Teachers say government purchased a tool that doesn’t work well
It’s always been the focus of a classroom for students and the tool most teachers centre their day around — the board.
From dusty, scratching chalkboards to the squeaky, ink-scented dry-erase whiteboards, it’s where teachers lay out their daily plans and interact with their students.
In today’s high-tech world, the interactive whiteboard is now the rave.
Interactive whiteboards are much like a large computer tablet secured to the wall of the classroom. With the aid of a computer and projector they allow teachers to incorporate the endless offerings of the cyberworld into their classroom, play movies or documentaries instantly, and write on the surface with the aid of a stylus or just a finger.
Students growing up in this computer/smartphone/tablet world adapt quickly. Studies have shown encouraging signs the boards are enhancing students’ learning.
Some schools in Newfoundland and Labrador jumped onboard quickly with interactive whiteboards for some or all of their classrooms, purchased by their school district associations or through other means. The choice board in most of those cases was a product called Smartboard.
Seeing the potential benefit to students, the provincial government called a one-time tender in 2011 for the supply of interactive whiteboards to equip as many of the province’s classrooms as possible.
It was an important move to bring the province’s K-12 education system into what is known in North American education circles as 21st-century learning.
The tender called for all deliveries to be completed by March 31, 2012.
Among the minimum specifications, the board had to be touch sensitive and not rely on any stylus device; allow multi-users to work on the board simultaneously; be multi-touch, with the ability to recognize two or more points of contact with the surface; and have a minimum five-year warranty on all components and surface.
The tender also called for training provisions for technicians and teachers/end users.
“We don’t generally, as a rule, make those kinds of purchases from the department,” Education Minister Darin King said.
“This was sort of a one-off where we decided at the time we wanted to make an investment to sort of leapfrog our schools ahead of many others and give our students an extra, added advantage in the learning process.
“I think it’s fair to assume that we are going to try to stay on the leading edge of this kind of technology to make sure the students coming out of our system are as good or better prepared as any others across Canada and throughout North America.”
In Nov. 3, 2011 Pinnacle Office Solutions Ltd. of Mount Pearl was awarded the $4.9-million tender to supply the whiteboards and accompanying software.
Pinnacle was the lowest bidder on the interactive white board contract and supplied the province with Teamboards — a product by Egan Teamboards.
Since those boards were installed in 2012, teachers have complained the product doesn’t work properly.
While some of the complaints were attributed to a lack of training, incompatible computers or software, or even a reluctance by some teachers to embrace the technology, most have resulted in repeated visits by school board technicians and technicians sent in by the manufacturer.
The problems with the boards, teachers say, run from jittery lines, delays in line forming, letters not appearing at the location at which they were written on the board, a delayed response to touch and difficulty clicking on icons.
Meanwhile, teachers who have the more expensive Smartboard in their classroom say they encounter few problems.
A number of teachers spoke to The Telegram on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“Teachers have, quite frankly, given up on (Teamboards),” one teacher said.
When the Teamboards were first introduced, many students found the icons difficult to click on, teachers say.
A “MacGyver-type” solution helped at one school in the
St. John’s area — a stick with a tennis ball attached to the top.
“That became more of a game than a learning experience,” another teacher said. “Some of the issues with the boards became a joke among many students.”
A source in the Education Department said the boards have been a significant drain on resources.
“Most of them seem not to work, or work very poorly, or work in a way that teachers won’t actually use them,” the source said.
“There’s definitely some upside of having them, even if you’re not using them, but the cost associated with putting this together … we should’ve gotten a lot better use. Right now I know of only a dozen people who are really using it the way they would have used the other product that worked.”
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King says he’s aware of concerns expressed by some teachers, particularly in the metro area, although the department has found it has not been a general complaint across the province.
King noted the department doesn’t want to give the impression that all the Teamboards have had problems. In fact, the department stated most Teamboards are working fine — as long as people know how to use them.
“To be fair to the product, based on what I’ve been told, not every one of those boards in every classroom is malfunctioning. Probably more than there ought to be, but there are Teamboards out there from that product we’ve purchased that are working fine and teachers are integrating them as part of their daily routine, so it’s not every board in every room,” King said.
“I am certainly disappointed with the feedback I’ve received around the teachers facing challenges, but one of my experiences when I was in the system was that lots of us resist change.”
King said about 2,100 boards were purchased at a cost of about $5.4 million.
He said problems have been rectified in many instances by the company and technicians, or the product has been replaced with an updated version.
The school districts are following up with the manufacturer to ensure the warranty is followed.
“We do have a warranty on the product and the company has been honouring that,” King said. “I do understand the concern of teachers and I don’t want to minimize or dismiss their concerns. I know how frustrating it is and we are going to try our best to make sure this technology that is not working, gets in working order.”
Opposition Liberal education critic Dale Kirby suggested part of the problem could have been the thinking that all interactive whiteboards are the same.
“I guess they’ve learned now that it’s not the same thing. I think the standing tender now is for the Smartboard, not the Teamboard. That’s my understanding,” Kirby said.
“When these hit the ground initially, I heard there was a bit of an outcry, but ... I guess some people are resigned to try to use them the best they could.
“I think there should have been more consultation with schools, asking principals, etc. It’s pretty easy to survey the schools to ask them what they could use in their classrooms, what would be useful to them. If they had done that, we wouldn’t have spent all this money on a product the majority of them didn’t want.”
The Telegram emailed the Egan Teamboard website, but did not receive a reply.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA) said the issue has not been brought to its attention.
NLTA president James Dinn said there were initial discussions about interactive whiteboards, because there was always a choice between the products.
“I used a Teamboard. For what I used it for, it was fine. Other teachers use the Smartboard and are enamoured of it,” Dinn said.
“I know, speaking as a teacher now, there were technicians who came in and recalibrated, as there were features I attempted to use, but couldn’t. … Now, keep in mind that could’ve been just me using it, or the compatibility of programming, but I wouldn’t be able to comment any further on that.
“I guess it comes down to a budgetary item, as well. You are trying to get some interactive technology into the classroom, and how do you get it there?”
King said technical issues with the boards take some of the glow off what should be a good story for the province.
“Every time you make purchases like this, we do engage people and there would have been some testing done, but I think it’s fair to say that as we go down the road of integrating more technology, we are going to have to use extra caution and make sure we do more practice runs and probably engage more teachers from different facets of the system,” he said.
“So, whether it’s kindergarten or Grade 1 teachers, middle school or high school, maybe that’s a lesson we ought to have learned from this, that next time around make sure we test-drive this through all parts of the system, because teachers use them in different ways in different grades.
“We will try to get the bugs worked out of this system now — that’s a key priority for us, that we get these boards up and running.”