Op-ed colulmn: Smartboards can be useful tools but also pointless distractions

According to one National Education Association-spotlighted enthusiast, innovations like smartboards

I’m a teacher with simple tastes. Give me some books, paper and pens, and I’m content.

I also rely on my blackboard, an educational utility born when a Scottish geography teacher decided that writing things on a big piece of slate was more efficient than writing them on each student’s laptop slate. At first, all you had to scratch with was another piece of slate until 19th century technology gave us chalk sticks.

While some of you probably have me pegged as an enemy of progress, I think I would’ve recognized that chalk sticks really made writing easier to do and see, the same way I willingly swapped my Smith-Corona for my computer. On the other hand, I doubt I would’ve promoted chalk as the key to transforming apathetic adolescents into educated citizens.

Technology promoters

I also hope I would have noticed if the chorus calling for more chalk and slate in schools was being led by the chalk and slate industry. In the same way, I wish more of us would consider that there may be a reason, apart from altruism, that Apple and Microsoft are so enthusiastic about a larger role for technology in schools.

According to one National Education Association-spotlighted enthusiast, innovations like smartboards “distinguish a twenty-first century classroom from one stuck in the darkness of the twentieth century.” That’s the dark 20th century when American schools and students were ranked among the best in the world.

Smartboards, generically known as interactive whiteboards, are wall-mounted computer screens that allow you to manipulate images by touching the screen with your hand. While I know some good teachers who use them, smartboards have also been mounted on the education bandwagon. In 2008, Newsweek declared them all the rage among teachers, except for “many older educators” who were reportedly “petrified” of technology.

I disapprove of drunken driving, but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of cars. I just object to what some people do with them. Despite the intoxicated claims of technology boosters, there are plenty of reasons other than fear to explain why I question some uses of technology — like maybe many are distracting, pointless wastes of money and time.

Adding to ineptitude

They’re often also exactly what a doctor shouldn’t order for adolescents already addicted to “apps” and virtual relationships, and increasingly inept when it comes to dealing with real people in the real, physical world. We’re so busy interacting, we’ve forgotten how to have a conversation.

Advocates voice impressive-sounding claims. One state technology coordinator bills smartboards as a “great kinesthetic visual.” A like-minded English teacher uses his for “interactive notetaking.” Except what exactly does their jargon mean?

The state official explains that students can kinesthetically dissect a frog by moving their fingers on the smartboard so the organs on a two-dimensional frog image virtually move out of the way. I’m not sure how crucial dissection is to the study of biology, but I know what a two-dimensional image is. I’ve seen lots of them in movies, like perhaps a movie of somebody dissecting a frog. I also remember plastic overlays in my biology books, which, like the smartboard image, revealed a frog’s anatomy in layers.

Meanwhile, in a demonstration of his smartboard’s interactive notetaking capability, the teacher projected a story summary onto the wall with blanks where some keywords belonged. Using a stylus instead of “the usual ink-based marker,” a student then filled in the blanks.

Fill in the blanks? We need a $3,000 smartboard to fill in the blanks?

Smartboards let kindergarteners “rehearse letter sounds.” Kids just have to “tap on a letter and it tells you its sound,” something See and Say toys have been doing for decades at a fraction of the cost. Another fan crows that now when students present reports, they “don’t have to stand in front of the room and read them.” Instead they “can move graphics around and bring the classroom alive.”

Of course, what they can’t do, or soon won’t be able to do, is read and write a report. That’s not my idea of a classroom that’s alive.

Smartboards purportedly empower “true visual learners to access the information,” information they somehow can’t see when it’s written in chalk or ink. With just the touch of their finger to the board, students can magically “troubleshoot complex math problems.”

While “multiple recent studies” find the data inconclusive, advocates insist that smartboards improve attendance, eliminate trips to the principal’s office and uniquely encourage students to work together in a “creative and innovative manner.”

‘Learning facilitators’

Finally, they’re the favorite of teachers who’d rather be “learning facilitators” than “someone who gives [students] knowledge.” This reform disdain for imparting knowledge helps explain why so many students today have so little.

A final rave review for smartboards comes from another tech booster. In his spotlighted algebra class, students are all taking turns throwing a glowing ball at the smartboard screen. When the ball hits Problem 14, students attempt to calculate the volume of a cylinder, an exercise that, incidentally, isn’t algebra.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll have my students throw a glowing ball at my blackboard. Somehow, though, I doubt anybody would be as impressed.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt.

Categories: Opinion

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