Walking up to the board is now much more fun
INTERACTIVE WHITEBOARDS are perhaps the most important invention in education since, well, the blackboard - and they are being installed with fervour in Hong Kong schools.
Made up of a computer, a projector and a seemingly regular piece of board, interactive whiteboards (I-Boards) are not a glamorous piece of technology, but they give students the opportunity to participate in lessons and provide quick access to online resources and have become a must-have information and communication technology (ICT) tool for schools striving to be tech-savvy.
At the English Schools Foundation's Kennedy School in Pokfulam a group of Primary One students sit cross-legged in front of an I-Board which displays colourful images depicting a series of storybooks and some scrambled words.
'What is your favourite Katie Morag book?' teacher Neil Ringrose asks, choosing one boy to approach the I-Board.
The boy drags the book cover image across the screen with an electronic pen and arranges it with words to form the sentence: 'I like Katie Morag and the Wedding'.
The students break up into groups to write about their favourite Katie Morag book before meeting again in front of the I-Board to examine some of their classmates' work, which has been scanned into the computer and projected.
Years ago, Mr Ringrose would have had to hold up different books and write on the blackboard to accomplish this interactive lesson, making it more cumbersome and less appealing to students. 'I enjoy using the board. The kids are really into it. It caters to their visual and oral learning,' he said.
Kennedy School introduced I-Boards into its classrooms more than a year ago in the lower primary grades and principal Paul Hay said there were plans to install them in all classes by this month.
Meanwhile, South Island School has been pioneering I-Boards at secondary level within the ESF. 'They allow you to bring the resources of the internet, many purposefully made for teachers across the world, into the classroom and interact with those images,' said principal John Wray. For instance, a class could explore works of art in a New York gallery and manipulate the images for closer study. The ESF has been using I-Boards as part of its 2004 strategy to help transform teaching and learning practices with ICT, something many educators say is necessary to equip students with the skills to succeed in today's information and knowledge-based economy.
Peter Woodhead, ICT adviser to the ESF, said that since 2002 the foundation had installed 350 I-Boards in about half of its 800 classrooms. It had granted capital funding to each school. Parent-teacher associations had also raised money for the boards.
At a cost of $14,000 for the screen, $10,000 for the projector and about $5,500 for a computer, not to mention the cost of teacher training, the hefty price tag has prompted debate about whether the technology was simply an expensive electronic chalkboard and value for money.
The ESF organised an International Interactive Whiteboard Convention earlier this year, in conjunction with I-Board provider Promethean International, to examine ways of making best use of the technology.
Maggie Howell, a senior regional director of the secondary national strategy for school improvement in England, said the British government had invested GBP50 million ($713 million) in I-Board technology since 2002. The government-established body had yet to prove their effectiveness, but Ms Howell emphasised that technology was part of a wider strategy to improve pedagogy. 'I-Boards are an incredible teaching tool. What we don't know yet is what they contribute to people's learning,' she said. What the government had learned was that they were 'only as good as the teacher using them'. 'It's a lot of money to spend if it's not adding value to your subject,' she said.
Yet Mr Woodhead defended I-Boards as a cost-effective way of integrating cutting-edge technology into the classroom, rather than equipping students with notebook computers. Compared with blackboards, I-Boards provided a wide-range of learning resources, he said. For example, students could watch a video of a volcanic eruption during a geography lesson instead of looking at photographs from a book and examine why this phenomenon occurred using topographic maps, which made for an authentic and interesting lesson.
'If we know they're helping our students to be better learners, they are a worthwhile investment,' he said.
The ESF's next step was to establish a connected learning community this month, a district-wide knowledge network where teachers could share expertise and collaborate to create learning resources and students could access a 24-hour virtual classroom. The Education and Manpower Bureau has launched a $1.4 million 15-month I-Board pilot project and study, to be completed in April next year, at 10 local primary and secondary schools and at two special schools to examine how the technology might enhance education.
Sin Tak-wah, senior inspector with the information technology in education section of the Quality Education Division, said the EMB wanted to ensure I-Boards were a cost-effective learning tool.
'We don't have a final answer whether it improves our children's learning,' Mr Sin said.
Pui Ching Middle School in Ho Man Tin, known for its efforts to integrate IT into education, has installed four I-Boards in the past year. However, principal Yip Chee-tim said he did not plan to buy more until staff were better trained.
'We've only used the interactive whiteboards as a touch screen. Most of the teachers find it interesting, but for the most we've found it's not very useful,' Mr Yip said.
Dr Lee Kar-tin, associate dean of the School of Creative Arts, Sciences and Technology and principal lecturer of IT in Education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said I-Boards should be used for collaborative, interactive work and creative lesson planning instead of the teacher-centred, didactic learning common in Hong. Teachers and principals played a big role in the effective use of I-Boards, she added. Part of the problem was that many did not have time to learn how to use I-Boards properly and to design effective lessons
'For I-Boards to work, teachers will have to change the way they teach. If the school is allowed to use them as glorified blackboards, nothing will change,' she said.
To give future teachers a head-start, students in the university's Bachelor of Education programme were trained to use I-Boards and the technology would inevitably become more incorporated in schools as new teachers became comfortable using it. 'The younger generation are more at ease with new technology,' Dr Lee said.
Mr Woodhead said the ESF had established a formula that 25 per cent of capital funding spent on I-Boards must be invested in professional development. In the 2004-05 school year the ESF spent $250,000 on professional development with additional money allocated from school budgets.
'There's a massive learning curve for teachers. It's an initiative that requires a strong collective effort,' Mr Woodhead said.
Andrew More, a physics, maths and chemistry teacher at the ESF's West Island School, said he was acutely aware of that curve. Mr More used the I-Board primarily as a tool to give students feedback, projecting their work on to the I-Board to facilitate discussion or to call up model answers from mock exams on the internet.
'I'm finding more ways to use it. It's got great potential. I see a lot of advantages in having it. The only problem is finding the time to become an expert,' Mr More said.
As the shift towards integrating ICT into education continues, teachers like Mr More seem to have little choice but to embrace new devices such as the I-Board.
'It's such a fundamental change for teachers, they are slowly coming onboard,' he said. 'It is to our advantage. There's no point in being a complete Luddite and burying your head in the sand.'