A Beginner’s Guide to Buying an Interactive Whiteboard

You’ve been given a bit of money to spend on Interactive Whiteboards and you’re charged with getting the “best” board for your school. With over 20 different options available, what do you choose? Over the next while I’ll try to take the confusion out of buying an IWB. Please add your comments at the end if you’ve any questions and I’ll answer them as a general guide.

What exactly is an Interactive Whiteboard?

It’s interesting that quite a lot of people don’t know the answer to this question.  Many people think that the projector itself is the Interactive Whiteboard.  The projector is a machine in its own right and its job is to display whatever is on the computer screen on to the whiteboard.

The Interactive bit of an Interactive Whiteboard can be a bit confusing because it can occur in a few different ways.

Most of the time, the interactivity is built into the whiteboard itself.  For example Promethean boards have a copper mesh on their surface.  Behind the surface, there’s lots of electric wires and circuits, which cause the interactivity.  Some boards have other ways of putting interactivity into the board itself.

Then you’ve got the gadgets that stick to whiteboards to make them interactive.  The eBeam is the most famous of those.  If you stick an eBeam (or equivalent) to any smooth hard surface, you’ve got an interactivity.

To add to the mix, you’ve got the interactivity built inside the projector.  This is becoming very popular now.  The Epson Britelite projector is the first of a new batch of interactive projectors in the Irish market.

Finally, you also have giant touch screen monitors, which have inbuilt interactivity (and don’t even need a projector).  In the very very near future, Interactive Whiteboards will not need projectors at all as giant LCD screens get cheaper.  Prim-Ed recently launched one of these a few weeks ago.

A full Interactive Whiteboard system has one of these above – and then you need a computer of some sort.  The computer will generally have the software that lets you connect to the board.

The projector links the computer to the IWB, displaying whatever is on the computer’s screen.

That’s it in a nutshell.  There really isn’t anything more to it.  Every Interactive Whiteboard system has these three components and it’s the interactive bit that adds the layer of complexity.

Different Classroom Scenarios

We’re now going to look at a couple of scenarios that schools have found themselves in thanks to the ICT grants that were given to schools over the last few months.  We’ll also recommend the next thing they need to think about to equip their classrooms.

Almost this time last year, schools were told they were receiving an ICT grant to buy hardware for their schools.  The aim was that all classrooms in Ireland were going to be equipped with a teaching computer, a projector and a wireless keyboard and mouse.  Many teachers were dissatisfied that Interactive Whiteboard systems weren’t prioritised.  However, they were the rules and most schools abided by them.

This year, we have an even more mixed bag of digital classrooms.  Thanks to the hardware spend of last year, we now have several different set ups in classrooms around the country.  Below are some of the scenarios schools may find themselves in and some suggestions on how they can become interactive classrooms.

Scenario 1: Some classrooms have no hardware

Some schools decided to invest last year’s grant into some of their classrooms and ran out of money before they got around to the others.  The minimum technology, I believe a classroom should have is a projector, a laptop and a digital camera.  I would use this year’s grant to furnish classrooms with these devices.

Scenario 2: Classrooms with NCTE’s minimum requirement

The NCTE laid out their minimum requirement for a digital classroom – a teacher’s computer/laptop, a projector and a wireless keyboard and mouse.  I would add a digital camera to each room.  You will probably still have enough to buy an Interactive Whiteboard for each classroom.  Because you already have the projector, I would advise going to the company which supplied you with the projector and ask them to provide you with an Interactive Whiteboard at a decent price.

Scenario 3: We have the minimum requirement and IWBs in every room

Thanks to cake sales and other fundraising, many schools already owned IWBs and other digital equipment before the grant came.  In your case, you’re very lucky.  Some schools are buying iPod Touches or laptops for every child. There’s also the options of handheld games systems like DS Lites and PSPs.  Visualisers are another option though I’m not a big fan of them.

However, if you really want to upgrade the use of your IWB, the NCTE are now allowing schools to buy software using the grant if you have bought every piece of hardware you need.

My advice is to go down this road.  There are some good pieces of software out there which suit the IWB including Jolly Phonics for the Whiteboard, the Know Your… series from Edware and any of the games written for Learning Horizons.  You could buy some of the Fios Feasa CDs, which aren’t too bad either.  In fact, you might start seeing a number of Irish designed edugames and apps appearing in the new year so keep a hold of your budget.

Different Types of IWBs

There are over 20 different types of Interactive Whiteboards being sold in this country and all of them have been sold successfully all over the world. Some IWBs have sold more successfully in Ireland but, in general,  it doesn’t make them any better than some of the lesser well known models on the market. There is a type of IWB to suit every school.

By now, I would estimate that over 80% of schools own at least one Interactive Whiteboard.  For schools that have aone or more IWBs and wish to purchase more, I would advise that you don’t automatically buy the same board.  I have four different brands of board in my school.  This is because I always try and buy the best value board at the time.

Anyway, you’ve probably heard of two or three different kinds of boards. Maybe more. There’s probably a few schools in your area that have bought boards and are delighted with them. My second piece of advice is to forget them. When you go and buy a car, you buy something that suits you and your lifestyle. It’s the same with IWBs. Your board should reflect what you like and what suits your school.  I am stunned by the number of conversations I have witnessed where recommendations have been made that are completely false.  I have explained the main parts of an Interactive Whiteboard in the first part of our series so we’ll go straight into the different types of boards that exists out there and check out their advantages and disadvantages.

Board Type 1: Pen-based, infrared boards

These boards are usually the cheapest boards on the market. They work by sticking a special dongle onto an existing whiteboard and use a battery-operated pen to work. They come under a wealth of names, models and prices: EBeam, Mimio, Rainbow, VosaBoard, CleverBoard 3, 3M and Interwrite Board. You can usually use these boards as normal whiteboards and use dry-wipe markers on them. However, you cannot use your finger to interact on them.

Board Type 2: Pen-based, electro-magnetic boards

These boards use a mesh of copper wires on the board to get their input. This means they don’t need a battery-operated pen, which saves on buying batteries. However, these boards do not double-up as normal dry-wipe boards. Neither can you interact with your finger on them. They are also usually more expensive than the boards above. Promethean, Clasus and IMEX Interwrite are examples of this type of board.

Board type 3: Touch-based, mesh board

This type of board allows the user to interact with their finger as well as a pen. Some of them allow you to use dry wipe markers on them too. They’re also reasonably priced. Examples include: Teamboard, Traceboard, Smartboard and IQBoard.

Board type 4: Touch based infrared board

These boards have all the features of the above type board but just use a different technology. A lot of these boards are also magnetic, which is useful. Again dry wipe markers can be used on these. Examples include: Hitachi Starboard, TouchIT, GeneeBoard, InTech Board, Imex Dualboard and Cleverboard Dual. These boards are usually cheap and are increasingly becoming very popular.

There are many reasons why people choose one of the above options.  While I prefer types 3 and 4, two of the most popular models in Ireland come from the other types.  Promethean claim to be the market leader for IWBs in Ireland; however, it is possible that the eBeam may actually be in more schools than any other model.  The main advantage of the Promethean IWB, in my opinion, is due to its market size.  There is more support and resources out there for Promethean products than any other board in the UK and Ireland.  While one can purchase Promethean’s software separately, most schools tend not to do so and generally stick to their own board’s native software.  Promethean also have super training and most courses that you’ll go to, focus on Promethean boards.  EBeam is one of the cheapest boards on the market, which may have something to do with its popularity.  After using eBeams for the last 6 years, I have never been satisfied with their robustness.  However, others would argue otherwise so maybe I’ve been unlucky.  However, the biggest disadvantage I find with both these boards is the lack of ability to use one’s finger to interact with the projected image.

For me, when buying a board I not only need to be able to interact with my board with a “magic” pen, I also want to be able to use my finger.  I also want to be able to write on my board with dry wipe markers.  I cannot understand why anyone would not want these facilities.  However, more than half the boards on the market do not allow the user to do this.  When you buy your board, think about this.

While it might not seem important to be able to write on your board with a dry wipe marker, it does mean that you’ll have to have two separate boards at the front of the classroom – one for writing on and one for interacting.  Why can’t they be the same board?

While it might not seem important to be able to interact with a finger rather than a pen, think of the kinaesthetic learning that happens when a child drags an item from one area of the screen to another.  Is it a more kinaesthetic experience when they have to do it with a pen or with their finger?

I hope this article has helped unravel some of the mystery around the types of boards out there.  I have nailed my colours to the mast on this and some people will vehemently disagree with me.  However, whatever board you choose, make sure you take your time.  Try not to listen to salespeak.  Try not to get drawn into buying the same board as the school down the road.  Try not to simply buy the first one you’ve heard of.  However, you should try to get to a conference (like the IPPN in January) where you’ll see every company selling their wares and play with the boards.  Ask the sales-people questions.  Ask them about after sales care, ask them about guarantees, ask them about training, then listen carefully to their answers.  How long exactly will it take for them to come and fix your board when it breaks?  Once you’ve had a good look around ,weigh up your options.  What is important to you?

A full summary of every Interactive Whiteboard available in Ireland is available on Anseo.net’s mini-site, http://www.anseo.net/iwb.

A Rubric

In order to help with your exploration of choosing an Interactive Whiteboard, we’re going to look at a rubric, which will help you decide the things that are most important to you so you can choose the whiteboard that suits your school best.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with rubrics, they are a fantastic assessment tool for the classroom that allows teachers to instantly see how a child is getting on in a particular topic.  Based on a number of criteria, the teacher marks where on the scale a child is at.  You can find hundreds of rubrics on http://www.teach-nology.com. They are a great measuring tool to check out what exactly you are looking for.

We’re going to divide our rubric up into several parts.  In order to choose your interactive whiteboard, your job is to check out the statements to see what is important for you.  Using the template (which you can download), tick the relevant boxes and when you go to buy your Interactive Whiteboard, you’ll know exactly what questions to ask.  If most of them match your desired criteria, there’s a good chance that it’s the IWB for you.

Category Option 1 Option 2 Option 3 Option 4
Finger-based Interaction I don’t want finger-based interaction on my IWB I don’t care about using my finger on an IWB It would be nice to have finger-based interaction on my IWB but it’s not essential I need finger-based interaction for my IWB
Whiteboard I want to use a separate whiteboard for writing with markers and a separate board for the IWB It doesn’t matter if I have to use a separate whiteboard for markers. I’d like for my IWB to double up as a surface to write on using dry-wipe markers It is essential that I have an IWB that lets the user write on it with dry wipe markers
Multi User Only one person should use the IWB at a time I don’t care whether 1 or 100 people can use the IWB at the same time It would be nice if my IWB allowed more than one person to use it at the same time The minimum number of people that can interact with my IWB at the same time would be two.
Gesture Controls I don’t need gesture controls I don’t know what gesture controls are and I don’t care It would be cool to have gesture controls even if I never use them. Gesture controls are essential for my IWB.
Height Adjustable I want my IWB fixed to the wall I’m not fussed whether the IWB is stuck to one place or if I can adjust the height Being able to adjust the height would be good but I wouldn’t pay extra for it. I would pay extra to be able to adjust the height of my IWB
Warranty A warranty is not important to me I need at least 1 year warranty on my IWB 3 years is the minimum warranty I want for my board and projector I’ll need more than 3 years warranty on my IWB and at least 3 years on my projector.

Have a go and let me know if it helps you out.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our beginner’s guide to buying an IWB.  There’s hopefully enough here to give you a good idea of what you should be looking for.

Last Update: August 17, 2017  

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