True or False: Smartboards are an Expensive Distraction

On the blog On The Tenure Track, Benjamin Baxter asks in a recent post:

Why the hell would you want a SmartBoard in a classroom? What ways could you use a SmartBoard in ways that don’t make it an expensive distraction?

But, in fact, I agree with most of what Baxter says about technology:

Who cares about LCD projectors if students have just as much trouble remembering how the Balkan Wars and The Great War are related, or have just as much trouble remembering why the powderkeg that was Europe at the turn of the 20th century is important historically, and in our own lives?

Technology adds many desirable things, but these benefits will only be felt once it’s in good hands. That should be our priority

I certainly am not on the “let’s explore new technologies in the classroom and then figure out what we’re doing with them” cart-before-the-horse bandwagon. I also don’t think that foisting technology on teachers works well. (You shouldn’t force a teacher who has been successfully teaching with a chalkboard and worksheets to switch to SmartBoard just “because it’s technology.” That’s doing students and the teacher a grave disservice.)

My opinion — surely held and written by others — is to support teachers who want to pick up technology and figure out an effective way to use it. Then other teachers get others on board because they want to be, because they’re inspired by the possibilities of applying it to their own teaching, because they see how it can enhance their students’ understanding. [1] That’s the way to have a technological culture shift at a school. Don’t force, do inspire.

When I say effective above, I will be explicit: it will have to enhance student understanding in some way. (We get the horse before the cart.) So students would have to come away knowing how the Balkan Wars and the Great War are related better than if they had learned it without the technology.

Now onto to my paean to the Smartboard in my classroom, at my school. (Where every classroom has a SmartBoard, and every student has a laptop.)

At worst, the Smartboard in my classroom is a replacement for a whiteboard, but a whiteboard where the markers are multicolored and never stolen or dry. At best, the smartboard provides me the opportunity to create better lesson plans by making me think more carefully about flow, allows me to have a design aesthetic and put up graphics up that I never would be able to draw by hand, gives me a lot of time in class where my back isn’t to my students writing a problem or definition down, and provides an archive of notes for students who need that extra help at home.

I’ll elaborate. (I’ve been anticipating counterarguments to each of these [how one could achieve these same effects with an overhead projector, scanner, more experience as a teacher, etc.], but in the spirit of being non-defensive, I’ll just write.)

When I started designing lesson plans before SmartBoard, I did an okay job. I had the general topic I wanted to present, some sample problems, and I would go in and talk. But using the SmartBoard did something great for my lesson planning skills: it got me to think like a student. A good presentation won’t have 18 ideas on a slide. In my math class, I try to keep it limited to 1 math idea per screen. But being forced to break down every idea into it’s most basic components led me to think in depth about each step of what I was showing them. (And doing this let me realize: oh, here’s where a student will make a mistake. And then I’ll make a big text slide saying: DON’T DO THIS!) The flow and thoughtfulness of my lessons has improved, big time.

In my math classes, also, we do a lot of graphing. Having SmartBoard, with the ability to have blank graph paper up there, or to show a virtual TI-83+ calculator, helps a bunch. Also, I like to throw up some random images to keep things fresh and keep their attention piqued. So they’ll see a picture of Sanjaya (from American Idol) every so often. A 5 second Sanjaya distraction will get them back to the task at hand. Continuing on with the idea of the visual aspect of it: if the slides are designed right, the student can be presented with the information in a way that’s infinitely more effective than if I were up there writing on the whiteboard.

Because of the SmartBoard, I’m spending a lot less time writing at the board. I’ll often throw an easy problem up there and have students solve it as a quick way for me to see if they’re getting it. I don’t need to spend time drawing a graph or writing out an equation.

Lastly, the ability to save SmartBoard files is a godsend in terms of archiving. I save a blank copy of my lesson, for me to draw from next year. But I also post a copy of the SmartBoard that we marked up in class for the students to access online. This is useful for kids who are absent, obviously. But it’s also useful for kids who didn’t quite get it all the first time around, or who missed something, or who spaced out. They just open the pdf and look at the steps we went through. It’s a good resource for me. In one of my classes, I have 16 students. About 5-6 of them look at the smartboard each night. (Often times not the same 5-6.)

How do I know it’s working for my students? I asked them for an anonymous narrative evaluation about my teaching at the end of the first semester. I wanted to know about my teaching, but I also asked them to write a paragraph about SmartBoard. I honestly wanted to know, because I spend a lot of time creating the SmartBoard presentations for class, and if my students weren’t getting a lot out of it, I would have stopped using it and cut my lesson planning time in half. (I remember thinking that if they weren’t positively glowing about SmartBoard, if they were “it’s okay,” I would have stopped.) But my students did have glowing things to say about it.

So yeah, I’ll be the first to praise SmartBoard. I’ll also be the first to admit that if I didn’t have SmartBoard handed to me on a silver platter at my school, I probably would have found ways to do things just as well as I do them now. But when it comes down to it, SmartBoard is helping me become a better teacher, and it’s helped my students with the material. So for me it’s definitely not an “expensive distraction.”

PDFs of some of my Algebra II Smartboards here:

  1. population-growth
  2. rational-functions
  3. rational-inequalities
  4. direct-and-inverse-variation
  5. interest
  6. inverse-functions
  7. logarithms
  8. logarithm-rules
  9. log-and-exponent-equations
  10. logarithmic-scale-history-of-life
  11. trig-opener-and-refresher
  12. trig-on-the-coordinate-plane
  13. radians-again
  14. linear-and-angular-velocity

[1] Recently I presented a project I had my Algebra II students work on (to be blogged about in a future post) to the other tenth grade advisers. A few came up to me afterwards and told me that they were really excited by the project and saw how it could fit in with their curricula — whether it be art or English — with some adaptation.

UPDATE: Turned off comments. For some reason this page was getting a lot of spam comments, everyday. Yeesh.



  1. Are you using SmartBoards like a regular projector, in that you create slideshows in advance?

    In what ways does a SmartBoard do what a regular projector-and-PowerPoint combination can’t, and in what ways are those new features valuable?

  2. Good point. Yes, I’m using it as a regular projector. Maybe I should have called the post: “In Defense Of Digital Projectors.”

    As for the the projector-PowerPoint combo, the only thing I don’t know I would be able to do is write on it. I write on it a lot. Lot. Lot. We work out problems up to wazoo. And then students have copies of those notes.

    If I could do that in PowerPoint, then they would be completely equivalent. In fact, PowerPoint would be better, because the SmartBoard Notebook software leaves a lot to be desired.

  3. Sam–
    The notebook software allows you to include hyperlinks to animations/applets on the web and store attachments with the file… e.g. when I teach about Aristotle vs. Galileo and falling bodies, I “clip on” a video file of an astronaut dropping a feather and a hammer on the moon…. no rooting around through files–the relevant clip is attached to my notebook document.
    Also, consider the added power that comes with moving text and images–more so than a write-on ppt. It is great for geometry (pull up the protractor and rotate it!) and more.

  4. Are you willing to share your smart files for other math teachers to use? I have been searching the web and a lot of new math teachers are looking for some help with this?

  5. Ah, I also looked around last year, and there are a lot of activities/games for elementary math, but very few (well, none) “everyday” lessons for high school math.

    And I think it’s a great idea, to have a repository for good presentations we make.

    My four concerns are the following:

    (1) Technological: I use a bunch of different fonts, that I download for free, but the SB notebook wouldn’t appear right on unless you had those fonts!

    (2) Ulp!: Sometimes I crib pictures from the net to use and I don’t really give credit. I’m hoping to change that. (I do that with this blog too — eep!) But I feel like that could be a problem.

    (3) In a similar vein, I use a lot of problems from the textbook we use — largely because students leave their books at home and I don’t want them going home saying “what?” So I wonder if that would ever be a problem.

    (4) When I design a smartboard lesson, I think about what I’ll be saying in each slide. So even though I know what’s going on, and why each slide is there, I don’t think a random teacher would “see” it like I see it.

    Still, with all this said, I can’t but help agreeing a million percent that it would be great to create a small archive of files. On at least some set of traditionally taught topics. I’ll make it a goal to try to do this and post them on a page on this blog.


  6. I have had a Smartboard-equivalent (a Promethean “interactive whiteboard”) in my class the last couple of years. At first, I took the “slides” approach wherever I could, meaning that the lesson was essentially planned out and contained in the digital presentation. However, over time I came not to like that approach as I felt it too prescribed for my liking. A technical aside: writing on it is a pain in the butt. Regular whiteboards have much better resolution and don’t require calibration!

    I still consider this technology indispensable, though. The bulk of my lessons takes place on the normal whiteboard (and I like using worksheets to develop ideas), where the lesson essentially unfolds with the participation of the students, rather than the lesson being “delivered”. However, for creating and manipulating geometric diagrams, graphs, number lines and many other mathematical objects, the interactive whiteboard is invaluable.

    For me, a data projector alone would be (say) 70% sufficient. Manipulating things _on the board_ instead of standing behind the computer is not crucial, but it is important.

    I agree wholeheartedly about your comments on force vs. inspire. It’s a constant source of pleasure for me to see the many different ways maths staff at my school use the technology we have, and to share ideas. Not one of our styles could or should be bottled and forced on others.

    Just started reading this blog; thanks for the entertainment!

  7. @Gavin: Thanks for your comments. And I’m glad you like the blog! (As for the difference between SB and just having a digital projector, for me, it’s minimal. I rarely manipulate. I do clone a lot, though.)

  8. Dude… you lose all credibility when you use (it’s) instead of (its). Maybe a Smart Board would have picked this up… probably not since its processor does not comprehend grammar.

    Let tech reign!

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