This is a pretty meaty topic so hang on. An interactive whiteboard (IWB), or interactive flat panel, is basically a large TV that ranges 55“ – 88” (139cm – 224cm) that has touch capabilities. They usually come loaded with an Android OS or Windows 10 (some can even swap between the two) and most are priced very similarly to each other. That last fact is what makes it a bit difficult to chose, because there are A LOT of companies who are in this space. I’ve looked at mu fair share of these and I’m not here to talk about specific brands but to examine the characteristics and features that we looked for.
For us we are looking to purchase one interactive whiteboard for our library. Our teachers do not want these to replace their traditional whiteboards and markers (in fact, when we were demoing different units this was a fear from some teachers).
Here we go!
I heard this from more than one vendor. The actual screen and hardware that powers it is nearly the same across all brands. There are only 2–3 companies that make these screens and then they sell them to other companies who put their specific hardware, casing, speakers, cart on it. This is why most of them are priced so closely to one another. So if a vendor says, well our 4K display is much, much better than that 4K display just look past that fact and focus more on how it works and what it can do. However, I will say that all the 4K displays looked stunning – regardless of brand.
Whiteboarding and Annotation
This turned out to be one of the most important features for our teachers. All the interactive whiteboards (IWB) can … well, whiteboard. They all had their own proprietary app that basically brought up a white screen that you could draw or write on with your finger or a pen. They all had fairly accurate and pretty responsive and lines, objects and words all showed up where you expected them to show up as you drew them. This was pretty universal and a good sign that touch has come a long way in the last ten years.
Getting the workspace off the whiteboard and onto a computer or cloud service was a big question. It is great that you can illustrate, model or brainstorm on this beautiful screen but how can you then save that and then share it with your students? One we looked at had us save it to a folder on the device itself, then you would have to open up Google Drive (Edmodo, Google Classroom, Office 365 – whatever service you would like) and then add it and share it from that service. Not bad but not easy.
Another IWB we looked at actually logged you into your cloud service of choice and you could save it to a folder automatically. This was much better and less cumbersome.
Also, teachers wanted to be able to annotate on web pages. All the boards offered this in one way or another. One board let you activate the annotation tools and you could then annotate right on the webpage without leaving the browser. You could then save that annotation or discard it right from a floating toolbar. Once that was done the toolbar disappeared and you could continue browsing.
Another IWB actually took a screenshot, loaded the screenshot into the whiteboarding app and you could annotate from there. Clunky.
All of our options had the ability to also do screen recording but again, some where better than others and sometimes finding that recording was not as intuitive as it should be. All in all, from a teacher perspective the whiteboarding and annotating features turned out to be the most important feature.
Operating System and Apps
I mentioned that the boards we looked at had different operating systems but they all boiled down to Windows 10 and Android. Here is what we found. With Windows 10 – it is a fully functional computer. Whatever you can install on a regular PC you can most likely install on the IWB. This is good and certainly a characteristic that was important to consider even though our teachers use Macbook Airs. Having the ability to launch an app without having to log into a website was very appealing. The Android IWB we looked at had varying amounts of apps that we could install. None of them had the actual Google Play Store meaning we would have to sideload the app and then there was no guarantee that it would work.
A teacher pointed out to me that if they wanted a particular program to be running, they would hook up their computer or connect wirelessly via Apple TV (which our school would provide) so the importance of apps on the whiteboard was not a deal breaker for us and probably shouldn’t be for you either.
Many of the IWBs would allow you to swap out the computer for another. This may be very handy if you have a fleet (one in every classroom). You could have a warm spare ready to deploy incase something happened to a particular board. Once swapped out, the technology team could take the bad one back and try to repair it and get it ready for another swap. Of course, the data on that damaged computer would most likely be lost – so save in the cloud folks!
Connecting other devices
All the IWBs we looked at could connect multiple devices to it. Usually via an HDMI cable. They also contained a USB B port as well that you could connect to your computer. What this would do would show your computer’s screen on the IWB and allow you to interact it with via touching the whiteboard. This worked pretty well for all but one thing to keep in mind is that gestures do NOT work with this interface. I could not use two fingers to scroll a webpage for example or tap two fingers on a file to bring up options. This seemed to be true for all we tried.
We tried an Apple TV and it worked fine. No touch but this was to be expected. We also tried an AirTame and it worked fine as well but again no touch capabilites.
This is more for me than the teacher or others on the tech team. I expect that this device should be able to pump out enough sound that a class of 20–30 students should easily be able to hear. Each IWB had their own built in speakers but some were better than others. One IWB we tried sounded as though the speakers were inside a protective casing. The sound was tinny and a little muffled and definitely not very loud.
All of them did allow for external speakers and all could also the mounting of a soundbar or side speakers, but that is an extra cost and I’ve seen some “mounted” speakers onto IWBs that look like they could fall off with a bump.
Multiple users & Licenses
Some of the IWB were clearly made for a few users. Since this particular board will be living in our library for any teacher to use with her/his class, then we needed to make sure that multiple people could easily switch from one account to another, so this was an important factor for us. If every classroom is getting one, then maybe not so much for you or your school but it is something to keep in mind.
Also, do you need to purchase a license every year to continue to use the board. Some boards have their own proprietary software that requires a yearly license. Be sure to know what those costs are will it still function if you don’t want to use that service anymore. I’ve seen presentations and asked that question and sometimes have gotten conflicting answers from the vendor. Be sure to know.
Try them out and gather data!
I looked at quite a few and if we couldn’t get a demo unit into the school then we did not consider it. It was too important piece of equipment to base it upon a tech spec sheet and tutorial videos. If a vendor can’t provide a demo unit (or if you can’t go to them and try it out) stay away.
Also, when you try them out set up a formal demonstration either through the vendor or doing it yourself. Show off some highlights of each machine and allow teachers to give feedback. I know there will be times I will be use the IWB but teachers and students will be using it more than myself and hearing what they want is critical for getting buy in.
Devices in this area are rapidly changing and developing. Do not worry about buyers remorse. If you find the best fit for your school at that time be comfortable with that decision and don’t kick yourself when the prices drop $500 the next year or when an 8K display becomes available for the same price, etc.
Also, stay away from IWBs that are aimed for corporate environments. I’m looking at your Surface Hub 2. This is a great device and a marvel of engineering but the sheer cost of it ($9000 for the 55″) is not realistic to most K–12 schools regardless of funding.
Finally, make it a team decision. Don’t unilaterally make this decision. Gather a group of educators (teachers are a must) and get feedback. If no one can agree on a path forward then that is not a failure or people being difficult. It is most likely a sign that your school may not be ready for this device yet or more likely, the devices out there cannot meet the needs of your school. I’ve been in a school with “Interactive Whiteboards” and they stunk! Few teachers used them, they weren’t enjoyable to use and basically sat unused.
When it does arrive, be sure to educate your staff and do it often throughout the years to come. Make sure people know how to use the basics and are somewhat comfortable with it.