projectors, by the way.

So, is it all bad, then?

No, it isn’t. If we don’t treat technology as a form of religion, but as a tool, it can be very helpful. Here is what it really can do:

  • Smartboards are unnecessary, in most classrooms. What we need are images, video and sound. Any flatscreen TV can present these. Then we add a little PC and we have almost everything a smartboard offers. The only thing we are missing is pen input, and I don’t think we are actually missing it, because…
  • …we should keep our blackboards. They are large, indestructible, easy to use, and readable in all kinds of wheather. The flatscreen with its built-in speakers will then be an extra for all electronic media.
  • About that “little PC” I mentioned above: Teachers should be recompensated for buying and bringing their own notebooks and software. Thus, all teachers would have exactly what they need. With computers centrally provided by the authorities, nobody will have what they really need for their subjects.
  • Teachers’ Wi-Fi and a common file server would also be welcome.

Both an expensive smartboard or a simple flatscreen would allow us to present all materials and tools on our computers any time and in each lesson. No need to spend our ten-minute-break hunting down speakers or CD players in the school building.
Leave our blackboards untouched, give us large flatscreen as an extra, and, please, leave “modern”, “interactive”, “learner-oriented” and the like to us. This is our job, after all.