Smarter Boards

As we work through plans to replace SMART Boards in our classrooms, I was reflecting today on the classroom environment that they were installed to support. In my schools, we had dabbled with interactive whiteboards for a few years, but the first major initiative to install them was in 2007. And though it took several years before they had expanded to every classroom, it was the 2007 ideal of the “classroom of the future” that fueled their adoption.

But 2007 was a very long time ago. It doesn’t seem like it, until you think about it.

We had one computer per classroom. There were a few classes that had a couple computers, or, if they had space, a bank of 3-4. But they were all desktops. And they were huge.


There was no wifi in the schools yet. My schools were a little late to the wifi party. Our first school-wide wifi network project was started in 2009. Before that, we had the odd access points in cafeterias or media centers, but coverage and reliability were extremely limited.

One to one programs were a pipe dream. I remember attending a meeting of schools that were talking about issuing a laptop to every student. When the idea of how to pay for it came up, all of the other schools said they would simply raise tuition costs to cover it. As it turns out, I was the only public school representative in the room. Nobody in public school was even dreaming about the idea of issuing a computing device to every student.

Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project was just getting off the ground. While it was an ill-fated (and ill-advised) project to get computing technology into the hands of children in the developing world, it did put significant pressure on the computing industry to develop affordable portable devices for the education market. Netbooks followed a couple years later. Chromebooks weren’t introduced until 2011, and it took a couple years for them to really start catching on in schools.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We weren’t even using the Google suite in 2007. It was brand new at that point, and there were key functions missing that kept it from being a true replacement from desktop office productivity software. There also weren’t any smart phones yet. The closest you could get was a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry.

In schools, we had to take kids to computer labs if we wanted them to use technology at all, and most of that use was drill & kill, word processing, and basic web searching. If we wanted to be fancy and project-based, we’d make the students create Powerpoint slides.

David Thornberg’s work on learning spaces keeps coming back to me. We need lots of different kinds of learning spaces now. We need campfire spaces for storytelling. Those are spaces for one individual to share ideas with a large group. Old classrooms placed a premium on campfire spaces. The SMART Board helped emphasize that model. The teacher physically interacted with the board, which kept her within arm’s reach of it most of the time. She used the technology to illustrate her story.

Watering holes are spaces for social learning. These are places where students can congregate, meet informally, have discussions, collaborate, sketch out ideas, and brainstorm together. We use a lot of low tech tools for this. I’m particularly partial to butcher paper and sticky notes. But students use iPads, too. The key is to have tables and conference rooms and spaces where those things can happen. Our new schools have tailor-made spaces for these things. The older schools are finding new ways to repurpose old spaces to make this easier.

Thornberg’s caves are geared toward individual work. It’s reflective, self-directed, focused concentration. Students need quiet places where they can work without distraction. That might be the student’s desk or a comfy chair, or even a watering hole with no other people around. Lots of classrooms have little reading nooks or high top tables or other places where students can go to work independently.

It’s interesting to watch, too, how the same spaces serve multiple purposes. A space can be a cave when one person is using it, but a watering hole when a couple colleagues join him. And with wireless tech and good connectivity, any of the watering holes can connect to a display in the space and share their work with the whole class, transforming it back into a campfire. A few minutes later, the teacher can redirect students onto another task, and the spaces take on new roles that meet the needs of the learning task at hand.

The technology for these learning spaces has to move on, too. We need frictionless technology that’s invisible when we’re not using it. “Oh, would it be easier if I show you what I’m talking about? Let me just connect to that screen over there.” A few seconds later, the second grader is showing their work or the middle school group is walking the class through their design project. Everyone can see. Everyone can hear. The resources can be shared digitally within the group or across the class or beyond. You don’t have to plug in to a special port. You don’t have to stand in a particular place. The tools are everywhere.

The SMART Boards came along at a time when teachers weren’t sure about the role of technology. They did a great job of helping teachers organize and present learning materials in a way that was familiar and accessible. They helped make technology an integral, indispensable component of teaching and learning. And now, it’s time for the next generation of technology to take us to the next level.