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Things not to do with an interactive whiteboard

By Alex Case
1. Replace all your instructions language with it One of the most useful and genuine pieces of communication in the classroom is the teacher telling the students what to do, and replacing that with written instructions on the board all the time takes away a great source of comprehensible listening. For new teachers, it also […]

1. Replace all your instructions language with it
One of the most useful and genuine pieces of communication in the classroom is the teacher telling the students what to do, and replacing that with written instructions on the board all the time takes away a great source of comprehensible listening. For new teachers, it also takes away the main time when you can work on learning how to grade your language. The same thing is true for having a scan of the textbook on the board and just pointing at what you want them to do, which deprives your class of language like “Fill the gaps in the exercise at the top of the page” and replaces it with “Write this in here”. Having said all that, it can be very useful to have written instructions that can go up after the students have started the activity in case they can’t remember what to do, have debates about what they should do or arrived late and missed the explanation. Occasionally using written instructions can also help students write down and so really learn your typical classroom language like “Work in pairs” and “Spread the cards across the table”.

2. Use it as a replacement for worksheets
This is tempting and sometimes useful, as it cuts down on photocopying and means that you can prepare things that wouldn’t fill up a whole page. However, if there are things on your whiteboard that students are likely to want to take away, them copying it down from the board can be a waste of time and even annoying, and it is worth thinking about giving a worksheet instead/ as well despite the aid to memory that copying things down can be. The dynamics of using a worksheet in pairs (preferably one between two, with any copies to take away given later) also focuses the students more than talking while they look up to the board all the time. They can also of course write on the worksheets.

3. Stand in the projector beam too long
This can strain your eyes and lead to headaches and tiredness, especially if you look out towards the students at the same time (see below). Trying to avoid standing in the beam could encourage you to stand more often completely away from the board, e.g. doing a flashcard presentation from the opposite side of the room- which is a good tip anyway, especially for teachers of small children.

4. Look towards the light too much
For the same reasons as above. Avoiding this can mean you writing with your back to the class more, but as this is something most teachers try to avoid as much as possible it is worth thinking of alternatives such as typing things out on the computer keyboard or using a pen tablet instead of writing directly onto the IWB.

5. Have white backgrounds
This strains the eyes of both the teacher and the students, although it is tempting as it is usually the easiest to make out format, especially if the text is quite small or there is dazzle from the windows. Off white or light grey backgrounds are almost as clear but a lot less dazzling, or you can use a dark background with the text in white or another light colour (although the text needs to be quite big for this to work). You could also keep the background of the place where the text is white but colour any areas with no text in (e.g. the border or spaces between tables) black or dark blue.

6. Keep the room dark to make it more visible/ Block out all sunlight
With the best will in the world, people become sleepy in dark rooms. As well as this, there is the obvious fact that sunlight makes people feel good. Alternatives to blocking all light include leaving lights on or blinds open at the back of the room and turning lights off only for a short time when students particularly need to see the details of what is on the board. It might also be possible to turn the lights back on before they have completely finished looking at the board as soon as they know what is on it. You can also make the whiteboard content more visible with a good choice of colours and size. Alternatively, you can point at the things on the board and have them look at the same text, pictures etc in detail in their books or on worksheets.

7. Completely replace whiteboard and board pens with it
A “normal” whiteboard still has a purpose- when the technology breaks down, to write things down without changing what is on the IWB screen, and for games like board races if your IWB doesn’t allow two pens to be used at the same time. It can also be used when you have turned off the projector for some of the reasons described elsewhere in this article. Many schools seem to use the solution of having a large IWB with a small “traditional” whiteboard next to it, but it is much better to still have the same size whiteboard as before if possible, e.g. by putting it on the opposite wall to the IWB.

8. Students looking too long or too much at it
As well as suffering the same eye strain as the teacher due to dazzle from the projector or trying to make out images that aren’t clear, students and communication between them can suffer by them having their eyes forward rather than looking at each other. This is even more of an issue in classrooms where some of the students need to twist around in their seats or look around other people’s heads to see the board.

9. Make it a more teacher-centred classroom/ Interfere with pairwork
This is connected to the point above. If the students are looking towards the whiteboard at the front of the class more, they are also more likely to turn to the teacher who is standing next to it rather than to their classmates when confirming the instructions of games, asking what words in a text mean etc. Having conversation questions on the board also increases the likelihood of pairwork conversations expanding to become a whole class discussion (for better or worse).

10. Play videos and computer games that wouldn’t have been worth the effort they took before
You can now set up and play a game from a CD ROM or the internet without a moment’s thought, maybe even with less effort than things like photocopying worksheets that used to be the easy option. This isn’t always a good thing! Thinking whether you would’ve chosen that game back when you had to bring in a class set of laptops or taken the whole class to the computer lab is a good way of deciding whether it is what you really want to be doing with your students or not.

11. Replace explanations with Google searches
Doing a Google images search is a fabulous last resort for those times when the sketches, mimes and explanations haven’t worked and we would previously have needed to ask students to use their monolingual dictionaries to have any chance of them understanding- sometimes only to find that they aren’t even familiar with the word that is given in their language! All those things we used to do before giving up are still useful, however, and should be used before turning to search engines. With explanations, that is because students are (similar to the case with instructions language) hearing real English used for real communication that they have a real motivation to understand. This is also language that is similar to that which students will need to use themselves when trying to talk around words they don’t know in English, explain English words they have used that other non native speakers weren’t familiar with, or when explaining aspects of their own culture to people who aren’t familiar with it. With mimes and sketches, seeing the teacher communicating using almost no language can make communication seem more manageable for the students, and this is also a good opportunity to introduce differences in gestures and body language in different cultures.

12. Make the internet the classroom expert
Another great use for Google is to search for things you didn’t know for sure, like the origins of idioms or the most popular collocations (possible to work out roughly by comparing the number of hits search terms like “go swimming” and “go to the swimming pool” get). Showing students how and where such information on the language can be found could also help encourage them to look for such info themselves outside class. There is a danger, however, that this could lead to a loss of confidence in the teacher as someone who is always needing to look things up.

13. Prepare things you are going to brainstorm or elicit
Having a sentence on the board that is covered up and revealed by a swipe of the IWB pen is a great little trick that has been known to make students who are new to the technology gasp, but they will soon tire of being asked to produce exactly the sentence or phrase you have prepared ahead of class and brainstorming and eliciting phases of the lesson becoming more like jumping through hoops than real communication. The best system is to prepare the table, mind map etc that you want them to brainstorm to, and then write on whatever they say that is relevant as they give it to you, maybe tidying it up afterwards. If you are worried about it looking messy or want to print it out for people to keep, you might want to think about typing the things they tell you onto the IWB rather than writing it with the pen. Alternatively, you can prepare your version of it to be given to students as a worksheet at the end of the class.

14. Randomly drift around the internet
For example, an online image search for “big melons” could lead to a picture you really don’t want to be on your classroom wall (!) even without clicking on any of the links if you don’t put Safe Search on or do your searching with the IWB projector on freeze or blank before you put it up for everyone to see.

15. Let it drown things out
Many interactive whiteboards have noisy fans, especially if they are in hot rooms or have recently been turned on. It is therefore absolutely critical that they are turned off during exam practice listenings and written tests that demand a lot of concentration, and you may also want to think about that with students with low confidence who tend to interpret you not hearing their quiet voices as a lack of comprehension or who speak too quietly for the everyone to hear them during whole class speaking. It can also be a problem if you are trying to monitor during pairwork to collect errors for an error correction stage. During pairwork, the background noise of the projector can be a good thing if it makes students less worried that they are being overheard by the teacher or other students, but that depends on the class. Even if the noise is not at a level where it drowns students out, ninety minutes of the droning noise of the fan is bound to be tiring and so you should plan to have at least some of the class with the projector off (and therefore the IWB not being used).

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET April 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Tefl.NET


  • Donna Fabre says:

    Great post. Online these days you see a lot of posts covering the benefits and other information about types of interactive whiteboards, however; this is the first I have seen which covers the information NOT to do when you use an interactive whiteboard

  • lynette says:

    it was insightful

  • YAHAYA ALI says:

    It looks like teaching is bracing for greater heights.We welcome the improvements.

  • kvanwyk says:

    Good points – this posting highlights the fact that it is not the technology that makes the difference, but the way in which it is being used. Over the last few weeks I have blogged extensively on IWB issues, since we are poised to put an IWB in every classroom in the Western Cape, South Africa.

  • Emil Waldhauser says:

    A very nice list. On the other hand, my student have been copying form the IWB for a very long time, they are pretty relaxed about it, it makes them follow what is on the IWB carefully, and it also improves their writing skills (and they feel really green :-)). The only thing that is crucial is to choose the right material we are going to show to our students.

  • Lindsay Clandfield says:

    Very nice list Alex, with some especially good points about background colour and standing in the light of a projector which had me thinking of my presentations on powerpoint.

    I also thought the point about not always going to Google for a picture was good, it’s easy to forget that sometimes an explanation, old fashioned and all, still could be the best way for certain things.

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