Using Explain Everything as an Interactive Whiteboard

For my ‘One Best Thing’ project from the 2015 Apple Distinguished Educators Institute, I wrote a little book about using Explain Everything as an interactive whiteboard (imaginatively titled ‘Using Explain Everything as an Interactive Whiteboard’).

As the book is now six years old, I’ve done a bit of a refresh, updating screenshots and converting it from an iBooks Author ‘iBook’ to an ePub in Pages.

It’s now been published and can be downloaded here. Enjoy!

One Best Thing

As part of the Apple Distinguished Educator Institute last summer, we were all set the homework of creating some resources to share best practice with teachers. We were given three options to choose from: Community Engagement (ADEs collaborating with museums/libraries etc. to create resources), Lessons for the Classroom (an iTunes U course that demonstrates how iPad can work in the classroom) or One Best Thing (a multitouch book sharing one way that Apple technologies have made a difference in the classroom). For ADE newbies, we were recommended to do ‘One Best Thing’, so I decided to do one about using Explain Everything as an Interactive Whiteboard.


It’s quite a short book, but is now published on the iBook Store, so do take a look!

iPad Next Steps

So, it’s been about a month since we’ve enforced using an iPad to teach with rather than the use of a ‘Smart’board. Some teachers love and some are not so sure. The keen ones tend to be those new to the school (and so perhaps expecting to have to do things differently than before) and those who hate it tend to be the old hands.

Here are some of the things people miss:

  • On screen timers. I know the iPad has a timer app, but you can’t have a timer in the corner of a screen in Explain Everything.
  • Being able to watch YouTube videos easily. The iPad YouTube app sucks when it comes to AirPlay mirroring, so teachers are having to switch to Safari on the Mac.
  • Having a decent surface to write on. Some classrooms have separate whiteboards (of varying quality) whereas others are using flip charts a lot.
  • AirPlay mirroring isn’t always the most reliable thing in the world.

One solution to some of these problems is to add web browsers to Explain Everything and then add web timers designed for iPad. Handy!

To fix the other issues will probably involve getting decent whiteboards everywhere and installing new wifi.we shall see…

Early Doors

Kids have only been back in school for three days, but things seem to be going ok with the Great Smartboard Experiment.

Here are some things I’ve noticed:

  • There have been no complaints from teachers (well to me anyway…!) about the lack of Smart Notebook. There was a lot of  murmuring before the change about how it would be such a disaster etc., but now we’ve begun, it seems that teachers have found that using Explain Everything and a mirrored iPad isn’t so bad after all.
  • Some of the die-hard naysayers of Explain Everything have even told me that they love it!  Things like the laser pointer are really handy.
  • Nearly all teachers are giving Explain Everything a go.  I noticed that one teacher was using their own MacBook and Notebook on the first day, but it turned out that they had just forgotten to bring in their iPad that day…
  • Continuing staff training is still needed, such as with getting the hand of AirPlay mirroring or making use of how Explain Everything stops the iPad display from going to sleep.
  • Sometimes just using the Mac and PowerPoint or Safari and YouTube does the job fine.

I probably should do some more in-depth enquiries into what’s working for teachers, and what could work even better.  In many ways this is quite a seismic change to classroom practice and I think it will need continuing vision-casting and support.

Explaining Explain Everything

Today, as part of some INSET, I did some training with staff on how to use their iPads instead of their SMARTboards. It started off with some explanation of the reasons for the nice away from Notebook, and then some time exploring features of Explain Everything. We had two streams: one for those completely new to the app and those with a bit more experience.

I took the group who’d already had some training. These were the teachers who weren’t new to the school and so there was potentially resistance to this change. But I think people were reasonably open, particularly when fears were assuaged with cool things like importing/exporting to our school shared drive via WebDAV and “triple tap to overlap”. Oh, and capacitive styluses!

We shall see how it all goes as term begins…

Erasing SMARTboards

As my fun treat for finishing term, I got to go back into school the next day and begin the great SMARTboard revolution.  This involved going round to every Mac in the school and unplugging the USB cable (and in some cases, the USB-serial cable…these are seriously old boards), taking away the pens and completely uninstalling any SMART software on the computer (drivers, extras, Notebook software etc.).  It felt good!

Reflecting on my passionate dislike for ‘smart’ boards (what an ironically misnamed product: I wonder how they’d take my preferred moniker of STUPIDboard?), I think it comes down to the fact that they’ve never really worked that well and have never really gotten any better:

  • endless aligning to try and make the pens write as they should
  • really quite horrible software for the Mac (although it has improved in recent years)
  • glare and shadow from the projectors
  • projectors!  Projectors are great in a darkened room (e.g. a cinema), but not in a bright classroom.  Plus the image quality degrades steadily but inevitably over time until you can barely see anything.
  • trying to make a mouse and keyboard user interface work with touch.  Apple have explicitly sworn off this idea (hence the iPad), but SMART seem to blithely carry on regardless.  I cannot count the amount of times I’ve tried to tap on some element of the user interface, but then for it to not quite be aligned correctly and so I give up and use the mouse instead.
  • really fragile board surface that results in areas of the board that just don’t work properly
  • have I ever mentioned the cost?  £2000 for a glorified trackpad is expensive in anyone’s book.

But I cannot sit back and bask in my delight for too long, as the challenge of communicating/demonstrating/inspiring teachers about how an iPad can be the smart man’s smart board still stands.

Thoughts on Notebook

As I’ve mentioned before, from September we are getting rid of SMART Notebook in our school and unplugging all the the SMARTboards. This is not a move without controversy and so there is a certain amount of vision-casting that will need to be done with staff to explain why this happening.  To help me get my thinking straightened out with it all, I thought I would do a preemptive response to possible/probably questions about it all.

I don’t see what’s wrong with Notebook

In our school, about a quarter of the installed boards are so old that they are no longer supported by SMART and so don’t work.  Another quarter are non-SMART interactive LCD displays that can’t be touch enabled and still use Notebook (due to licensing issues). Of the other half of boards that are reasonably new and should (in theory) work, a good proportion of them suffer from some damage to the surface which means they are pretty unusable on a day-to-day basis.

So the options are:

  1. Carry on as we are, with a few pioneers using Explain Everything on a mirrored iPad to give true interactivity, with everyone else using Notebook as a glorified slide deck
  2. Replace all of the boards with new SMARTboards
  3. Ditch SMART Notebook and unplug SMARTboards and move over to mirroring iPads using Explain Everything
Option Pros Cons
1 Teachers already know what they’re doing. Previous years’ resources can be reused. No or limited interactivity. Costs involved with updating Notebook software (which will inevitably need to be done following OSX upgrades) – an unknown, but could potentially be £kkk.
2 Teachers already know what they’re doing. Interactivity is restored. Very expensive and means budget cannot be spent on other stuff, like more class sets of iPads.
3 Reliable interactive surface is the iPad. Can make use of all the power of the iPad in the classroom, through camera, microphone etc. Taking the school forward rather than sticking with a fading and disrupted technology that is the SMARTboard. Teachers have to learn a new tool. Previous years’ resources cannot easily be reused. Potential opposition from staff!

Ok, so I can see that we need to make a change. But can’t we just keep Notebook anyway?

What is interesting is that we’ve had a year of this situation, and only a few teachers have taken up using an iPad instead of Notebook on the Mac.  Teachers are busy people who have got plenty of other things to think about, and I guess tweaking your pedagogy to incorporate new technology isn’t high on the list of priorities.  But if we don’t make a move, we may suddenly hit a brick wall in the future.  Say, for example, Notebook 11 doesn’t work on OSX Yosemite come Autumn.  Do we hold back our Macs to keep Notebook working?  Or pay lots of money for licensing the newer Notebook?

What’s so great about using a mirrored iPad and Explain Everything?

  • Cameras = visualiser anywhere in the classroom
  • You can teach from any point in the classroom – no wires!
  • You can teach facing your class
  • No need to align your interactive display on a daily/hourly basis ;-D
  • Cool screen recording stuff
  • Multi-touch interaction of onscreen elements
  • Using a user interface that is designed for touch

How can I write?

Classrooms have all got some other form of whiteboard/flipchart if you want to do some proper modelled writing.  But for scribing stuff, we’re investing in some proper capacitive styluses for teachers to use.

How can I share files across my year group?

We have a webDAV server that is accessible in and outside of school using the normal secure logins.  This allows you to open Explain Everything files from the shared drive and export them back there again.

What if I desperately need to open a Notebook file from previous years?

SMART have an online version of Notebook at where you can open files from your computer.

Keynote takes on SMART Notebook

As I have mentioned before, our school is ditching SMART Notebook from September.

But since that decision was made, we discovered a cool new feature in the iOS version of Keynote.  The feature is officially called ‘highlighter’, which basically adds the ability to write with your finger when you are presenting mode. There has always been a laser pointer when you tap and hold, but now a set of coloured pens appear as well.  You choose the colour you want and can then write where you wish.  Instead of swiping between slides, you now get some arrow buttons on the left and right of the screen to change slide.  All of you annotations stay even if you change slide, but they disappear when the slideshow ends.

The particularly cool thing about this is that there is now another alternative to Notebook on iPad if all you want is slides and the ability to write on them.  The other cool thing is that, because of iWork file compatibility, you can make your Keynote slides on your Mac (or even on iCloud on a PC) and then use them for teaching on your iPad.  This is good for those teachers who don’t feel they will be as fast making slides on ExplainEverything because they have to be created on the iPad itself.  (I personally don’t think it’s any slower, but I guess it makes the transition easier.)  And with iCloud, the slides should ‘just’ be there (in theory!).

Here’s a slightly provocative screenshot:


Getting rid of SMART Notebook

So, it’s been decided that from September 2014, Smartboards will be no more in our school.  The physical boards themselves will remain (as they are pretty good data projector screens), as will the speakers and projectors, but the USB cables will be ceremoniously removed from the Macs and Notebook software will be aggressively uninstalled from every Mac in the school.

Instead, teachers will be encouraged to use ExplainEverything, or even just Keynote (on Mac or iPad).  Or in fact anything they like.  If they just want a set of slides, Keynote will do the trick, and if they want interactivity, a mirrored iPad + stylus will suffice.  And if they want to just do some writing, there’s always a whiteboard and dry wipe pen!

Why the big move?

Well, for a long time I have had a particular dislike for Smartboards.  They are very expensive for what they are (a giant touchpad) and they never really work properly (always needing aligning, and once the surface gets damaged, are useless for writing). The Notebook software for the Mac isn’t really the greatest of Mac citizens, and using a giant but not always accurate touch interface to control OSX isn’t always very pleasant.  Apple has long realised that a touch interface needs a different user interface (as have Microsoft to a certain degree), but Smartboards seem to just try and fudge the issue.

Now that we have iPads, and the ability to mirror the display to the Smartboard display (via Reflector App), it in many ways removes the need for a Smartboard.  The interactive surface is freed from being fixed to one spot and can instead be wherever the teacher or child wants in the classroom. No wires!

The other issue is that Smart are now charging for their Notebook software via a subscription model.  It used to be that the software was free because everyone was buying the interactive boards.  But I suspect that schools aren’t buying or replacing boards very often (for example, we have some very old boards at our school), but are continuing to use the free software.  So Smart needs to make some money somewhere…

So we are left at a crossroads: do we pay (potentially) lots of money to keep using the Notebook software on interactive boards that increasingly don’t work? Or do we move away from a technology in its autumn and instead embrace the one that it’s still in its springtime.  It’ll probably be as popular as Apple’s position on Flash on the iPad, but I do think it’s the right thing to do.

Reflector vs. Apple TV

One of the really cool things about an iPad in the classroom is how you can mirror your iPad’s screen to any AirPlay-receiving device.  Like an Apple TV.  I use this functionality all of the time, basically using my iPad as a replacement for the notorious ‘smart’ board, particularly when using Explain Everything.  It’s very handy and means I can have my iPad sitting on the piano whilst I’m teaching and easily change slides, annotate things, move things around etc.

Apple TV is Apple’s preferred way of doing this, which is their little black box of goodness which you then plug into your widescreen TV by HDMI and go from there.  If you have a widescreen HDMI TV, then this is the simplest solution.  However, most schools are instead running some sort of fangled VGA projector+computer+monitor+speakers+amp, without an HDMI input or output in sight and projecting onto a 4:3 interactive whiteboard.

This results in the following problems:

  • you’ll need to buy a HDMI to VGA converter.  Kanex do the very cool little adaptor that does the trick, but the problem with this (so I’ve been told) is that it can’t cope with a really long VGA cable to the projector as isn’t powered.  Most schools have the VGA cable running up the wall and along the ceiling, adding a good 5 metres of cabling.  You can buy powered HDMI to VGA converters, but this adds another little box, another power lead and all sorts of other tangles.
  • screen ratio issues.  The Apple TV assumes you are going to a 16:9 output, so it just adds black bars to the left and right of the image when mirroring the 4:3 iPad.  When you are projecting to a 4:3 screen, this results in either a weirdly stretched image or a rather small image.
  • you’ll need to switch between displays.  If you’re already running a smartboard computer, the teacher will have to switch displays on the projector to the Apple TV input.  Not difficult, but still a bit of a bother.

Enter Reflector (formerly Reflection).  It’s a Mac (and PC) app that turns your computer into an AirPlay receiver. It’s only $15 and you can buy multiple licences slightly cheaper.  All you have to do is start the app running, and then you can mirror your iPad to your Mac’s display.

The advantages are as follows:

  • true 4:3 mirroring.  If your computer is already running a 4:3 display, then the iPad mirroring will fill the whole screen.  Yay!
  • no display switching.  It just uses your existing screen and projector.
  • no extra wires or boxes.  Which is always good.
  • cheaper!  £10 vs £85 speaks for itself.

The only downside is that iPad Keynote slideshows don’t fill the screen.  This is because the Keynote app assumes it’s mirroring to a 16:9 Apple TV so adds it’s own black bars to the left and right of the image.  Swings and roundabouts I guess!