How Using an IWB Led to Digital Revelation – David’s Odyssey


“It’s full of stars!”

David Bowman,

2001: A Space OdysseyArthur C. Clarke


It seems so long ago now but it was actually spring 2007; the day I first taught a class with an interactive whiteboard. It looked like one of the spaceships from the 1950s film version of War of the Worlds. The projector was suspended on a long tentacle like thing stuck out into the room over my head while the board hummed and glowed white behind me. It was like having some kind of alien craft in the room and I did actually suggest to the class that if anyone hadn’t done the homework, at the merest click of my remote control, a laser beam would be emitted from the overhead tentacle and zap them to dust. The class took it in the good hearted way that my attempts at humour were usually received but I could see they were actually rather bemused by this new thing in their midst. I remember the expressions on all the faces of the mostly Polish 16-year-olds in my full time class and they seemed to say “OK. Go on. What are you going to do with that? Impress us then.”

And that is the challenge I have tried to meet ever since. The effect on me as a teacher of suddenly having this massive piece of technology in a classroom where I was teaching 5 mornings a week was to be profound and far-reaching. The space ship analogy isn’t far off actually. My students and I seemed about to be launched together on a Star Trek style mission of learning and discovery. In teaching terms it was like being abducted, having all your molecules rearranged and then being plonked back on Earth never to be the same again. I’d gone digital. Half man half smartboard. Just like David Bowman in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “2001: A Space Odyssey”, I looked at it and said “My God! It’s full of stars” and plunged right in.

Lift off

So, the first thing this new and rather expensive piece of hi-tech made me do was review and re-examine how exactly I went about trying to get students to communicate in my native language. I’d been teaching for about 15 years at that point and had built up a whole range of little teaching habits, short cuts, foibles and prejudices over the years.  Having an IWB in class was to make reassess what I did and ultimately reorganise my teaching around the possibilities that using IWBs offered.

I’d been interested in teaching with IT and had been preparing things to do in the computer room with various classes for a couple of years before I had the IWB. I was lucky enough to have a very encouraging CTL and an IT support team who were keen to see an expensive piece of kit looked after and used well (there were only about 3 or 4 in the college at that time so I felt quite privileged to have so much access to it). I already knew it was going to be pretty useful to have a computer with a big display screen in class however having one now meant every aspect of my planning and teaching could be done using IT. This was a first and it actually seemed to make life much simpler. Moreover I found my own IT skills were being developed at the same time as my creativity was stimulated. I was happy to be going fully digital.



It all seemed so much simpler. Every time someone asked me what a word meant and I was stuck for an explanation, I could show them a photo on Google images. It was like having a new window on the world as I could also bring live news and topical events right into the class from websites to generate discussion, I could show presentations and film clips and do listenings from mp3s and package the whole lot up in the presentation software that came with it but I don’t think I was quite aware, on that first day, the effect it would have on the way I planned, presented, reflected on and designed classes in the next few years. I remember Andy, the head of IT support saying to me “You’re going to get addicted to this.” He was right. 5 years later the results of a fairly serious addiction can be used on my blog   should anyone be interested.

I think the main lesson I learned when working with IT was to make sure everything was securely backed up. At the college we had an intranet and a VLE so I could plan things at home and upload them for use in class but I always kept everything on a USB stick too just in case. I remember one day I was being observed, and Sod’s law, the internet went down so I couldn’t show the Youtube clip I had prepared. Fortunately I had downloaded the clip the day before as an flv file and copied it onto my USB so everything could go ahead as planned. Lots of things can go wrong with IT and it will test you. The main lesson to learn is to always have back up.

I can see for miles

Having an IWB in the room also suddenly makes everything more visual. EFL classes have always used visual stimulation and we’ve all fumbled about with coffee stained flashcards, fraying posters and colour photocopies that bosses frown upon because they cost so much. Having an IWB makes you rethink, and I believe, simplifies how you go about presenting the classes. Teaching guru Geoff Petty once said that “87% of information enters our brain through our eyes, 9% by ear and 4% via other senses.” This might explain why, no matter how much you prattle on to your classes about this and that and the “s” on the end of the present simple 3rd person, only 9% of it is actually getting through. However that visual 87% there, that is where the IWB comes in. You can give all the speeches you want but put on a light show and we are talking illumination. In a way I even think it turns the teacher into a kind of creative visual artist. You ask yourself what is your message and how are you best going to visually present it.

It’s full of stars

The capacity of the IWB to present ideas, grammar, vocabulary and idioms in more visual ways allowed me to explore these creative aspects. The IWB offers the ability firstly, to gain the attention of the students in a more focused way but also to maintain their attention by variety and enhance understanding in a more personalised way. It can also aid memory by association. Certain images will trigger the memory of a structure given and so support recall. Images can be combined and used to provoke a reaction and stimulate thinking.  It’s true course books have always done this but now teachers with a few IT skills have the power to do this with their own presentations. The teacher now has the freedom to adapt or write their own course book. A book personalised for each class and which can also have content input from the students.

I think it is these visual and presentational aspects which are the greatest motivation to me. I am able to be more creative with the design of the way subject matter is displayed. Boring grammar books and course books can be easily redesigned to be more visually stimulating and more easily exploited to encourage the focused learning and group discussion which IWBs facilitate. This capability of designing the visual aspects of the way the language was presented really stimulated my creative juices and allowed me to pretty much write my own DIY course book materials (see my blog). Materials which can of course be accessed online by the students outside the class on a VLE or blog.  The teacher has far greater control over the way language is visually presented to students and in a way can become a kind of DJ mixing and mashing up already existing materials in order to get an idea more effectively across. This is refreshing when in many other areas of state education teachers seem to be having control taken away from them.

We now live in an age when young learners are used to accessing information on web pages whilst at the same time watching a video, reading and listening to news, downloading music or using facebook. If we wish to keep the attention of students and present new learning in a context which is recognizable to them, I believe the IWB offers them a familiar window through which to receive learning in class. With ICT skills  the teacher can design that window in such a way that students can more easily assimilate and evaluate information. IWBs turn teachers into both learning designers and internet guides.

Speed of light

This learning design ability can mean that the class also becomes more of a “show” with the teacher as presenter or guide. I have said that a creative teacher can mix photo images and cartoons or drawings with moving images or video files. A variety of backgrounds and font styles can be used to illustrate certain points turning, for example, an otherwise dull grammar lesson into an entertaining presentation, game or “show.” This must involve students. No death by powerpoints here. Students should be active participants.I think any good presentation should be designed to provoke responses from students and encourage group discussion, reflection, feedback and facilitate the teacher / student dialogue which promotes learning.

Let me give an example. If I am teaching the passive structure I can show half a dozen images of signs all of which feature the passive tense, for example, “Designed by Microsoft”, “Good food is served here”, “Made in China” etc and get the students to discuss what they have in common. With the teacher eliciting, the students should be able, not only to recognise the context in which the passive is used, but also work out how it is constructed and give more examples from their own experience. One could say that this is already done in course books but the interactive whiteboard gives the teacher far more control of which or how many images are being seen or discussed by the group and in what conjunction.  Course books are also unable to show anything like the number or variety of images which can be obtained on the net. See my blog for this example.  Another example could be using Sherlock Homes to run through the modal verbs of deduction Of course students are able to access these presentations at home on the VLE after the class and also use then for revison purposes.

Walking on the Moon

The interactive whiteboard can also allow classes to be less teacher-centred. As I have already said death by powerpoint presentation is to be avoided at all costs. The IWB should be used to focus and stimulate group discussion and reflection. The board should be something that the teacher works with in class. The IWB allows the teacher to step back, ask questions, promote and observe more closely student interaction, participation and activity. It removes the focus from the teacher.

Some student Interaction with learning content is possible as students may also add their own feedback, ideas or comments to a worksheet displayed on the board. This can then be saved and printed at the end of the class for the students to take home as their own personalised worksheet or left as a display on a VLE or blog.

I should mention here that I do think there is a misconception about that “interactive” part of IWBs. The boards are called interactive because you can touch the screen and interact with the PC from the screen. It doesn’t mean that the students have to interact with it. Students can use the boards to present their own work but getting them to come out and click something just for the sake of it might be cumbersome, pointless and time consuming in many cases and better done in a computer lab. Ofsted like it though (which possibly tells you what you need to know about them).

In any case software now exists which allows students to respond to quizzes and questionnaires using handsets in class however I do think that it might be easier and maybe even less costly to have the students interacting with whatever is displayed on the board through their own mobile devices, tablets or netbooks, even if it is just texting an answer on a smartphone to a question on a facebook page.

Ground control to Major Tom

It’s true that most of what I have described here can be done with a laptop and projector and you may be asking how you can justify the expense of an IWB over a projector. Good point. The interactive touch screen feature does allow you to more easily add notes and comments at the board and frees you up from having to be next to a keyboard or mouse but I will admit most of what I am describing here can be just as easily done with a projector. There may also be some who reject the whole idea of using technology in the classroom and who promote a more unplugged approach. That’s fine and there is an awful lot of planning and time investment in running courses with this kind of ICT involvement. Going in and improvising a conversation class is fine every now and then (we’ve all done it) but if we really want students to participate and take more control of their own learning development I think technology demonstrates far more potential, especially in the online age we live in. Anyway, I always liked the idea that my students were learning English and picking up a few IT skills at the same time.


Life on Mars

I think the future will bring paper free lesson as the teacher will have all the things currently needed for class stored on his class PC, a USB or learning network. There might be no need to take books, tapes, videos, photocopies, even board pens into class ever again. Teachers will be clutter free at last!  Students will take notes on mobile devices in class and store notes on networks. Planning also becomes easier and more adaptable as you can save a presentation and adapt it making changes to suit the needs of each class without having to rewrite a worksheet or redo photocopies. A saved presentation can even become a (non paper) lesson plan. It is this freedom which I think has had the most effect on the way I plan or arrange resources for my classes. All my resources can be on a portable USB stick or a laptop. With free and excellent quality learning activities appearing every day on the internet now why do we need course books and paper anymore? The next class is just a click away.

In the 5 years since that first class with the IWB I feel I’ve come a long way with using IT to teach English and would now never go back to the pre digital age. I feel completely at home with technology in the class and enjoy the control over the learning environment that it gives me. I have seen the benefits of it in terms of student motivation, learning and creativity. I also feel I have been learning and developing with my students. It’s been challenging, rewarding, fun and, as David Bowman also said just before that famous “full of stars” quote, “It goes on forever”.

IWBs – to sum up

  • Visual presentation means the class can become a “show”
  • Teacher has far greater control over visual aspects of language presentation
  • Less teacher centred – aids focused group discussion on what is displayed and easily visible to all
  • Interactive adaptable worksheets that students input to and take home or access online from home
  • Allows more creativity by the teacher to invent and adapt materials
  • Easier and more adaptable planning once initial time investment has been made by the teacher to build up digitised resources eg pdfs, ppts, mp3s, youtube clips etc
  • Saves money on photocopying
  • There are far more free teaching resources on the internet now than are on the shelves of your school / academy. It’s easy to show and use them on an IWB
  • No need to take books, tapes, videos, photocopies, pens into class ever again! It is all on your computer.

Thank you David for your contribution,  and sharing your inspirational odyssey!

Images from: 

Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive – NASA 

Austalian Photographer Lincoln Harrison

Milky Way Photographs by Alex Cherney 

NOAA Photo Library 


8 comments on “How Using an IWB Led to Digital Revelation – David’s Odyssey

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  7. Michael Scott says:

    I am getting a Smart Board installed in my classroom this summer and am excited about all the learning moments this will inspire with my students. Technology can enhance and help to scaffold learning. Some people don’t see technology as a tool for learning or just don’t understand its usage. Hopefully more teachers will come to the realization that it truly is an awesome way to help students. BTW, loved all of the 2001:A Space Odyssey references! 😉

  8. […] "It's full of stars!" David Bowman, 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke Countdown It seems so long ago now but it was actually spring 2007; the day I first taught a class with an interactive…  […]

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