Smart Board vs. Promethean – Dueling Electronic Whiteboards at NECC

1019383_white_chess_army_3Interactive Whiteboards (IWB) are all the rage in education right now. Market penetration is about 15% of classrooms and climbing like a rocket. Is it time for publishers to jump on this bandwagon? If so, which digital whiteboard is right for you?
I spent the better part of my time at the National Education Computing Conference (#NECC09) in Washington DC this week attending presentations put on by Smart Technologies and Promethean. My goal was to evaluate whether PCI Education should embrace these tools as part of our publishing plan.

The Good

I’m excited about what IWB’s can do for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) (the market PCI serves). The ability to project large images and the engagement that comes with directly interacting with the media have the potential to improve instructional outcomes. The boards are kinesthetic, visual, and with the addition of speakers even auditory. All students can benefit from this, but IDD students in particular should get a boost.

Both companies have created on-line spaces where teachers can share lessons they have created. Promethean has the edge here – they have over 350,000 teachers in their community Promethean Planet, making it one of the largest on-line teacher communities in the world. Smart’s Teachers Hub is smaller but has a nice mix of resources and professional development.

Another very strong development is a range of tools that are platform independent. One of the metaphors that the white board companies are batting around is that their toolsets (IWBs, response systems/clickers, and audio projection systems) are the “operating system of the classroom.” The problem from a customer standpoint and a publisher standpoint is that realistically you only want to support one OS. RM’s Easyteach has long had a suite of tools that run on any board. Promethean is promising that if you develop with their tools that the projects can run on other’s boards. From a publisher’s perspective this is good – but the reality is that few schools will want to invest in a white board which includes software and then go buy a different system. A solution exists today – but for this market to mature more work remains in this area.

The Bad

The tools are still evolving. Many of the examples that I saw were eerily like HyperCard projects from 15 years ago. The gap is that there isn’t very much database functionality behind all this – just a flip chart based screen by screen metaphor. Both companies will kick me for saying this – but the closest application to what they provide today is PowerPoint.

Doing animations, and creating interactions seems to involve a series of tricks and work-arounds. Teachers who embrace the technology won’t have any difficulty mastering these techniques – but for the rest of the world the tools are not quite as robust as they need to be for easy local authoring. With the amount of investment going into this space it is only a matter of time before the products mature.

If I were in the white board companies’ shoes I’d go buy HyperStudio and build out from there. If I were a teacher and wanted to author a bunch of stuff this is the tool I’d use. Maybe a new entrant like Polyvision’s Eno will will do this – they seem to be willing to break the mold and they don’t have too much invested in a proprietary tool set.

Very little energy has gone into protecting copyrighted materials even as both companies are wooing publishers. Digital Rights Management is a hornets nest and I can understand why the white board providers want to shy away from it. I’d give the edge to Promethean on this one – they have created a “safe” mode where a publisher can release materials but local printing can be blocked (even screen scraping).

A side note – in many cases this is not an issue of the publisher wanting to place unreasonable restrictions on the use of materials. For a lot of older content they simply don’t have the rights for open digital distribution.

The Ugly

As Doug Stein wrote on this blog recently the biggest danger of focusing on IWBs is that without systematic reform and professional development it reinforces the Sage on the Stage teacher role.

bsodAt its root the competitive arena is a complete rehash of the Mac vs. Windows battles of the early 90’s.

The companies are going at each other with the same arguments that Apple and IBM/Microsoft used. Smart touts their worldwide market share (60%) and the need for kids to use the same tools they will encounter in the workplace (see IBM PC marketing). Promethean pushes the meme that their tools are designed specifically for education and are therefore more appropriate for schools (see Apple education marketing). On this one I have to side with Promethean. Their tools do look much more appropriate for the classroom and their student response system (clickers) are much more advanced for input and assessment.

On the customer side we are seeing administrators make the same mistake of assuming that the technology in and of itself has some magical quality that will change and improve what happens in the classroom. In many cases this is driven by a hard nosed career calculus – in the early ’90’s one of the most visible statements a new Superintendent could make was putting computers in schools. It was expensive, visible, and doable within the 3 year average job tenure they had. IWBs fit the same bill.

Sadly what we learned was that technology without extensive professional development changed absolutely nothing. This was the real lesson those who want to learn from history should take away from this battle. Fortunately Secretary Duncan appears to get this and while he has touted white boards as something ARRA funds should go towards he has also stressed the need for training.


What do I recommend?
Publishers should start working with IWB toolsets and figuring out the design challenges associated with creating interactive content in large screen format. IWBs are here to stay and their penetration into classrooms is going to climb. Getting familiar with the tools and how your materials can be developed so they are IWB friendly is important. I’d pick one of the cross-platform toolsets – Promethean or RM – or even just work in PowerPoint or HyperStudio.

On the school side I think both solutions are viable although I’d skew towards the Promethean solution since they are so focused on just the education market. It shows in their on-line resources, their development tools, their peripherals, and in the maturity of their approach to the market. New entrants like Polyvision’s Eno also deserve a close look – they have a smaller footprint in the classroom and on your budget.


4 responses to “Smart Board vs. Promethean – Dueling Electronic Whiteboards at NECC”

  1. Doug Stein says:

    An interesting question is whether the IWB battle is more like:

    • the Microsoft-Apple battles at the beginning of the personal computer era or…
    • …the DEC-DataGeneral minicomputer battles at the same time

    The first battle set the direction for the industry for the next 25 years; the second folks reading this blog might never have heard of – because it was the last gasp of a dying market.

    IWBs are one aspect (and not necessarily the most interesting) of something called Ubiquitous Computing that was first proposed at Xerox PARC in the early 90s. See this link for a good article on this topic.

    Ubiquitous Computing asked what happens when computers become cheap enough and ubiqitious enough (and invisible enough) that they are simply there to be used (much like a pen and pad of paper). We don’t go to or schedule time at the “pen and paper” lab; we simply use it wherever we are.

    In Ubiquitous Computing, the initial three form factors were “tabs”, “pads”, and “boards”. They were used in combination for different purposes – but in all cases to allow a smooth segue between group collaboration and individual/pair work.

    IWBs are obviously the hardware descendent of boards. Similarly, netbooks are the descendent of pads and iPhones the descendents of tabs.

    It’s also the case that the IWB vendors have tablets (pads) and “clickers” (tabs) ,in their product lines, but these are supplemental to the IWB and meant to reinforce the sage-on-the-stage paradigm.

    Therefore, my concern is that IWBs and their related infrastructures are the last gasp of a dying market – not hardware – but the educational market of large-batch one-size-fits-all classroom lecture.

    It need not be this way – IWBs and the related technology can certainly be a “socializing” component of a personalized/differentiated learning model.

    For example, one way to adapt IWBs is seen in SMART’s SMART Table. This is a multitouch device supporting 40 simultaneous touches(although when you get more than 8 kids around it there’s going to be a lot of jostling!).

    Note that by simply changing the board from vertical to horizontal and adding multi-touch changes the pedagogical center from “lecture/response” to Montessori-like collaboration. The software, of course, has to be written to support multi-touch, but SMART does provide SDKs for both Flash and non-Flash developers.

    Multi-touch is also migrating to the mass-market not only via the iPhone and MacBook Pro touchpads, but via Windows 7 and low-cost netbooks like the Dell Latitude 2100 netbook.

    As another example, consider what happens if the teacher replaces lecture+clickers with small group collaboration with netbooks (cheap, ubiquitous pads) and uses the IWB for group presentations of student work. The IWB folks wouldn’t like that as much since you’ve just commoditized the IWB into a fancy computer projector! Nonetheless, this approach uses the IWB technology in a more pedagogically-disruptive manner. It gets the kids out of passive-recipient into active-creator mode.

    When DEC and DG were duking it out, their boxing ring was a world of scarce shared computing resources (albeit less scarce than the mainframe world). When Apple and Microsoft started their battles, personal computers were also scarce resources – but the business assumptions were that eventually everyone would have one.

    Absent a creative surge in collaborative software I’m afraid the IWBs could end up as the DEC/DG of our decade and market – based on the assumption of continuing scarcity of computing resources. I’d rather see the IWBs end up as the large-group form-factor of an active learner-centric environment.

    I’d also rather see the stimulus funding make a real dent in how we work with kids – and not merely update the dusty chalkboards of 150 years ago.

  2. Luke Curley says:

    Lee, great article. I’ve been using and testing many IWBs and the tool-sets are as you put it, very PowerPoint like. Good educational software for use with the boards is a common problem around the world, and I’m very interested in Polyvision’s Eno take on this. Looking forward to developments in this area soon.

  3. I represent a vendor.

    All very good points. The Netbook/Laptop can certainly be a tab/pad as described when an IWB or similar is present.

    Vendors like the one I work for, have virtual clients of their student devices allowing for a myriad of connection options and configurations for teachers confident to explore them.

    BUT it is the “feedback”, and more importantly “acting on it!” that is the important bit – not which tool you use to get it.

    Certainly published content needs to be designed well to get the best from the technology. It can be the case that it is actually poor, textbook derived content that holds the teacher and the students back.

    There is no lack of powerful software for IWBs – Google Earth is a shining example as are dynamic geometry programms in maths and the endless numbers of rich virtual manipulatives online.

    I’d rather see the IWBs end up as the large-group form-factor of an active learner-centric environment.

    That is probably how they will likely evolve. The standard Promethean IWB can now support multiple users for example and Promethean have an SDK for developers, so it is ready to be upgraded for whatever “multi” brings – hopefully more than spin and zoom/scale demos of the past few years.

    So a “Last Gasp”…. No. I do not agree. Too many schools hand out laptops and they end up used for cookie cutter google research and presentation. All tech can be the “Last Gasp!” if used that way.

    I do believe IWBs (or any tech) are huge “First Step to somewhere else”. Until we properly “digitize” and train, support and enable teachers to take their role in new ways then we go nowhere.

    Wireless slates and software on TabletPCs are other options vendors can supply and support today.

    They key idea is that these tools are intended to provide a “connected, networked digital groupspace” not a chalkboard. How that space is used is only limited by imagination of the teacher.

    Defining the tool by just one way it can be used does not help the millions of teachers using them to get the best from them.

  4. Anonymous says:

    i love the smartboards