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Do SMART boards make for smart students?

At Naperville Central High School located in the western suburbs of Chicago, interactive whiteboards — not chalkboards — are the centerpiece of many classrooms. The boards, which are known as SMART boards (named after the product’s leading manufacturer), are digital projections connected to a computer; marks made on the projections are visible on the board and saved in a computer file.

Need to Know was recently in Naperville, Ill., reporting on an upcoming story on some innovative practices as this large public high school and saw this technology in action.

In addition to the interactive whiteboards, the math department also uses instant response systems in classes to engage students.

But does all this technology actually help kids learn or does it just amount to a novelty?

Teachers at Naperville Central are among the believers. “My lesson plans before SMART boards didn’t change all that much from year to year,” says math teacher David Sladkey. “But now I have the power to change anything in there and move things around and insert, and that to me is exciting as a teacher.”

Scott Miller, the instructional coordinator for math at NCHS, was instrumental in getting the new technology into classrooms. “I now have, at my fingertips, a lot more opportunities for students to interact with something.”

The boards, which were originally developed for business applications, are a growing trend in education. According to FutureSource Consulting, which tracks the interactive whiteboard industry, “over the last 10 years interactive whiteboards have become the dominant classroom display solution, and in 2009 became a $1 billion industry.”

SMART Technologies, the maker of the SMART board, says its whiteboards are used in more than 1.5 million K-12 classrooms and by more than 30 million students globally. And they point to research that shows interactive whiteboards benefiting “student engagement, learner motivation and knowledge retention.”

But these bells and whistles don’t necessarily come cheap. SMART boards range in price from $700 (without the projector and computer) to more than $4,000 (still without the computer). The instant response system can run almost $2,000 for a set of 32 remotes and a receiver.

And while academic research on the utility of interactive whiteboards has generally been supportive — showing a preference by both teachers and students for the technology — there are some limitations, not least of which is the expense. Researchers have cited limitations as varied as lack of teacher training, sun glare and rapidly changing technology.