SMART Boards…and how things change



In just under a year and a half, our existing middle school will turn into a home for our district’s Spanish Immersion Program, and a new building will open for our school.

Compared to the last building project in our district, which I was involved with, staff has had relatively little input on the process.  In the last building, there was a team of staff members who made most of the decisions in the process, with a few exceptions.  That power is firmly in the hands of the district administration this time around.

With the last building, one of the decisions that was placed into the hands of the staff was the selection of the technology that was to be placed in each room.  At the time, we were a Microsoft Windows district, and after spending hours at sales pitches and even having staff beta-test different solutions for months, the team recommended the purchase of Promethean Boards.  The district IT decided that wasn’t the right conclusion, and went with SMART Boards.

As a result, we built a high school with Microsoft Windows laptops, SMART Boards, audio reinforcement systems, and a central control panel for the projector in each instructional space.  About ten staff members (including myself) were trained as SMART trainers (“That was an unexpected result” was a guided response from that training), and we had a three year program outlined for continued training.  The systems were $8000 installed, without the computer.

Due to a lack of continued funding, the training sessions were abandoned after the initial training, and the SMART Boards quickly became glorified whiteboards (no use of the Notebook software), the voice reinforcement systems (not SMART) were useless, and within three years, we switched to MacBooks that didn’t interact well with the SMART Boards.  We were told to not have more than three interactive components in one Notebook presentation as any more might cause the SMART Board to crash.  The Macs did not work well with the Bluetooth connectivity in those SMART Boards, so we had to connect the boards to the Mac with the longest USB cables we could find.  Most of the existing SMART lessons were not of great value to the teachers in our school.  What a mess.

Later, SMART decided to stop offering the latest versions of SMART Notebook for free (which was the way that things worked when we bought the hardware) and required a yearly subscription fee to run the latest software.  Most districts were forced into this plan, as newer computer operating systems couldn’t run the old software any more.  Our district grudgingly went along with the purchases.

Furthermore, with mirroring with the iPad in October of 2011, it became apparent in music education that being able to wirelessly project from a tablet was a huge benefit above and beyond getting up, writing on a (small) SMART Board, and coming back to a piano or podium.

My feelings about SMART Boards were not helped as I had many discussions with SMART representatives at conferences who mocked the iPad .  I know SMART Boards are great for math teachers, elementary music teachers, and music theory–but there seemed to be better solutions for most other educational solutions.

Well, it looks like some things have changed at SMART.  At my current school, we just sat through information sessions where the latest generations of SMART Boards were demoed for us by the local vendor (I would assume that the decision has been already been made).  I do have to admit that I am not the ideal participant in these settings, particularly when the representative makes you get up and touch the panel to see how it works.  If only daggers could shoot from my eyes at those times.

Did you know that SMART was recently bought by FoxConn, who makes the devices for many companies, including Apple?

The new FoxConn-owned SMART is abandoning the “dumb” technology of SMART (all a SMART Board is, in the eyes of your computer, is a large mouse).  Instead, the latest versions are a giant LCD screen, with pen input or no pen input.  While SMART Notebook still requires a subscription, the new pen input screens will work by themselves if necessary (without a computer), and can wirelessly mirror from all major operating systems, including iOS, Mac, Windows, and even Chromebooks.  Large LCD screens are the way to go…more than 50,000 hours of a very bright, clear screen that can be seen in a lit room.

I haven’t had a chance to try a connection with a Mac (a Windows device was used to show the interface), but I am curious to see if all of the interactive components work with a Mac.

While I still think there is great power in mirroring, there are times that interaction with a large screen (up to 89″ diagonal in a model that is coming soon) makes a lot of sense for any teacher.  The interactive activities can be fun for learners at any level (think game shows and Kahoot-like interactions).  And even if the SMART board becomes a glorified White Board, there will be benefits from that white board, such as being able to push out the entire written session, or having a GREAT way to show a video.

I think the new ownership of SMART by FoxConn and the new two models (one is out, one is on the way) are a great tool for education–devices that can operate by themselves, work in connection with a computer, or run with mirroring.  That is promising to me, and for the first time in a long time, I am looking at the SMART BOARD as a product with promise rather than as a waste of money.


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