I’ve always been a bit of a technology junkie, but if I am going to use technology in my teaching, the most important question is “does it work?” The answer will depend on what each of us is trying to achieve. Here I describe 3 ways to use interactive whiteboards for you to try: as a monitor, for group work and as a presentation tool.
Student annotating a poster on one of the smartboards.

First, a bit of background. A few years ago Monash set up an educational technology sandpit. After using it a few times with my small (35) class of BSc (Advanced with Honours) students, it was really hard to go back to plain walls and PowerPoint in the mainstream core science tutorials. But with 500-600 students in tutorials of about 20-25 students, how could this be achieved economically?

The answer was to install 4 of the simplest smartboards, a large old-school white board across the back, and some new furniture. It turns out the hardest thing was to get all the different University services to all work together and I am really grateful for Reynold Dias for his efforts in this. It took a year, but with plaster still on the floor and wet paint on the walls, the rooms were ready to the first day of semester 1. 

The new set up in the science tutorial rooms ST1 and ST2. Students work in table groups. Here they are accessing and discussing types of scientific literature.

Electronic whiteboards are not new technology. They are in almost every primary school – in fact if you are unsure about how to use one, I’ve found that at least one student in every class has a parent who is a primary school teacher and knows all about them. I use them to do the same things we used to do when we with traditional whiteboards and one simple screen at the front of the room, but better and then some.

 Prior to these new teaching spaces being developed we adopted ‘Notebooks‘ (HP2760s if you like specifics) to encourage student collaboration (Allie Ford organised this). These notebooks worked well, and Allie Ford and KirstiAbbott creatively applied the technology to other things we did such as analysing posters, inking PowerPoints and so on. 

 There were several problems with this technology: Even though I arranged for the Wi-Fi signal to be boosted and additional power outlets to be put in all over the place there were still issues with flat batteries and signals dropping out. Sure, we could ask students to bring their own devices but that doesn’t promote collaborative learning and it can disadvantage those without them. Other technologies may be as good or better for certain activities but I like the Smartboards because they can are flexible. Here are three.
(1) As a monitor. The touch screen is a great way to be more involved in the subject matter and promotes discussion and group decision-making. Students can use the computer and board next to their table to access primary literature or the Web of Science. When using the experimental space, I had noticed that students were reluctant to type in their passwords up on the big screen, so in the new rooms each group have a wireless mouse and keyboard as well. In another workshop they might use the Web to find out about some new ‘health’ product, highlighting aspects that indicate it might be really be pseudoscience. Students can also download the materials from the learning management system in real time, saving printing – and paper and the environment and time.

(2) To promote group work. We ask the students to analyse good and bad features of conference posters. We used to project examples on a screen at the front and have a class discussion – something particularly intimidating to the quieter students, or those whose English is not that good. Now students download examples from Moodle, and annotate them (as a group of 4-5) around the board. They also brainstorming their essay topics. This is not rocket science and educationally is the same as using sheets of A3 paper, but being bigger everyone can have a go. An added bonus is that they save it and email it to themselves.
Student presenting their conference poster on their research project. The format promotes discussion and interaction between students as they move around the room.

(3) For Presentations. Each week we try and get students to present something to the whole class such as their analysis of the posters or what they have discovered about dodgy products. There is no need to throw the image to the front – students can just move around the room. Students still give one formal presentation from the front, but that is clearly a different skill with a specific learning outcome. The BSc (Advanced) group go one further, and have a mock conference with posters on each screen. The resolution isn’t brilliant, but they don’t need to spend money getting their posters printed, as in the past. Electronic posters are becoming more common anyway, whether we like them or not.

The Monash Educational Technology fair this past week was a good moment to reflect on what has and hasn't worked as I’ve tried out different technologies.

At the beginning of this journey we all had a lot of fun trying out all the bells and whistles in the University’s experimental teaching space. The lights were funky, the beanbags were well used, the side-lit glass walls were great for making notes (one reason why I wanted to keep a large old-school white boards in the new tutorial rooms). But when I really thought about it, some things were just fun whereas others had become integral to the way I wanted to teach.  It was the multiple interactive whiteboards that I really missed. It hasn't been all that expensive to install them, and they can be integrated pretty simply into whatever you might be doing already.

I am now so used to using the smartboards that I can't imagine running our classes in any other way. They make all sorts of things we used to do easier and more fun. But this has been just the next step along the road from printed materials, to whiteboards and projectors, to computer labs and notebooks.

I wonder what will come next?

Enjoy the journey!

Associate Professor Ros Gleadow is co-ordinator of the core science program at Monash University and has taught SCI2010 “Scientific Practice and Communication” for 8 years. In her other life she is a plant scientist in the School of Biological Sciences studying the effect of climate change on plants that kill, and the immediate past President of the Australian Society of Plant Scientists. You can follow her on Twitter @RosGleadow
Post updated 27 Oct 2013 to fix broken links and change video format