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Teaching the white fantastic
[February 14, 2006]

Teaching the white fantastic


(The Irish Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)As part of a new initiative to bring interactive technologies to the classroom, one Dublin primary school has replaced its blackboards with whiteboards - and there's not a stick of chalk in sight.

At 102 years of age, the Castle Park Primary School building in Dalkey, Co Dublin, is an unlikely setting for a technology revolution. Once you get past the ornate plasterwork and grand piano in the hallway, however, you start to notice some unusual features for a traditional primary school in Dublin. There is a bank of computers against the staffroom wall. Farther down the hall a teacher is sitting at a computer at the top of the class, planning a science lesson.

In the neighbouring room, 25 first-class children are taking a geography class, with a difference. The blackboard is gone. In its place is a massive computer screen, currently featuring a map of Europe. Ranged along the bottom of the screen are individual EU member maps, and a seven-year-old boy is confidently sliding France into place in Europe with his finger. His approving teacher sends him back to his seat and tips the screen to call up a row of flags, from which a young girl chooses the French flag and pushes it into place.


The scene is repeated in classrooms all down the corridor. Pupils ranging in age from four to 12 are interacting with whiteboards featuring planetary systems, periodic tables, piano keyboards and Irish grammar rules. The entire school is kitted out with whiteboard technology - there isn't a stick of chalk in sight.

Interactive whiteboard technology has taken off in schools around the world. It's a common feature of school in the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

In the UK, there is now a government-funded interactive whiteboard in every school. This is not just a first world phenomenon either; the Mexican government has recently pledged to put interactive whiteboard technology in every school in the country and Portugal and Puerto Rico are also looking at considerable state investment in white boards.

Here in Ireland, whiteboard technology is virtually unknown in schools.

Apart from Castle Park, the only other significant whiteboard project is taking place on a pilot basis in eight schools in Dublin, as part of a study by the National Centre for Technology in Education in conjunction with Drumcondra Education Centre. David Kearney is leading the project and he hopes that it will trigger greater interest in the technology among Irish policy makers.

"Interactive whiteboard technology is the most efficient and cost-effective way of bringing IT into the classroom," Kearney contends. "It is also the most natural progression for teachers, who are accustomed to using a blackboard at the head of the class rather than laptops, projectors or other means of bringing multimedia to the classroom.

"Obviously, a considerable amount of early training in whiteboard technology use is required for some teachers at the start, but the return in terms of time and labour saved is immense," says Kearney. "Teachers can save everything they write on the board, convert handwriting to type, link pages to each other, create lessons and save and modify them over time, print out copies of what they've put on the board or publish it on a school website - the implications for teaching are enormous. I've se++++en teachers spend hours cutting out or drawing images for lessons - now they can take any images they want off the web and import them to the whiteboard."

The implications for teaching and learning styles are also profound, but as Denis McSweeney, principal of Castle Park, points out it's not enough to just buy in the technology. At roughly 5,000 to equip a classroom, an interactive whiteboard could be a very expensive wall hanging if not used.

The physical upgrading of Castle Park is simply the outward manifestation of a fundamental change in educational approach, McSweeney says. Although a primary school, Castle Park no longer employs primary teachers in the accepted sense of the word. Instead of one teacher delivering all subjects to their year, the school now has specialist subject teachers as one might find in a secondary school. Subjects such as music, art and physical education have been upgraded in the curriculum, now benefiting from specialist teachers, better resources and increased timetabling. Because the new whiteboard technology is available in every classroom, ICT training is now a fundamental part of every subject.

"The computers in the classroom are there to enhance the work of the teacher, not to replace him or her," says McSweeney, as music teacher Kirsty McRae takes us though the Sebalius composing programme for children in the music room. "We have spent a lot of time training and supporting our teachers to use the technology to its fullest advantage. Getting the children to use it is no problem: they're IT natives and we're the immigrants here."

All the software the teachers are using comes from the provider of the whiteboards, an Australian company called Smart. The lessons are free to download off the internet so pupils can access them at home. At present, the material is not localised and so there is a distinctly transatlantic feel to some of the material - even the odd Coke can makes an appearance.

"We're pretty careful about what gets through, and the teachers examine all the resources carefully before presenting them in the classroom," says McSweeney. "Obviously there's a steep learning curve for teachers in the early days but as time goes on there is a lot of labour saved. Lessons can be saved and retrieved at the touch of a button and teachers will be able to reuse lessons they have written using the technology year after year - it's all saved in the system."

I sat in on a half hour of maths with a group of second-class pupils to get a sense of the technology in action. On the screen was a metre-high cash register with coins the size of saucers lined up alongside. The pupils were "paying" for items nominated by the teacher by sliding the appropriate coins into the cash register with their fingers and taking out the correct change.

Where they needed to do a sum, the children simply wrote directly on to the whiteboard with their fingers, as if they had a piece of chalk. The teacher got rid of the doodles by hitting the back button on the toolbar above the register. The students were eager to get up to the board and have a go.

"In our experience of the Drumcondra project so far, the teachers are reporting a more democratic approach to teaching and learning in the classroom," says David Kearney, who is overseeing the progress of eight teachers using the new technology supplied by the NCTE. "The traditional classroom set-up does not suit all learners. The whiteboards give teachers and students more choice in the ways they engage with curriculum materials".

The note-takers can still take notes, the active learners can interact with the technology, the visual learners can enjoy a richer visual menu and so on. For the teachers, there is considerable scope for creativity. "Without a great deal of ICT expertise the teachers in our group are authoring their own multimedia products. They don't call it that - it's just a new way to plan a lesson, using a world of resources they never had access to from the classroom before."

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