It might be useful to start at the beginning and explain a few basics for those readers who are coming here to find out about Interactive Whiteboards from the point of view of a complete beginner.

What is an interactive Whiteboard?

Wikipedia defines an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) as

An interactive whiteboard is a large interactive display that connects to a computer and projector. A projector projects the computer’s desktop onto the board’s surface, where users control the computer using a pen, finger or other device. The board is typically mounted to a wall or on a floor stand.

Basically, an interactive whiteboard is a type of touch-sensitive computer screen. They are used in a variety of settings such as in classrooms of all levels of education, in corporate board rooms and work groups, in training rooms for professional sports coaching, broadcasting studios and more.

The basic kit consists of three parts

  • The Whiteboard – touch sensitive
  • A data projector
  • A laptop or PC

The computer projects an image of the computer screen onto the Whiteboard. The user can then interact with the whiteboard screen and move the mouse pointer from the board, rather than having to use a mouse.

Some newer versions involve adding touch capabilities onto a very large LCD monitor. As the price comes down I can see this eventually replacing the need for the data-projector.

Most whiteboards do not have built-in speakers. But often they are bought as part of a kit that includes a speaker and amplifier to enhance the multimedia experience. A decent set of speakers is highly recommended when installing a whiteboard system in your classroom.

There are three main types of board:

1. Membrane / Resistive Boards

This uses several thin layers of material that are stretched across the front of the board. When the surface layer is touched it makes contact with other layers and causes the board to respond. The main type of board that uses this technology is the Smart Board.

Advantages: anything can be used to write on the board, different coloured pens and an eraser can be picked up without having to click on floating tool bars, generally cheaper than solid-state boards of a comparable size. Many children like the fact that they can move things on the board just using their finger. Very nice with SEN pupils.

Disadvantages: board is activated if touched by mistake (you can’t lean on it), the surface could be more easily damaged than solid-state boards. If two children are working at the board they need to take turns to touch it as touching it at the same time will confuse the system.

2. Electromagnetic Boards

These boards have a durable hard surface that covers the mesh of electrical wires buried in the board. A special pen containing a magnet is used to interact with these sensors and activate the board. Some of these pens work on their own, others need batteries or to be recharged. Some boards come with a small writing tablet that can be passed round the class, and is used to enter information onto the main board. The main example of this type of board is the Promethean ActivBoard. Cambridge / Hitachi boards also work in this way.

Advantages: Durable surface, higher resolution, faster tracking speeds. Pupils near the board cannot interact accidentally unless they have the pen. Newer boards allow two pens to work at the same time.

Disadvantages: Will only operate with supplied pen (replacement pens can be expensive), changing pen colour or to erase mode requires clicking on floating tool bars. Pens can be prone to cracking or breaking. Buttons can stick and give odd effects.

3. Infrared / Ultrasound

these devices clip on to a conventional non-interactive whiteboard and give it some of the functionality of a ‘true’ interactive board. They consist of a receiver unit attached to the edge or the corner of the board or flipchart and a set of large pens that transmit a signal to the receiver unit when pressure is applied to the tip. Examples of this kind of system include Mimio and EBeam.

Advantages: Very cheap (about a fifth of the cost of dedicated boards), very portable, comes with several different coloured pens and eraser.

Disadvantages: Pens are big and bulky and use batteries or need charging. The system is more fiddly to set-up and does not respond as quickly or accurately as other technologies. Often the software supplied is quite lacking in features when compared to that supplied with “proper” interactive whiteboards.

Software

The whiteboard is simply an input device that gives the user control of the computer where their finger/pen becomes the mouse. Any computer software can be used on an interactive whiteboard in exactly the same way if you were sitting at the computer.

Most boards will come bundled with their own software which allows the board to be used like a regular whiteboard – but the notes you write can be saved, stored, manipulated, printed. They allow multiple pages, banks of clipart, different page backgrounds such as graph paper and desktop capture.

Not all software works the same way and allows the user a simple interactive experience. If you are buying a board – please test the software out first. Usually you are tied to the software provided. The cheapest boards often come with very user-unfriendly software. This can be a false economy if your teachers then do not use the board because they cannot do the things they want to do easily.

Also be aware of the TDS ActivBoard. TDS is the parent company to Promethean and they sell a board which is almost identical to a Promethean ActivBoard – and does come a lot cheaper. Unfortunately, what is not usually explained is that it does not come with ActivStudio/ActivPrimary software and that this software will not run on the boards. Again you are saving money but getting the useful software that will make using the board a much better experience. I have been in so many schools that have bought these boards thinking they are Promethean boards.

Smart and Promethean do generally have the best software, and are the two boards I would recommend. It then becomes an issue of whether you want to use your pen or your finger and this can be a personal preference.