Over the past three years, my involvement in the EU lifelong learning project iTILT (interactive Technologies In Language Teaching) has provided an opportunity to investigate the potential of the interactive whiteboard (IWB) for language teaching and learning. As associate professor in the English department at the University of Nice in France, I teach EFL, train pre- and in-service primary and secondary language teachers, and research questions of second language acquisition and teaching. Different aspects of this professional context have led to my interest in learning technologies in state school language classrooms, particularly in relation to interactional opportunities for learners, and professional development for their teachers. Our project on the IWB for communicative language teaching has allowed me to research these issues from both learner and teacher perspectives.
Designing IWB-mediated teaching activities
The IWB is a sophisticated piece of technology which can be used fairly intuitively by technologically fluent teachers and is compatible with any teaching style (cf Gray, 2010, for modern foreign languages). Yet its potential for interactive teaching is often under-exploited in the classroom, because
IWBs are deceptively complex and to fully utilise the interactive aspects of the technology, teachers must invest time to build confidence, design resources, adapt practices and learn to harness their power.
(Hennessy & London, 2013, p. 66)
In order to train our teachers in the iTILT project, we designed task-based materials to support communicative activities at the IWB for learners at a variety of different levels and ages. We created IWB files to support complete teaching units, based on a series of communicatively oriented activities to promote interaction in the target language as well as reflection on language in a meaningful context, all with respect to a final task in accordance with the principles of task-based language teaching (TBLT). Each file included teacher notes with guidance on pedagogical objectives as well as technical information, to encourage a focus on good teaching practice rather than on narrower technological issues. We then used these materials to train our project teachers to exploit the IWB in their own teaching contexts (Whyte, Cutrim Schmid & van Hazebrouck, 2011; see sample materials).
When we collected classroom examples of teaching activities using the IWB, however, we found that many of our teachers did not follow this pedagogical approach, and that many sample activities showed neither communicative nor task-oriented intent. Among the nine French teachers whose lessons were video-recorded for the project, for example,
only two teachers designed and implemented a significant proportion of task-oriented activities. The majority of video examples of IWB-supported classroom language teaching more closely resembled pedagogical exercises with a focus on decontextualised language practice and error correction.
(Whyte & Alexander, 2014, p. 22)
Using the IWB in the language classroom
A closer look at the activities selected by teachers for the iTILT project website – some 267 three-minute video clips from 44 language classrooms in 7 European countries – gave us further insights into their IWB-mediated teaching practice. In terms of language teaching objectives, for example, we found a balance across different countries, languages, and proficiency/age levels between the teaching of the four main linguistic competences (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and subskills (grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation). We also found
a greater focus on listening, speaking, reading and writing (but also vocabulary) with younger learners in Wales, France and Spain, as opposed to more attention to sub-skills and culture with older, university learners (grammar and culture in Belgium and the Netherlands, and grammar and vocabulary in Turkish universities).
(Whyte, Beauchamp & Alexander, 2014, p. 43)
In fact the single most common teaching objective among the primary teachers in the project was vocabulary (seen in 25% of Welsh clips, and 26% of French). For secondary teachers in Spain and Germany speaking was the preferred objective (24% and 34% respectively), with grammar for the secondary and university teachers in Belgium and the Netherlands (27%) and Turkey (49%). Many iTILT project teachers were therefore using the IWB for somewhat conservative teaching objectives involving the learning of the words and rules of the target language, as opposed to broader, interactional objectives such as understanding spoken language or producing written texts, for example.
In a similar vein, we found that many teachers used a restricted set of IWB tools and features in their lessons. Specific IWB features include tools like the pen, eraser, spotlight or curtain, and functionalities such as drag and drop, hide and reveal, or embedding multimedia resources. Many video examples featured images or links to websites, and basic actions like drag and drop to rearrange objects on the display.
A third aspect of IWB use which we investigated was participant access, or who controlled the IWB. Critics of the IWB often cite its potential for encouraging teacher-fronted pedagogy:
In the classroom, there will generally be specific learning goals, devised by the teacher, and this can result in the teacher exerting complete control over the board in its role as classroom hub, leading to the conclusion that the board can be a ‘teacher-centric’ tool (Wall et al. 2005) which encourages teachers to teach ‘from the front’ (Smith 2001).
(Beauchamp & Kennewell, 2013, pp. 180-1)
In our project, however, three quarters of the video examples of IWB-mediated language teaching selected for the iTILT website showed learners using the IWB, rather than teachers. Only in Belgium and the Netherlands was the balance of examples in favour of teacher-led activities.
This finding confirms an earlier analysis of pre-training questionnaires administered to all project teachers. In that study, we compared teachers’ reports of their confidence in using the IWB (and ICT in general) with their reported practice. (We use the term self-efficacy, of which more below).
Despite low levels of IWB self-efficacy, the teachers indicated that they still allowed their learners to use the IWB. This suggests that a perceived lack of self-efficacy in IWB technical skills does not necessarily prevent them from conceptualising the importance of the IWB for teaching and learning, or deter them from allowing learners to use the IWB.
(Hillier, Beauchamp & Whyte, 2013, p. 17)
Nevertheless, in the Whyte, Beauchamp & Alexander (2014) study, we also note that almost four out of five of the frequently observed learner-centred examples of IWB teaching involved a single learner or series of individual learners at the IWB (160/201 video clips). This means that instead of organising pair or group work at the IWB, for example, the teachers maintained control of IWB access in whole-class teaching by designating individual learners to manipulate the IWB.
Generally speaking, these findings tend to confirm the results of another preliminary report on the IWB in language teaching, based on our analysis of early data from a subset of iTILT teachers. This study involved eight French and Welsh primary practitioners and compared video examples of those teachers’ IWB-mediated practice with secondary data including participant commentary and questionnaire responses regarding ICT and IWB use. The paper concludes thus:
First, teachers are not particularly comfortable using the different tools and features of the board, irrespective of length of experience with the IWB and in spite of confidence in general ICT skills. Second, it shows a somewhat conservative or cautious approach to IWB use for language teaching, with teachers focusing on a limited repertoire of basic functions such as dragging and dropping images to fulfil relatively circumscribed language learning objectives (vocabularly, pronunciation, receptive skills), often with a teaching method involving an individual learner working at the IWB before the class.
(Whyte, Beauchamp & Hillier, 2012, p. 325)
More details regarding these findings are given in Whyte, Beauchamp and Alexander (2014), and examples of the different types of IWB use in language teaching can be accessed via the iTILT website’s quick search feature.
Pedagogical innovation and teacher development
One explanation of our findings regarding teachers’ choice of teaching activities, and use of the IWB in general, can be found in the literature on the integration of interactive technologies in education. A number of studies have traced the different stages of teacher development from a novice approach to the IWB as a “blackboard substitute” with little interactivity, to “synergistic” levels of “enhanced,” “conceptual” interactivity, as shown in this graphic (Whyte, Cutrim Schmid, & Beauchamp, 2014; see also Whyte, 2014).
(Whyte, Cutrim Schmid & Beauchamp, 2014)
On these scales, many of the teachers in the iTILT project would place in earlier stages of development near the bottom of the charts. More interactive use of the IWB might involve, for example, the accommodation of greater spontaneity: Hennessy and London (2013) quote Gillen et al. (2007) thus:
the effective use of IWBs involves striking a balance between providing a clear structure for a well-resourced lesson and retaining the capacity for more spontaneous adaptation of the lesson as it proceeds.
(Hennessy & London, 2013, p. 66)
This brings us to the question of pedagogical innovation, since exploiting the full potential of the IWB seems to require the language teachers in our studies to change the way they design and implement teaching and learning activities in the classroom. Teachers may be influenced in their approach to integrating interactive technologies by their own beliefs about teaching and learning with technology, and by other elements of their professional contexts.
One approach to studying the influence of people’s beliefs on their behaviour involves Bandura’s notion of self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is described as:
people’s beliefs about their capabilities to exercise control over
their own level of functioning and over events that affect their lives
(Bandura, 1993, p. 118).
Among the nine French teachers who participated in the iTILT project, some showed high levels of confidence in their ability to use the IWB to improve learning, and declared their intentions to further explore the potential of the tool. In interviews with researchers, different practitioners said:
- I like technology and so it’s true it’s something that naturally attracts me. I find that it does offer tools and can enrich all our classes a lot and open up opportunities for variety and for creating interactive situations. There are still lots of possibilities that I still have to explore because it’s true that you learn progressively and extend your range.
- English is the only subject where I do workstations. When I use the board in French or mathematics it is collective. It’s interactive but whole-class. And I am thinking for next year – because every year I change something – and perhaps in mathematics one day every week I’ll do work stations in mathematics.
Others expressed some frustration:
- The problem is to find enough time to create IWB files and to try new ideas.
We readily understand that those teachers who value the affordances of the IWB and who are keen to develop their IWB skills are more likely to make changes in the way they teach. Conversely, teachers who doubt the value of the IWB – or technology in general – for language teaching are less likely to pursue opportunities for pedagogical change, as the examples in the following section show.
In work in teacher education in EFL, Borg has documented the influence on teaching practice of teacher cognition:
the beliefs, knowledge, theories, assumptions, and attitudes
about all aspects of their work which teachers have
(Borg, 1999, p. 22)
A number of the French iTILT teachers expressed reticence about the role of ICT in general, or the IWB in particular. These comments are illustrative:
- I think that, you know, the kids of today with all these screens, I think we should have a bit of perspective. A ‘screen’ is also, you know, something you don’t want to see, right? You hide behind a screen. We have to be very careful.
- It’s obviously a very big defeat for the classical idea of learning by rote, learning pattern drills.
- It’s a fabulous tool but I feel it’s more a toy for me and the children than something that’s really essential.
Contrast with the following, very different type of caveat:
- The IWB isn’t the most important thing, it’s the notion you want to get across. And the IWB is a tool. You should start with ‘What do I need to do pedagogically?’ and then ‘Now I’ll use the IWB.’ Don’t say, ‘I’m using the IWB and I’ll throw in some activities.’ It’s a tool, not a end in itself.
Teachers’ beliefs may be developed individually based on previous experience, but may also change through collaboration. One approach to studying collaborative development is based on Lave and Wenger’s (1991) notions of situated learning in communities of practice.
Situated learning can be defined as:
the acquisition of practical skills and knowledge in the context in which they are used, from members of the group concerned, and without intentional, formal instruction in abstract terms
(Whyte, in press)
Through their involvement in the iTILT project, the French teachers formed a community of practice in the sense of a rather informal group with a shared purpose and task, allowing for peer-to-peer rather than hierarchical exchanges, and the possibility for differing levels of engagement, and involving learning in context, yet also in informal settings (Whyte, in press, Chapter 4).
Asked in group discussion how the project had influenced their practice, the teachers responded thus:
T1: I think it’s helped us to get a lot of perspective on how we teach. To do with our class organisation, teacher-centred delivery, all that. And that has made us think.
R: So nothing to do with the tool, it’s the pedagogy?
T1: It’s having worked in this project.
T2: You could have come and filmed us and we could have analysed our teaching practice. But here it was in a project with a website, so it was less demanding.
T3: That wasn’t what we thought at the beginning. We didn’t say ‘OK this is going to help me analyse my teaching.’ Not at all. That came after.
T1: Yes, and we were able to put it into context to because there were lots of us, different nationalities, different people to see, different ways of teaching. Something that in our professional careers we don’t have to chance to see.
This exchange hints at the value of informal learning in encouraging innovative teaching in relation to technology adoption.
Teacher education research in the CALL classroom
A final dimension to consider in the present overview of this longitudinal research project on the integration of the IWB into teaching practice involves the wider implications for research in technology-mediated language teaching, and perhaps for applied linguistics more generally, teacher education, and educational technology. A number of conclusions can be advanced:
First, as the discussion above might predict, we found that those teachers with greater technological fluency and self-efficacy beliefs, and who were ready to set their own professional development agenda, were more likely to implement pedagogical innovation in their technology-mediated teaching (Whyte, in press).
Second, as other studies have shown (e.g., Guichon & Hauck, 2011), pedagogical concerns need to take precedence over technological questions. Indeed, the pedagogical issues related to IWB use discussed here share many common features with other tools and devices, such as task design, materials preparation, and the implementation of activities. These questions go beyond the specificities of the IWB, and are of direct relevance to the classroom use of tablets and smartphones, for example.
Third, our work has shown the advantages of a collaborative action research approach where teachers are actors rather than subjects of classroom research (Burns, 2005). It has also developed a number of research instruments for the investigation of technology use in the classroom (Whyte, Cutrim Schmid, van Hazebrouck & Oberhofer, 2013; Whyte, Beauchamp & Alexander, 2014; Whyte, in press). In this way, research from the iTILT project prepares the ground for further research into the interactional opportunities which different interactive technologies can provide in the hands of committed practitioners in a supportive environment.
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Whyte, S., Beauchamp, G., & Hillier, E. (2012). Perceptions of the IWB for second language teaching and learning: the iTILT project. In L. Bradley & S. Thouësny (Eds.), CALL: Using, Learning, Knowing, EUROCALL Conference, Gothenburg, Sweden, 22-25 August 2012, Proceedings (pp. 320-6). © Research-publishing.net Dublin 2012. doi: 10.14705/rpnet.2012.000074
Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., & Beauchamp, G. (2014). Analysing target language interaction in IWB-mediated activities: from drills to tasks in state secondary EFL classes. EuroCALL Groningen. slides
Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., & van Hazebrouck, S. (2011). Designing IWB Resources for Language Teaching: the iTILT Project. International Conference on ICT for Language Learning, 4th Edition. Simonelli Editore [Download PDF]
Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) (2014). Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. Advances in Digital Language Learning and Teaching (Series editors: Michael Thomas, Mark Warschauer & Mark Peterson). Bloomsbury. [link] table of contents
Linguapolis, University of Antwerp
- Euline Cutrim Schmid, Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch-Gmünd, Germany
- Sanderin van Hazebrouck, Pädagogische Hochschule Heidelberg, Germany
- Julie Alexander, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, Nice
- Shona Whyte, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, Nice
- Gary Beauchamp, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales
- Emily Hillier, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales.