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Interactive Whiteboards in the Kindergarten Classroom
An interactive whiteboard (IWB) is a technological tool that acts as a large screen on which a user can manipulate objects such as images, text, or a mouse cursor through touch or via the motion of a ‘pen’ or wand. Generally a projector is used to display a computer desktop onto a hard surface which is connected to the computer wirelessly or through a USB cable. The board, pen, or wand tells the computer where the user is interacting with the surface; the computer accepts the input and then cycles the resulting changes back to the projector. In essence an IWB can be thought of as a giant computer touch-screen.
IWBs are infinitely flexible teaching tools because they are merely blank slates that bring the computer’s content to the view and interaction of those in the classroom. Anything that can be done on a standard computer can be done on an IWB, including typing and cursor movement.
In the nearly twenty years since IWBs were first invented, millions of units have been deployed to both schools and businesses. Initially they were corporate-only tools, but they soon migrated to higher-education settings. Following that they emerged in the K-12 arena. IWBs are exciting and engaging tools for kindergarten classrooms due to their highly-interactive and highly-visual nature.
Types and Brands
A number of different technological implementations of IWBs have been developed in the first two decades of their existence. Some IWBs use a conductive layer beneath a resistive membrane; the point of contact against the membrane is registered and transmitted to an attached computer. Other IWBs use multiple cameras to determine contact points. Still others rely on radio-frequency (RF) pens or wands whose positions are triangulated through RF sensors. In the last case, a board is not even needed – any solid surface can substitute for a board. A do-it-yourself IWB mechanism can even utilize the infrared sensor of a Nintendo Wii video game console. Most IWBs come with software to support their use in a classroom environment. Leading manufacturers of IWBs include SMART Technologies, Promethean, Mimio, NEC, Epson, and Hitachi. The growing number of manufacturers has given the educational community more options from which to choose for a variety of budgets, usage considerations, software support, and physical installation properties, though it has also increased the complexity of choosing and supporting a standard configuration in school districts.
Instructional Uses
IWBs provide all the instructional benefits of a standard computer and projector with the added bonus of promoting physical interaction by students. In the kindergarten classroom, IWBs can be used for delivering content in exciting ways, for building motor skills, for fun and accurate automated feedback, and for contributing to student engagement with lesson objectives. In the narrow sense all applications which a student could use on their own computer are available through IWB use, but without the heavy reliance on keyboard skills or even mouse manipulation that may be beyond the skill level of many kindergarten students. IWBs can also allow for multiple students to collaboratively engage in activities simultaneously which would not otherwise be possible with a single computer. And while they can be used by a teacher to delivery content, it can also be used by student, even a kindergartner, to teach other students as well.

There is a strong correlation between manipulations of images and objects and content acquisition when it comes to the learning of kindergarten students. IWBs provide a rich opportunity, then, to support kindergarten learning environments. Manipulating graphics, sounds, videos, and even text objects through touch is an ideal way for kindergarten students to use IWBs for learning in ways that would not otherwise be possible with physical manipulatives. Moreover, because the content is digital, manipulatives are in an effectively endless supply at no additional cost. Pre-built interactive games and tools such as spinners, number and letter dice, image and word sorters, counters, and calendars along with images, videos, and sounds that come with IWB software can greatly reduce the time it takes for a teacher to create an engaging and interactive lesson.
IWBs are simple enough of a tool to use that they can act as a learning center for an individual kindergarten student while other students are engaged with the teacher or other centers. A student might practice writing, addition or subtraction problems, or letter sound identification – with the added benefit of electronic feedback that would not be possible with physical manipulatives – without direct teacher involvement.
Currently IWBs appear to be enough of a novelty in schools that kindergarten students remained highly engaged when they are used in the learning environment – even while merely watching a peer using the board. However, only time will tell if this level of engagement will remain high as more and more classrooms acquire IWBs as part of daily instruction and the novelty wears off.
Another benefit is that many of the companies that manufacture IWBs have created online learning communities around their products and supporting software. These communities share lessons and activities created amongst themselves, greatly widening the ready-made teaching resources available for IWB-using educators, from novice to expert.
A variety of pricing structures for current IWBs is also a benefit. Although there are models that can run into multiple thousands of dollars when integrated with a projector, certain models are now available for as little as a few hundred dollars. This makes larger-scale deployments more feasible for public school systems.
As with many educational technologies, misuse can cause a significant monetary investment to be wasted and can actually interfere with choosing the best pedagogical teaching practice for a given learning situation. IWBs cannot be used by all students at once – the most advanced boards currently support only a few simultaneous users – and so they are not available for independent work by all students at the same time. Furthermore, the nature by which an IWB can imitate a chalkboard is a temptation for some educators to use it strictly as a stand-and-deliver teaching tool – the teacher uses it to present information but students are not allowed to interact with it. While this is a limitation of the teacher’s practice and not the tool itself, it is worth noting in cases where the teacher lacks the imagination or motivation to use it in more innovative ways.
Kindergarten students have only basic reading and writing capabilities and therefore they will not be able to benefit from many of the advanced learning features of IWB software that are heavily text-based. Their motor skills are also limited and therefore pens, wands, or software that require fine motor control to manipulate small objects and buttons on-screen will be problematic.
Teachers will often require many hours of sustained professional development in order to fully develop their skills with IWB software. IWBs are very easy for a novice user to begin using, but advanced use takes time, practice, support, and an explorative nature. Districts that fail to provide that sustained professional development may find the majority of their educators stuck at the level of basic users, preventing them from engaging their students with the advanced pedagogical uses that would otherwise be available. Sustained professional development offerings are another cost that must be considered by school districts.
IWBs may also require additional equipment – a computer projector and generally a computer as well – and so they can carry a hidden cost beyond their price tag. Touch-resistive models generally are very durable and will last for many years under normal use – they have no moving parts and only rudimentary electronic parts. However, newer variations on IWBs rely more and more on complex electronics that will naturally have higher failure rates and therefore higher replacement costs.
The Future
IWB penetration in classrooms continues at a healthy rate even in problematic budgetary times. Part of this comes from the increased competition among manufacturers to create more lower-cost options for school districts. As technologies continue to evolve, the traditional touch-resistive IWB remains the leader but innovative alternatives such as wand sensors built into projectors themselves may grab significant fractions of the market. Ultimately, however, no matter the particular technological implementation, the fate of IWBs in classrooms may ultimately rest on two key factors: the ability of school districts to effectively offer professional development to educators to maximize the learning impact of IWB use and the ability of educators to stretch IWB use into a more individualized, learned-centered tool for all of the students in a classroom. If the majority of IWBs are used as stand-and-deliver tools by teachers without student engagement then they will likely be viewed as yet another expensive technological waste in school districts.