Is the writing on the wall?

As large format LCD screens reduce in price, Paul Mullen, Director of andersDX asks, is there a future for interactive whiteboards?

Is the writing on the classroom wall for Interactive White Boards (IWBs), as large format LCD screens of 65” and above (84” 85” and 98” in 2015) come down in price, and can be ordered with interactive touch technology. Studies show that the total cost of acquiring and running a touch screen is over twenty per cent lower than the cost of an IWB over five years. Will the IWB join the once equally ubiquitous blackboard in educational history?

The drawbacks of IWBs

Over three-quarters of classrooms in the UK are equipped with IWBs which are typically in use over half the time during lessons. Clearly teachers appreciate the flexibility they offer in the delivery of lesson plans and materials, currently engaging and holding the attention of a tech-savvy generation. They give teachers full access to the power of PC presentation tools, allowing many and varied resources to be accessed during lessons. Despite their popularity, though, they do suffer from some serious drawbacks.

The biggest issue is the amount of power they use, typically they can be on six hours per day for 220 days of the school year and although teachers tend to be environmentally aware and relatively good at turning off projectors (when not in use), their energy use and cost is significant.

There are other disadvantages too. Teachers rely on the availability of the IWB in planning their lessons, and hence it is a significant issue if the projector doesn’t work, or the screen ‘washes out’ due to high levels of ambient light. Common malfunctions include the bulb burning out – standard bulbs have a life of 2000 hours – or the projector becomes misaligned, providing poor images. The disruption caused to adjust the projector alignment with the IWB presents significant problems for teachers and students, as does the location and direction of the beam. The whiteboards themselves can also be damaged. If a whiteboard marker is used, over time it will become smeared with grey requiring thorough cleaning. Dirty fingers can also leave hard to remove marks. These and other issues lead to teachers needing extensive support for the technology.

Weighing the balance

Large format LCD screens are becoming more affordable, and can bring great benefits to schools and colleges both in the learning environment and for information delivery. Such screens use less than 10% of the power of an IWB and projector combination, and their 60,000-hour rated life translates to well over 10 years use.

Large format monitors overcome many of the drawbacks associated with IWBs. Touch technology is generally regarded as user friendly and intuitive, overcoming the hesitation of non-tech savvy members of staff, offering multiple touches, making the screens super-accessible for dynamic and interactive learning. With the operating PC either integrated within the screen (OPS Slot) or strapped to the back, they form a single reliable unit, which can be configured once by the IT department and then requires no more than to be switched on. Potential for tampering by mischievous students is also thus extremely limited, especially if a secure log-in protocol is established to ensure that only staff can access the screen. There is no possibility of mis-alignment, and screen brightness can be readily adjusted by a remote or on screen control in the light of prevailing conditions during each lesson. Since the applications being used are exactly the same, the transition requires no training for staff. The screen glass is also comparatively robust and very easy to clean with a wipe or if necessary with stronger detergents.

School budgets are always under pressure, so the key argument must be economic. Smart Boards can draw 2kW and the projectors 2-400W. As these can be left on for six hours for every day in a school year that adds up to a significant power consumption. Replacement bulbs can cost £200, and will need replacing every 1-2 years depending on use levels. A touch screen can draw under 200W, significantly less than a Smart Board and projector combination, and can last for five years, much longer than projectors or IWBs.

Touch screens are more convenient and cost less to run than IWBs. Large format screens are being widely adopted in many different applications including retail, transport, hospitality and corporate environments which is bringing economies of scale leading to reduced manufacturing cost. There is little doubt that this is the technology of the future for the classroom too.