Open Standards are always a good thing (not)

Sometimes you have just got to have something. For example take the prototype electric Jaguar car. Its electronics are of course based on embedded Linux which I admit is good, really good but what is really, really good is... ... It has twin...

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Sometimes you have just got to have something. For example take the prototype electric Jaguar car. Its electronics are of course based on embedded Linux which I admit is good, really good but what is really, really good is...

... It has twin turbine jets engines fitted to generate electricity! That’s it, I don’t care what anyone says, turning up in a sports car with two jet engines trumps everything else. It might not be the way forward, it might not be a sensible eco-buy, I can’t really afford it and it does not meet my transport needs... but for goodness sake, it has two jet engines!!

Well, something like the above must have happened to explain the rise and rise of the Interactive Whiteboard in schools and colleges.

”Look! you can touch it and make it do stuff! ... hey how cool is that? It’s only five grand ... a bargain ... I’ll have twenty, my school will be the envy of the borough!”

Anyway, to cut a long story short these beasts are now everywhere, every bloomin’ classroom seems to have one. Once the sexiest purchase you could buy, it has however suffered the ultimate ignominy, Becta (not quite dead yet) has written a paper on it.

It’s about a Whiteboard Interoperability Format. Did I forget to mention there are lots of makes of whiteboards in schools?

Genee World, Hitachi, Interactive Technologies, eInstruction InterWrite, Panasonic, PolyVision and not forgetting the two big vendors who are, Promethean and SMART

All have their own software (proprietary of course) all are mutually exclusive and it takes the average teacher a lot of time and effort to master how to use any one of them. Hence Becta having promoted them now rides to rescue the Tower of Babel. We need standards.

Don’t bother Becta, below is why:

Interactive Whiteboards

You know something is duff when Becta gets involved, first in its promotion (accredited suppliers etc) then in the inevitable rear guard action to clear up the mess.

For those who have managed to avoid this technology, an Interactive Whiteboard is a large white touch screen linked up to a PC onto which a data projector shines its light. The pen is a mouse, like the stylus on a Wacom graphics pad.

The problem is INTERACTIVE WHITEBOARDS DO NOT WORK.

Of the (truncated) list of approved UK suppliers above I have used five models in anger, as in used in front of real students. I have done screen shots, screen dumps, used built-in animations, and different coloured ink pens ... pressed every button, you can imagine.

If you are not a teacher and have never used above boards you will not realise that you cannot write on them. Well you can ... but in the way that you CAN write on those handheld devices the nice DHL driver thrusts at you when you get a parcel ... i.e. like a drunken spider or a myopic centenarian on acid.

I contend that an Interactive Whiteboard takes a the data projector which is a very useful tool and spoils it.

The data projector is the latest iteration of ‘projectors-in-classrooms’. These devices form an unbroken lineage of pedagogical usefulness since Charlie Chaplin was in silent movies.

You can use data projectors for showing slides and movies as of course you could in the past using magic lanterns and cine film projectors (later to become the Kodak Carousels and the VHS players).

The IWB adds an expensive layer of complexity to the above that accomplishes two things:

1) It stops spontaneously produced hand-penned notes and drawings

(Please don’t tell me it’s only a matter of calibrating the board and a bit of practice. It isn’t, only a vendor can say this with a straight face)

2) It makes each classroom run a 500 watt PC and 1000 watt projector all day just to teach a pre-prepared lesson on MS PowerPoint.

In other words IWBs are useless shiny contraptions which no one is quite sure why they bought in the first place.

At my college mercifully some brave souls have installed small ordinary whiteboards alongside the IWBs so at least I can write and I have even spotted portable over head projectors (OHPs remember them?) under benches.

Both of the above are some consolation in the effort to teach lessons ... but serendipity has furnished a better solution.

A Blissful Solution...Visualisers (never heard of them?)

I found a Visualiser! … Unused in a prep room. If you have never used one, you have missed out. Visualisers have been around for years but the latest versions are more than happy to output through a PC or data projector.

They cost half the price of an IWB (cynics would say 8x the cost of a web cam) and are largely unknown in the educational world as they lack jet engines.

I plug mine into my Ubuntu netbook and into the data projector and hey presto I have everything I could wish for. A big screen on which I can show slides, movies, pages of a text book, my handwriting ... anything.

At last I have got back to 1970’s functionality.

So I say to SMART! and PROMETHEAN et al, go shove your IWBs where the projector does not shine and Becta ... your interoperability project is as futile as the rest of your efforts.

Standardising a duff technology is probably a definition of something deeply depressing.

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