Bye-bye SMARTboards

Having unplugged and uninstalled ourselves from the SMART ecosystem, embracing instead mirrored iPads and Explain Everything, one problem still remained: having a surface to write on! Using a stylus (or finger) on an iPad is ok as far as it goes, but for properly modelling good handwriting to a class you need to be able to write on a large surface.

In many ways, the ideal scenario is . This gives you a crisp digital surface and a really good physical writing surface. However, at my school there just isn’t the space for both in our classrooms. In a new building, we experimented with putting dry-wipe paint on one of the walls and then pointing an HD projector at it too. Writing anywhere on a wall is cool, but having the ability to include digital content is handy too.

So, in order to roll this out across the school, we decided to install special where the SMARTboard surface was before. These boards are designed to be projected onto so you don’t get as much glare as a normal shiny whiteboard, but you can still write on them. We kept using the existing 4:3 VGA projectors, but the boards could also fit a 16:9 HD projected image for when we upgrade in the future.

The installation went down very well with teachers. One of the consequences has been seeing less use of the projector for when it’s not really necessary. Having a decent writing surface to teach with is actually really rather lovely.

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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…

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 http://express.smarttech.com where you can open files from your computer.

Lion and interactive whiteboards

Today I made the happy discovery that even our aged 580 series Smartboards work with Lion. Yay! Our school has been gradually buying Smartboards over the last decade, which means some classrooms have some very antique models (with serial to USB cables and the old-style round erasers.  I once rang Smart’s UK technical support about one of these boards and they were in complete shock that they still worked at all…). I was not looking forward to paying thousands to replace them when we either bought new Lion Macs or upgraded from Snow Leopard.

Smart still claim that OSX 10.7 isn’t officially supported by their Notebook software, but they have released a patch that fixes things up well enough.