Whiteboard Jungle

Digital whiteboards, also known as interactive or electronic whiteboards, are a significant step up the evolutionary ladder, certainly from the traditional blackboard but also from standard whiteboards. The concept is simple: a digital whiteboard enables users to capture text and images that appear on the board. What results is a new paradigm for classroom interaction — teachers have the ability to save their handwritten lecture notes to their PCs, for instance, and later post them online. Students might project a PowerPoint presentation onto the board, make annotations, and then display the final product on their personal Web sites.

As for the technology itself, almost all electronic whiteboards offer core functions, including optically encoded pens for writing on the board's surface; accompanying software that provides templates and backgrounds; and the ability to capture and send annotated images to disk, printer, or Web site. In addition to such basics, there's a wealth of optional features, from wireless connectivity to handwriting recognition. Here, we detail key considerations to help you get started.

Buyer's Checklist

What's included in the technology package?

Configuration options vary considerably in the world of whiteboard systems. SMART Technologies, for instance, offers mostly all-in-one solutions that include a digital whiteboard, software, projector, and portable cabinet — basically everything you need but the computer. Standard offerings from companies like GTCO CalComp, Virtual Ink, Numonics, PLUS Vision, Promethean, and PolyVision include the digital whiteboard and accompanying software while you supply the projector, computer, and any desired accessories. And there are others — specifically Luidia and the aforementioned Virtual Ink — who sell conversion technology: software and sensors that add digital, interactive capabilities to standard whiteboards. These units are particularly portable and lightweight, with some weighing as little as a couple of ounces. Finally, there's an electronic copyboard option from PLUS Vision that doesn't require a computer or projector instead, information written on the board can be sent directly to a printer or saved to a memory card.

What's the value for my dollar?

All-in-one systems range from $8,000 to over $12,000; whiteboard/software packages go for $800-$2,700; and conversion solutions start at $600. Of course, with the whiteboard/software and conversion methods, you also have to factor in the additional components you'll need to supply. In addition, when tallying costs, keep in mind that the majority of vendors offer unique supplemental features you might consider adding to the mix (see next question for more on this).

Does the system address curricular and classroom management needs?

When it comes to software features, every vendor offers their own twist. Most provide template backgrounds like graph paper, periodic tables, and world maps for aiding math, science, and history lessons — Luidia and PLUS Vision excluded — while some also include puzzles, games, and access to lesson libraries. If it's greater interactivity you're looking for, Promethean and GTCO CalComp both sell instant feedback devices that allow for student input and participation. These small RF transceivers can be used for class votes (e.g., "How many believe John Kerry will win the November election?") or pop quizzes.

If customization is high on your must-have feature list, be sure to ask vendors if their whiteboard software allows you to program the Softkeys and Toolbox areas. These command buttons launch Web sites, applications, files, and presentation tools from the board as you teach, and control functions such as time stamps, calculators, and grid design. Customizable toolboxes, such as those provided by Promethean, Numonics, SMART, and GTCO CalComp, let you choose which functions these buttons command, similar to how Microsoft Word lets you customize the toolbar buttons on the top of your computer screen.

Does it match your physical requirements?

It's important to assess how the whiteboard system will fit into your school environment. Do you want front or rear projection? Are you interested in rolling the system from class to class, or would it be better off permanently installed in one place? Size is a consideration as well. Measured on the diagonal, whiteboards range from 40 to 84 inches, so the model you choose will depend on how much surface area you want and have available.

What connectivity options are available?

Almost all digital whiteboards come with USB connectivity, but the trend is toward wireless, and most vendors offer it. Some build it right in to their products, while others provide adapters that allow users to add wireless capability to USB-connected models. Whether you buy the wireless model now or convert your trusty USB device to wireless later, expect it to add $300-$400 to your purchase.

How will the whiteboard work with various platforms and operating systems?

Fortunately, most vendors offer whiteboard systems that are Windows and Macintosh compatible. In some cases, though, the same features are not always available on both platforms. For example, Luidia's eBeam Meeting Sharing feature allows Windows users to save sessions to a server archive, whereas Mac users can only capture these sessions on their desktops. When it comes to operating systems, most of the digital whiteboards on the market are compatible with Windows 98 through XP, while for Mac it's often limited to OS X. As with any technology purchase, check your district's or school's configurations and find out which features are supported by those systems.

Digital Whiteboard Options Product Chart
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Stephanie Gold is a San Francisco-based educational consultant and freelance writer.