Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« Play, Learn, & Network with SIGMS - webinar tomorrow | Main | BFTP: Paddle Your Own Canoe - Developing Tech-Savvy Administrators »

What makes an interactive whiteboard interactive?

I was recently asked by a principal how he could tell during classroom visits if a teacher was using the Smartboard "effectively." A pretty good question.

While popular (2007, 2010, interactive white boards (IWBs) are controversial even (or especially) among technology enthusiasts. The major complaint is that the use of these devices reinforces the "sage on the stage" teaching methodology. "The IWB is little more than a fancy overhead projector and its touch sensitive screen is only used to save the teacher a couple steps back to the computer to change a slide." seems to be sentiment in the constructivist camp of techno-pundits.

But many advocates of this technology (myself included), see IWBs as genuine means of bringing more interactivity, more student-focus into classrooms of traditional teachers. These are signs of putting the "interactive" into "interactive white board":

  • What happens on the IWB is determined by student response to questions.
  • Students themselves use the IWB to solve problems or explain concepts.
  • The teacher uses an IWB version of a game or puzzle.
  • The teacher uses the IWB to add multi-media to a discussion and easily starts and stops video and music to discuss parts of the whole.

What we don't want to forget is that someone who is coaching a teacher is not really looking for "good technology use" but for just good educational practices. Having an IWB is not going to change a lecturer into something else. The device is plastic and metal, not magic. The Charlotte Danielson model's Domain 3: Instruction lists:

Any item in the Instruction domain can be enhanced using an IWB.

Smartboard guru, Patrick Crothers from Mahtomedi (MN) schools, reminded me recently that just because a teacher has an IWB doesn't mean it has to be used every minute of the day. And yes, a teacher can create truly interactive lessons without using any technology whatsoever. Finally, a major benefit I see is how our teachers use the SmartNotebook software that works with the hardware to organize materials, to find and share lessons, and to seamlessly blend multimedia into lessons. Not all benefits are observable in the classroom.

Will IWBs or any other technology "transform" education alone? Of course not. But such technologies can provide amazing stepping stones toward a more student-centric classroom. 

OK, IWB critics - have at me...


EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    [...]What makes an interactive whiteboard interactive? - Home - Doug Johnson's Blue Skunk Blog[...]

Reader Comments (17)

I did notice that at the recent (last summer) training for our new Smart Boards there was no mention of "how to get the students involved". So if the other teachers are not showing the students how to use a Smart Board, then I assume that the technology teacher (me) would be tasked to teach them.
I am finding that hard to do since I don't have one in my room...
The students are not getting and smart(er), and I am bored...

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Thank you so much for this article. I have been long been an un-fan of IWB's and will continue to stand by that because everything you listed I could do with my projector and remote before the interactive board was installed. That does not mean though that I think you are teaching in a wrong way, which some people may assert, you just use it in a different way than I do. I find it limiting because of its single user capabilities and not interactive except for the person touching it.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPernille Ripp

Electrokite, Inc. just launched their new interactive whiteboard lessons for PK-5. You can sign up to download a free trial of 21 lessons in Math, Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies by going to:
These lessons are very interactive and fun for the students.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGayna Hoffman

Join us for a discussion around this topic. We are having an Elluminate session "I didn't know kids could do that with a Smartboard" where educators talk about how their students are using IWDs to demonstrate their learning. Register at

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKen Hakstol

The thing I find most interesting is that it appears the principal asked you the question after IWB 's were already is a valid question and the person in this context may have inherited them from a previous administrations but I am troubled by how much technology is bought without answering that question first.

I agree with you that IWB's and for that matter all other technology is not magic... they are tools that can transform but it ll depends on our pedagogy ( and our vision) With limited tech funds I have never purchased IWB because our vision was much more about information literacy, creativity, and collaboration so I could do more by investing the money in student laptops.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

I love this debate as everyone seems to have a different view. I love using the interactive whiteboard but agree that sometimes it can appear to be a glorified projecting tool. I have seen and experienced first hand pupils engaged with the board at a very young age. Here is my blog post on how I have used the IWB with young learners.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLorraine munro

I've always seen IWBs as the critical bridge between a generation of digital natives and their teachers, who remain largely comprised of digital immigrants. New teachers who are also digital natives are much more attuned to the value of interactive, project-based learning environments, though their employers rarely give them the opportunity to practice teaching that way.

Internet-connected IWBs provide the training wheels to bring teachers into a much more interactive mode of “instruction,” providing a rich digital resource that can be shared as a class. The key to knowing whether IWBs are being used effectively is imbedded in the term “shared.” If a teacher manages the technology such that students are regularly creating meaning using the IWB (and/or related response systems for checking for understanding), then it is being used effectively. If the IWB is a jazzed up presentation tool used exclusively by the teacher, the teacher will realize a certain bump in their students’ level of engagement in the short term, but they will not be using the full power of the tool.

Effective IWB professional development focuses on guiding teachers through these stages of understanding the meaning of “learning through interaction.” It is not about students seeing or holding technological “things,” but having human interaction in a learning environment made more dynamic and rich with the aid of digital tools. In 1:1 classroom computing environments, facilitated by a teacher who understands 21st century learning dynamics, the IWB is completely unnecessary, because the interaction and consequent learning is happening between students with access to 21st century tools.

September 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Excellent point Bill. Thanks for the post Doug. I will be passing it on to my admins and faculty. I always preach at my training that we need to have students "driving" the board. There are so many ways to do this. Student engagement skyrockets when there is an interactive element to the IWB lesson even at the simplest level. I think engagement is the key. I did the same lesson using an IWB with no interactive components, simply a power point, then dumped the lesson into the IWB software, added some drop and drag and categorizing and saw a huge difference in how engaged students became after I changed the lesson. I was sold after that.

September 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Tazerouti

And isn't it always HOW the technology is used that determines its value or potential? Is that argument not universal?

September 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Tazerouti

Hi Kenn,

As always, we try to introduce new technologies via the library (aka model) classroom so our librarians learn it first. As part of our project, we also had a .2 media specialist assigned only to Smartboard training that included "how to use it interactively." Think of your library as the model classroom that all teachers have access to and it makes a good case for new technologies being placed there. Of course, you get to learn them first and train others that way too!


Hi Barbara,

In a district our size (7400 students and 14 buildings) not every principal can be involved in all tech decisions made and we've added a number of new administrators because of retirements since the beginning of the project. Absolutely, this is a question to ask prior to any tech adoption, but I thought it was brave of the admin to bring up the question since no school does a fantastic job of inservicing principals on tech that I am aware of.


Hi Loraine,

Your post had some great tips. Thanks for sharing it. It was a good reminder that the tool is only as good as the teacher using it!


Thanks, Bill. This is an argument I've made many times about Smartboard and other technologies that harness Vygtsky's (sp?) Proximity theory - you have to have something you know to hang your new learning on. Applied to both teachers and students.

Appreciate the thoughtful reply,


Hi Jennifer,

I love the term "driving the board." To me this is the key component of engagement - the student having input. Otherwise it is just entertainment.

Great comment and example of interactivity. Thank you.


September 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I think IWBs can be potentially interactive and useful for whomever is using the board. The problem I see is that they're a one-to-many technology by design, which means that whether it's a teacher, student, or student group up at the board, the rest of the class is still sitting there receiving passively, watching someone else use it.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott McLeod

Hi Doug-

Long time listener, first time caller! (Well...long time subscriber, first time commenting).
At a fairly recent, and fairly tense, technology committee meeting, I may have called an IWB a "big-ass-mouse" because I was so frustrated with IWB proponents who don't seem to understand how they work.

I have nothing against the technology but I feel it important to stress to people that they are in fact peripherals. Like a mouse, speakers, monitor, projector, whatever...they are a component that enhances what your computer does, with the appropriate software. Too often when people describe why an IWB is so great, they are just describing a projector and missing the true benefits of a touchable surface!

So while I have nothing against the technology in general, I think that most of it's benefits can be accomplished in other ways. If you want a touchable surface, why not an ipad (another seductive technology that people desire without reason)? If you want interactivity, why not phones or laptops, or my favorite technology, showerboard cut into chunks and dry erase markers? (Oh, and btw, the ipad running one of the extended desktop apps that runs your PC is phenomenal, if not cost effective. )

I've migrated from school librarian, to district librarian, to my favorite title "Information Director"...which really means I get to do technology and libraries while trying to find our curriculum to base it all on. All of this is great fun, and so far I've tried to not let anyone off easy when they want to buy something. Our math teachers have proven to me the value of the IWB in the math setting, with the right software.
It clearly speeds up their large group instruction, and they can due assessments with students in small groups that involve the students demonstrating their understanding in a physical way.

But for everyone else it is still a big-ass-mouse, and try as I might, I haven't been able to help anyone move away from that.

Thanks for all of your musings, I truly value your thought processes!

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan Davenport

Hi Scott,

I would call an IWB a one with many if used correctly - using it for game-laying, brain-storming, group problem-solving, etc. It may be one individual's finger on the board at a time, but that doesn't mean lots of input.

I'd also argue that one-to-many teaching resources include staples of instruction - one textbook, one worksheet, one video, one activity, one iPad, one laptop. Having multiple copies of a resource or a device doesn't mean each student is using them differently. If every kid is doing the same activity at the same level on the laptop, how is that different from doing it on an IWB.

I think this a lot more about how a tool is being used than the inherent qualities of individual tools.

Great comment to think about!


Hi Dan,

I love the description - big-assed mouse. Or at least a big-assed touch pad.

I would suggest that at about $1200, adding a IWB to a classroom that already has a projector and sound, is one of the least expensive ways to provide an "interactive" experience for students. Yes, iPad and laptops can provide interactivity, but you can only get a couple of either for the cost of the IWB.

Thanks for comment. I value these from readers as well.


September 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

One of the interesting ways I see the IWB used in my district is as a "center" -- the teacher will set up a few problems or an activity and a group of students work at it together. Then they create their own problems and challenge and teach each other. They love it! They typically extend the lesson and work on understanding for every member of their group. We understand something at a deeper level once we teach it and that's what I see our students doing.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean Tower

Hi Jean,

The point your example makes very clearly is that good IWB use is really just good teaching. Thanks for sharing this.


September 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I would say what makes an interactive whiteboard TRULY interactive would be the ability to use it without a remote or other device...the ability to make a presentation with nothing more than your finger. Panasonic's Panaboard line stands out with this feature and let me tell you, it is a joy to use!

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Smith

When I was in a classroom with a smartboard, I frequently used it when teaching poetry. I would type a poem and put it on the screen. I would read it aloud to the students while they followed along. Then we would thoroughly mark up the poem with their comments, using different colors to point out patterns, etc. Then we would do another poem on a new page, marking it up as well. Then we would flip back and forth between the two poems to compare them to one another. I loved that about a smartboard!

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Hinchie

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>