The long and damaging shadow of Interactive Whiteboards

It’s a good job everybody had already made their bonfire night plans cos after yesterday I suspect that many schools would have come back after half-term to find smouldering piles of Interactive Whiteboards littering their playgrounds. Certainly wasn’t a lot of love around for the old IWB yesterday on Twitter.

The starting point for the discussion was this article which looked at the £253k being spent by the EEF on a tablet project. On the face (see details on EEF site here) of it the project appears to be a proper research effort rather than a way of buying more iPads. Personally, I think that this is a step in the right direction. There is at least some sense in coming up with a proposition and testing it. Time will tell if the research design is up to the task.

Consider how most organisations decide whether to change how they do things in response to technological development. Firstly, they often do this out of competitive fear.

Director 1 – “New technology X now exists”

Director 2 – “Competitor Y might use it and gain an advantage.”

Director 1 – “What should we do?”.

Director 2 – “Lets investigate the technology, see if it can help us, and then do a cost benefit analysis.”

They first look at an area of their organisation where there is a problem. They then consider what possible solutions there could be to the problem that any new technology could provide. They then spend money testing to see if the technology will help their organisation. Finally, having tested they look to see if the benefits that arise outweigh the costs of implementation. As an example of the the scale of such spending, consider that in 2010 Intel invested $8billion in retooling several manufacturing plants. Imagine the work that went on beforehand to assess the benefits of spending that amount.

Consider how the above conversation has traditionally gone at the DfES/DCSF/DfE:

Civil Servant 1 –  “New technology X now exists”

Minister 1 – “How shiny is it?”

Civil Servant 1 – “Very.”

Minister 1 – “Buy shedloads.”

The story of how the schools of England came to be infested with IWBs is a salutary one, There are many versions of how it came to pass that Charles Clarke announced at BETT in 2004 that there would be a £50m starting fund to introduce IWBs into schools, but none of them include any research into their benefits. Possibly £500m later we have many schools with IWBs in every classroom. Now, before we get our knickers in too much of a twist about the big numbers we should remember that this expenditure has occurred over a decade. So cost about £6 per child per year. Yes, we can all think of other ways to spend that sum, but we should also keep some perspective whilst we look at why this was such a bad move.

I am not going to criticise or gainsay with evidence any teacher who wants to use an IWB. It is the case that while the evidence on IWBs is mixed (to say the least), this is often down to the research being an attempt to say that, across the system, IWBs are a good/bad thing. I have seen teachers who use them to enhance learning in wonderful ways. But that can never be an argument for what became an essentially whole country implementation plan. They were introduced without any clear idea of what problem they were meant to solve, or how they would be used to enhance the learning of children. There was scandalously little training for teachers to use what remains a complex piece of kit. And they were bolted onto technology environments that were already creaking at the knees due to rapid expansion with little investment. Often the board wouldn’t work because the PC it was attached to was 5 years old. They were put into rooms with south-facing windows without budgeting for blinds. Projectors were hung from ceilings in such a way as to take out desperately needed seating space in the classrooms. I could go on and on and on.

As an aside, I would say that many of the issues with IWBs that arise in secondary settings are not always replicated in primary. There are a number of reasons for this. The principle one is that in primary the interactivity tends to be between the system and the children, which is where it can often have best effect. Training of 6-12 primary teachers is also an easier task than the 60-100 in secondary. And whole school approaches are easier to achieve in a smaller setting. There are also curriculum areas in secondary where the IWB has been used to good effect – many Maths departments were often the early adopters.

Over the past 10 years I have been into many schools (predominantly secondary), often specifically to see their use of technology, and have rarely seen IWBs being widely used, except as a projection surface. In most cases the teachers would have been better served by a projector (which is, IMHO, an essential teaching tool) and a BIG white board. Preferably two BIG whiteboards. I would say that 90% of the affordances of the projector/IWB combo used in schools would be able to be gained by simply having the projector.

Why have IWBs not been a great success? To reiterate, I would suggest it comes down to four reasons:

  • At the time they were introduced schools had a generally poor technology infrastructure. Adding more hi-tech equipment just caused more problems, and teachers won’t use equipment they can’t rely on.
  • Lack of training.
  • Lack of interactive content. There was an assumption that teachers would generate their own content and share it. Well, firstly, interactive content is not easy to produce, so the pool of producers was even smaller than the pool of IWB users. Secondly (treads warily) whilst teachers are natural sharers from a giving perspective, they are not great at using unamended materials from others. Teachers like to use stuff they have modified for their own use. So the pool of potential users got smaller. This left commercial product, which was expensive.
  • No-one really knew what problem they were meant to solve, which meant no-one really knew how they were to be used.

Now, I can understand why such a spectacular failure (and spending that much money without commensurate benefit can only be described that way) would provide a platform for those who want to argue against any and all technology changes. But it shouldn’t. All change costs money, and many suggestions for change will turn out to be dead-ends or, at best, cul-de-sacs. The important thing is that we consider carefully where to spend the money. There are some things we do in schools where there is general agreement that it works and where possible we should do more of it. So spending £500m on some of those things would be good. And should be prioritised.

However, we should also not pretend that we can always know in advance of trying something that it will not work. So, Hattie as guidance, not dogma. That is where research comes in.

Unfortunatly, schools have been very badly served by research up to now. Particularly when it comes to looking at technology. I think the problem is this: People expect the big answer. They expect a technology to completely change things. “Which one technology can I buy that would change everything?” This is because there is a recognition of the big changes that technology have made to peoples everyday lives, over many years. In many ways, schools have failed to keep up with these changes. Much of the fault for this has been out of the control of individual schools. And schools have not been well served by those who should have been helping them with this issue.

Research into big changes is difficult because of the number of variables that come into play. It becomes almost impossible to control for them in any experimental design. Which makes the research meaningless. Research into the changes technology can facilitate needs to concentrate on smaller things. On the more incremental improvements. Modern technology, which is more concerned with the personal, facilitates this.

So whilst it is possible to criticise the BBC report into the EEF research (and many have), this is misguided. Research costs money, and much of it will be spent on things that come to nowt. I would argue that we need much more spent in this way, by more than just the EEF. The EEF is funded by a £125m grant. I would like to see that expanded by a factor of 10 and spread out among other providers (instinctively I don’t trust the single provider model). Bigger projects (such as the one we started this post with) should have smaller precursor research.

My gut feeling (yes, I know, but it does have its own validity), from years of work in industrial and educational settings is that appropriate use of technology can improve learning and teaching. I know this because I have seen it happen. I have also seen (and lived through) many of the issues that led to failure. Most of those improvements don’t scale. Most of them don’t cross phase well. Most of them don’t cross from one subject to the other. Many of them don’t survive changes in technology. Far to many of them have been the carefully-nurtured project of one person in a school and so fail the sustainability test (they often even fail to follow the person as their next school can’t implement). Far, far too many of them pass the “shiny” test but fail the cost benefits test. These are the “technology looking for a problem” ones rather than “a problem looking for technology”. There is very little software/hardware used in schools that was designed specifically for the purpose of supporting learning and teaching.

If we spend more on (better) research we will have fewer pieces of unused equipment bolted to the walls, fewer cupboards filled with data loggers and, coming to a school near you soon, fewer 3D printers gathering dust on the shelves. We just have to steel ourselves for the inevitable failures and recognise that they are a good thing. Far better to spend £10m on a research project that shows a change has no benefit than spending £500m to find it out.

17 thoughts on “The long and damaging shadow of Interactive Whiteboards

  1. You may like to read my post at, which addresses the same question of why so much ed-tech has not had the desired effect.

    I agree with Karen that there has been too much emphasis on hardware (though I’m not sure how focusing on tablets is going to solve that problem). This is one way of saying that we have not developed enough of our own, education-specific technology – we have just, in the words of Prof Diana Laurillard, “appropriated everyone else’s technology”.

    On Mike’s four bullet points, I would say

    * yes, the tech has to be bullet-proof;

    * no, good ed-tech should not require training, which hardly ever has any effect anyway – see my post;

    * yes, yes, yes, the lack of content is critical – but you have to understand what is meant by “content” – see my post again;

    * sort of. The problem that whiteboards (which are really just a big touch-screen on the wall) are meant to solve is to run interactive software in a plenary environment. Period. What is meant to solve the pedagogical issue is the software which (see point 3 above) we didn’t have. So this point is really a repetition of point 3: no content. It was like building HS2 but not buying any trains to run on the tracks.


    1. Thanks for the comments Crispin.

      I would say that every technology requires training, however good it is, to get the best out of it. Yes, a 2 year old can ‘operate’ an iPad, but they would be able to set up iCloud on it. Training is is particular issue with tech in education as often, because it has been appropriated from its ‘real’ use, it is not being used in its natural way.

      Having said that, the better the tech gets the less training is required eg operating a TiVo is easier that setting an old Betamax, even though it is a more complex technology.

      1. Hi Mike,

        Thanks for the reply. I don’t think there is much between us, except for a slight difference of emphasis. What I wrote on my blog post was that training should be for intermediate users, who have already bought into the concept, and wanted to get the best out of the tech. But too often, training is used as a means of forcing (often half-witted) views or technologies on apathetic – if not positively unwilling – trainees. I reference David Weston at researchEd2013, referencing a TDA survey that showed that only 1% of INSET had the characteristics required to have real impact. Add in NOF in 2003, and the record of training-led tech deployment is pretty dismal.

        The minimization of the training requirement requires a change in the model of the teacher from innovator to consumer. Which is something that Apple has done very well. Even setting up iCloud is hardly very difficult. In fact, I think that the move to cloud is the key technical development that is allowing for the consumerisation of technology.

        We agree on that trend. The problem is that we do not have a real market for education-specific technology. Most teachers do not even understand the requirement. They cling to a view that if you give them some generic technology – very often hardware – then they can do all the innovation themselves – when we have overwhelming evidence that they are unable to do this. They also that they can get away with buying free software – which gives hours of amusement to hobbyists who enjoy spending their evenings getting it to work and transferring CSV files, but is not so good for busy teachers who have a social life.

        I think one problem has been the “palpability fallacy”. Hardware must be expensive because you can see it. As you say, it’s shiny. But as for software – pah! – you can’t even see it. Becta spent years creating a (technically incompetent) IWB Common File Format – when it wasn’t a common file format for IWBs at all – it was a common file format for the presentation software which no-one seemed to notice, was included with the hardware in uncompetitive bundles.


  2. Mike – many thanks for your fair-minded article on the Education Endowment Foundation-funded project developed by Rosendale school for use in 24 schools in London, Essex and Manchester.

    Apologies for the delayed response, but I thought it might be helpful to give some context for you and your readers.

    All projects approved by the EEF’s trustees have to meet three criteria:

    (1) A particular emphasis on narrowing the attainment gap for pupils eligible for free school meals.
    The focus of the Rosendale project on meta-cognition is very interesting to us because the evidence is clear this approach is especially effective for pupils from low-income backgrounds (see for example the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit here: However, we also know this approach is difficult to achieve in real-life classrooms so a project developed within a school is of very real interest;

    (2) Evidence to back up the claim it will make a positive difference to the attainment of pupils’ learning.
    Rosendale has piloted this project in one of its Year 3 classrooms and found improved progress in average point scores among the FSM pupils as compared with those in the other Year 3 ‘control’ classrooms. However, the intervention has not been robustly tested at any scale and that is what the EEF’s grant will allow to happen. It will be evaluated by a team from Manchester University as a randomised controlled trial following a year of development. The results will be published irrespective of what they show so that the learning is shared;

    (3) Potential to be scaled-up if the evaluation shows a positive result so that many schools can benefit.
    One of our chief concerns (shared by you and your commenters, it seems) is that too many schools are investing heavily in new technologies without having a clear idea of how and why (eg) tablets are going to make a difference to teaching and learning. But the answer to that, we think, is not simply to say ‘stop’, but instead to ensure better evidence is made readily available to schools about how they can put new technologies to good use. The Rosendale project is one of seven grants we’ve awarded to try and build that evidence base so that schools can make informed choices. You can read about the others here:

    We published a review of the evidence on how technology has been applied in schools in advance of inviting grant applications: – it includes a really useful 1-sider on ‘Some contemporary myths about digital technology use in education’ which I suspect you might enjoy!

    1. Stephen – thank you for taking the time to make this helpful and informative response.

      I think there is a perception among those who are perhaps not so convinced about the use of technology in learning that all we see is more and more technology being purchased and more and more research projects that (traditionally) have not been very rigourous. Personally I have been convinced for a long time that the right technology in the right hands at the right time has the potential to have a very positive impact. I have, however, despaired over the years at report after report that attempts to use very weak, anecdotal evidence from poorly designed projects to justify a big spend that has already occurred.

      In this context it is good to see the way you are tackling this which should lead to much more confidence in the outcomes (whatever they may be). I think it would also be helpful if there was some way that the wider community could engage with the research program, being able to see how it is progressing, with as much information being made public as possible. This is particularly important with longer projects (such as Rosendale) which will have implications for many schools. Others will want to know early on if there is anything positive (or negative) coming out of the project.

      1. Thanks, Mike. I think we’d agree that technology has the potential to enhance learning – but we should start from what we know already. That’s why the technology projects we’ll be trialling are all based on sound pedagogy and existing evidence.

        We don’t publish interim results of project evaluations such as that in Rosendale – not because we want to be secretive but because it’s important the raw data doesn’t mislead or distort the trial. If those involved in the project (the schools, teachers, pupils) have information about how it appears to be going – whether well or badly – before the project’s been properly tested that could well influence their behaviour. And that means we won’t get a reliable final evaluation which we can publish for the whole world to see. Hope that makes sense!

  3. I think your article misses the key point that it is actually making which is that the IWB is and was never a bad thing. However the deployment was. Technology is not a solution, just a tool.

    I would also argue that an IWB is the simplest piece of tech in a classroom. The software that teachers assume they have to use can feel daunting and complicated, but you can still be more productive with a few quick tips than with a traditional whiteboard.

    I am not sure what the EEF project will achieve. The use of the technology is not really making any changes to what is already a recognised learning skill. Their stated aim is ‘This project will test the impact of a programme to teach children meta-cognitive, or ‘learning to learn’, skills. These skills are concerned with pupils’ ability to think about their learning explicitly: to assess their progress, set and monitor goals, and identify strengths and challenges in their learning.’

    The children are using the iPad to create a digital portfolio of their work. I can see many benefits of doing this but I am not sure that it is the best use of a £300+ piece of equipment (* 32). All of the issues surrounding iPad deployments are the same as the ones for the IWB. Teachers are not being supported with training.

  4. I agree, and definitely training is required for teachers. However as the parent of a dyslexic child, the ability to write on a board then print it out for someone saves the agony of “she wrote it on the board but I couldn’t copy it down in time”. However foe this to be successful requires consistency and awareness. The teacher needs to remember who needs this as the dyslexic child will often fail to request this either from fear of standing out or “I didn’t ask because miss was busy talking to X, I’ll try and find someone on Facebook who was there to see if they can tell me/let me copy it over the weekend”. Some schools & teachers are great at this, others less so.

  5. In my experience, the problem is that there has, historically, been an expectation that adding a hardware product to the classroom will suddenly (and miraculously) change student learning outcomes. I used to work for one of the top IWB companies and I had school administrators ask me if I could show them data that implementing IWBs in the classroom would change student test scores! And the “higher-ups” in my own company wanted me to find them research that would say such a thing. I thought I was through the looking glass!

    Now, at last, the prevailing recognition in the edtech market, among both the providers and the customers, is that the hardware is just a tool and that what you do with it is what counts. I think the IWB is in significant decline because it’s basically a one-trick pony. Tablets (especially iPads) are just much more flexible.

  6. Reblogged this on disrupt learning! and commented:
    This is a very long post, but I think well worth reading, particularly if you, like me, have been frustrated by widespread implementation of hardware technologies in classrooms without any real idea of how to make those implementations successful for teachers and kids.

  7. Absolutely right. We’ve abandoned IWBs in favour of good old fashioned whiteboards, a visualiser and a flat screen for projection and Ipad use. Takes up much less space, and helps take the focus off technology as the be all and end all in the classroom, and back onto screens as tools – alongside, books, crayons, wallpaper and shaving foam….

    1. The key for me, as always is making sure that the technology being used supports the students and teachers. Sounds like you have the means for interactivity within that setup, showing there is more than one way to do this.

  8. “In most cases the teachers would have been better served by a projector (which is, IMHO, an essential teaching tool) and a BIG white board. Preferably two BIG whiteboards.”

    This. Entirely this.

    1. As a consultant on technology in schools I would say that the technology in a classroom should compliment the teaching style being used. If we start at that point then the right technology can really compliment the teacher and make massive changes.
      Ultimately there are 3 stages. Understand the needs, Identify the tools, Training and Support.
      Without any one of these the tech is likely to fail.

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