Even though it’s summer vacation in Ontario, we’re still thinking about ways to integrate technology into the classroom.

In fact, we’re considering investing in a SMART board, so we spent some time reflecting on the pros and cons of some of the educational technologies to help us teach in the classroom.  From low-tech to high-tech, chalk and markers to digital ink, there are many different options:

The Basics: Chalkboards, Flipcharts, Whiteboards, and Overhead Projectors

They’re the staple in any classroom: throw up a lesson on the blackboard, do some shared writing on a flipchart, use a white board to deal with the chalk dust problem, and slap on a photocopied handout onto the overhead. Using these four basic food groups, you can deal with everything from learning to read to solving algebraic equations.

Pros

  • Reliable technology: Low-tech so your lessons are never interupted by a system crash or a misaligned touch screen. Just make sure you have enough chalk and markers around.
  • Easy for students to use. Familiar technology and you don’t have to worry about breakage or theft.
  • Easy to have multliple students working at the same time. (i.e. you can have several students working on a problem at the board at one time.)
  • Easy to write. Doesn’t require any additional training or equipment (aside from chalk or markers.) Compare this with trying to write on the computer with digital ink.

Cons

Using a Digital (LCD / Data) Projector in the Classroom

A few years ago, we bought a digital (data) projector for our classroom. Sure, our school had a projector on a media cart, but to be perfectly honest, it was inconvienient to have to share it with the entire school. (And murder if you had to “wheel” the cart up a flight of stairs.)

We’ve adopted a balanced literacy approach to explicitly teach decoding and comprehension strategies, and we wanted to use the computer projector pretty much 24/7. So we splurged a thousand bucks and bought our own.

We set up our data projector permanently on a tall filing cabinet. We use the entire side of the classroom wall to project a giant image of the teacher’s PC. Pretty much every day, we would use the data projector during our modeled and shared reading lessons, as well as during modeled and shared writing. It was hooked up to the internet, so we could use it for our media literacy lessons as well.

Pros

  • Attention-grabbing. After all, we live in a TV generation. (After some initial training, the novelty wears off and you can use the technology more effectively as a teaching tool.)
  • With the right set-up, you can display an image larger than any overhead projector image. Easy to read from anywhere in the classroom. In our class, we aren’t projecting onto your typical, pull-down, overhead projector screen. We’ve covered one side of the room with white paper and created a huge 7′ x 10′ image.
  • Can model how to effectively use technology. (Spell check, effective searching online, copyright issues) as well as critical thinking skills.
  • Easy to integrate multimedia into your lessons.
  • Can model comprehension strategies on non-traditional texts (i.e. blogs, wikipedia, website articles, ezines) as well as media texts (i.e. commercials, youtube)
  • Highlight lines of text or move your pointer so that students can follow along.
  • Integrate power point presentations into your lessons.
  • Easy to display quickly-changing information on the board (i.e. graphing in Math)
  • If your school has a scanner (and many photocopiers / printers do have a scanning feature), then it’s easy to digitize stuff and throw it on the data projector in the same way that you would throw a photocopied transparency onto the overhead projector.

Cons

  • The biggest draw back is that you can’t (easily) write on your documents (compared to an overhead projector). Sure you may be able to type faster than you can write, but there are some things that are better done by handwriting (i.e. revising or editing a piece of shared-writing.) Digital ink can be tricky or expensive.
  • Technical difficulties – technology doesn’t always work. Computers crash, hardware fails, bulbs burn-out… all when you least expect it.
  • Expensive. Although the price of projectors are continually dropping, you’ll still have to shell out $500 to $1000 for a decent, new data projector.
  • Security. We’ve locked our projector to the desk to prevent theft, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong. Will you lock it up at night? Take it home on the weekends? Where do you put it when you have a supply teacher covering your class?
  • Insurance and Replacement Cost: Chances are your personal items aren’t covered under the school’s insurance plan and won’t be replaced if anything happens. Better call your home insurance provider to see if your belongings are protected at work.

Using a digital, interactive whiteboard (SMART Board) in the classroom

This summer, we’re thinking about upgrading our computer projector by adding a SMART Board to it. Essentially, a SMART board turns your data projector image into an interactive whiteboard that you can write on.

The SMART Board itself is a touch-sensitive giant screen that is connected to your computer. You use your digital projector to display your computer screen onto the SMART board and the software allows you to touch and interact with your computer.

Pros

  • With the SMART Board, you can control any application through the touch board. So instead of working from behind the computer keyboard, you (or your students) can be at the front of the classroom physically interacting with the display.
  • You can use any of the 4 colours of markers or the eraser to write in digital ink over applications, web pages, or moving video. The SMART board still works if you lose the pens. (There are 4 coloured pen holders and one eraser. When you lift the pen out of the slot, it selects the colour or the eraser. When you touch the screen, it uses the selected color or the eraser.)
  • Like other digital ink software applications, you can save your work into a notebook file, and you can convert handwriting into text.

Cons

  • Hard to write. We had a smart board in a computer lab at school. The biggest disappointment with the digital ink comes from the fact that a SMART Board is a front-mounted projection screen. This means that your data projector is set up infront of the screen (like an overhead projector). Which means that when you stand in between the projector and the screen, you cast a shadow on the screen… right where you are trying to write. Sure, it was cool to interact with programs by touching the screen, but, it was hard to write notes because you were constantly blocking the image.
  • Hard to write neatly. To be perfectly honest, it was a little disappointing how our handwriting turned out on the SMART Board. Better than our experiences with the i-pen, but the handwriting was still large, blocky, and messy. One of the things you have to train yourself to do is to not lean up against the SMART Board. When you write on a blackboard or white board, you typically rest the edge of your palm on the board. If you do that on a touch screen, the cursor jumps to your palm and it doesn’t work out. You have to train yourself to just write using the tip of the pen. In addition, there might have been a way to change the pen thickness, but we didn’t have access to the training materials. The pen worked fine if we wanted to underline or circle key ideas, but if you wanted to edit or revise a 12 point, double-spaced Word Document, you’d have a hard time getting the control required.
  • You still have to move back and forth from the keyboard to the screen. We could start up our web browser by touching the SMART board, but when it came time to enter in the website address, we had to go back to the desk to type in the URL. (We were exploring virtual eco-spheres in Science and were using the SMART Board to model how to navigate through the website.) It might have been easier to just stay at the keyboard for that lesson.)
  • Only 1 person at a time can use the SMART Board. With a regular chalkboard or white board, you can have multiple people writing at the same time. With a digital SMART Board, you can only have one person using the touch screen at a time. Even though there are 4 markers, only 1 marker (color) can be used at a time. (If two people touch the screen in different places, the mouse simply jumps around.)
  • Expensive. The Total Cost of Ownership of a SMART Board can be prohibitive for the classroom teacher. Retail cost of a 77″ (195.6cm) front-projection SMART Board Interactive whiteboard is $1399 (USD) with a grant from the SMARTer Kids Foundation of Canada. (www.SmarterKids.org)
  • You need to supply your own data projector. A new, decent projector will cost around $500 – $1000. The SMART Board is just a giant touch pad. Your need to provide your own projector to display the image onto the smart board. (Software, connection cables, and stand are included.)
  • You may want to upgrade to a wireless connection ($199 USD) to eliminate the cables and the tripping hazards in the classroom.
  • The screen image and the SMART Board touch screen may get knocked out of alignment. This means that when you try to click a button, the mouse pointer appears a few inches to the side. You’ll have to realign your hardware which would interrupt the lesson.
  • You may want to mount your SMART Board and Data Projector. SMART Boards come with their own floor stand, although there is always a risk that it can be knocked over during the lesson. SMART Boards can also be wall mounted with a bracket included with the purchase, however, wall mounting will typically require a work-order to the school board. By mounting both the SMART Board and the Digital Projector, however, you ensure that the touch screen is always correctly aligned with the image. However, given that teaching assignments and room assignments often change, permanently attaching your SMART board to the room might not be the wisest choice.
  • You have the same concerns as the data projector with regards to technology failure, security concerns, as well as insurance and replacement issues. Although Smart Technologies, the makers of the SMART Board claim that “to date, no SMART board interactive whiteboard surface has needed replacing as a result of normal K-12 classroom use.” (Source: http://education.smarttech.com/ste/en-US/Classroom+solutions/Advantages/tco.htm)

Trying to Write Using a Digital Projector (Digital Ink)

It’s ironic. The hardest thing to do with a computer is the easiest thing to do without a computer: write with a pen.

The greatest drawback with using a data projector is the fact that you can’t easily mark up a text with handwriting. With an overhead projector, you just buy an overhead marker and off you go with pretty colours. Whether you’re editing a piece of writing, making jot notes in the margins, or drawing a diagram or formula, as teachers we can’t get away from writing.

Writing on your Word documents or web pages is called digital ink and most software applications that come with a digital pen also allow you to save your handwritten notes or to convert your handwriting into text.

i-Pen

We tried using a digital pen (i-pen) that we bought off of e-bay to write on our Word documents. It came with software which let you mark up webpages and documents that you could even save and print (just like with an overhead marker).

It would have been perfect, but the handwriting quality wasn’t very good. At the start, our hand-writing looked like Grade 1 printing. Towards the end, after a lot of practice, it looked like Grade 3 printing. Overall, the i-pen was a neat interface to do art or graphic design, but it wasn’t precise enough to use for handwriting in the classroom.

SMART Board

This past school year, we were lucky enough to be at a school that had a SMART Board in the computer lab. Great technology, but it was a little disappointing to find out that even with a SMART Board, we still had poor penmanship.

Digital Pens

There are, of course other options to be able to write on your computer and data projector. Whether you’re looking at a Tablet PC or thinking about buying a SMART Sympodium touch-screen for your computer monitor (I’m a sucker for marketing), the bottom line is how easy is it to use, how legible is your handwriting, and how expensive is the technology.

Pros

  • Digital ink allows you to write directly onto non-traditional and multimedia texts. You can’t do this with just a data projector.
  • Completely eliminate the overhead projector.
  • Save notes so that absent students can get copies of the lesson.

Cons

  • You have the same concerns as the data projector with regards to technology failure, security concerns, as well as insurance and replacement issues.
  • The handwriting never seems to be as good as what you can do with a real pen. For now, digital ink always seems to be difficult to use and involves a huge learning curve to produce messy handwriting with large brush strokes.

Bottom Line

A few years ago, when we decided to buy a data projector for our own use in the classroom, it was a huge investment and a big risk, but it radically changed the way that we taught. We still use the blackboard, the flipchart paper, the overhead projector, but the data projector has become a staple in our classroom.

So, it only makes sense that we continue to raise the bar as we investigate how to bring digital ink into the classroom.

Does anyone teach with digital ink? Anyone have any experience using a digital pen to write on their computers?

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Samantha Rivers September 10, 2011, 1:25 PM

    Hi Mr. Kuroneko,

    You are right that only one person can touch the SMART Board at a time. However, every classroom does have a class set of Senteo clickers. I tend to use the clickers more so all students can be engaged.
    The SMART Board lessons are different because students have to take turns coming to the board to touch the correct answer or be involved in the lesson. With the clickers, I try to be creative and use game formats. For example, a scavenger hunt where when the students choose the correct answer, they receive the next clue.
    Something I would love to have would be the SMART Board table. This is a piece of technology where the lesson is displayed at each child’s table seat. They can manipulate the lesson individually and it is displayed on the actual board (I have heard wonderful things about it!!).
    I hope this helps. However, I would still love to have iPads for students to use too!
    -Samantha

    Reply
    • classroomtechnology September 11, 2011, 6:37 PM

      Hi Samantha, I’ve actually never heard of the SMART table until you mentioned it here. Thanks for the lead. I looked it up and it does look pretty darn cool: http://smarttech.com/us/Solutions/Education+Solutions/Products+for+education/Complementary+hardware+products/SMART+Table

      At first, I thought you were referring to their slates which haven’t really caught my attention because i find they’re just like another wireless mouse. The SMART tables look like something out of a science fiction movie, but I’d be curious about the price points. It’s basically a multiple touch display on a desk, so you still need to provide your own computer. If I had to choose, I’d probably still go for a class set of iPads, but a class set of SMART table desks would be jaw dropping. Maybe that’s what the next generation will consider standard.

      Cheers, Kisu

      Reply
  • Damilola Alalade November 6, 2011, 7:21 AM

    I understand that there are many cons with the Smart Board especially the occasional awkward writing and the overhead projector but the uses far outweighs the disadvantages. These boards are fun and easy to use. Helps the teacher cover more in a short space of time and especially when used with relevant software as well as the internet. The students are well engaged throughout the lesson and it helps extend their learning. In my classroom, one way I beat these shortcomings is to use an electronic tablet which is connected to the computer via a USB cord. Sometimes I stand on the side facing the board and away from the projector.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • classroomtechnology November 29, 2011, 6:30 PM

      Hi Damilola, thanks for your input. Out of curiosity – how many students do you have in your classroom? I think certainly technology can be a great hook to catch students’ attention, but I’m biased. I think with a SMART board or interactive whiteboard, you still have only one person engaging with the device at a time while the rest of the class watches. Using a tablet is a neat way to improve digital ink, but I’m not sure if I’m sold by the idea of being tethered with a USB cord.

      Right now, I’m playing with using Apple TV and an iPad 2 to airplay mirror onto the screen wirelessly, but then you can’t use it simultaneously with an interactive whiteboard…

      Reply

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