Exposing Technomyths: Getting Technical about Technology and Teaching
By: Meridith A. Lovell and Linda M. Phillips
As early as 2000, Canadian Programs of Study called for the integration of technology into the daily education of students in all grades. And yet, in the face of constantly changing technologies, research into their effective use in teaching is limited. The result has been an escalation in spending on technology without sufficient evidence of educational benefits.
Where should educators turn for informed reports of the educational benefits of technologies? What evidence supports the benefits claimed, and what is the source of the claims? In order to answer these questions, we examined a newer technology in widespread use in all grades, the Interactive Whiteboard (IWB). In some provinces, IWBs have been recommended for every classroom, and a leading manufacturer reports sales of over 1.5 million IWBs for use in classrooms across North America.
This manufacturer makes four claims in its promotional literature on IWB use in classrooms: increased lesson interactivity, improved student achievement, enhanced engagement, and heightened motivation.
The primary and alluring claim made in the promotional and anecdotal literature is that IWBs promote interactivity, which in turn is the crux of the three secondary claims of achievement, engagement, and motivation. Interactivity is neither defined nor used consistently in the numerous mentions of this complex cognitive term. For example, the mere frequency of students’ tactile contact with the IWB – including playful repeated touching of the screen – is taken as evidence of interactivity. Teachers, who are expected to provide each student with daily opportunities to interact with the IWB, report frustration because of interrupted lesson flow and pace. Consequently their teaching becomes increasingly didactic, relying more on vicarious interaction in which students observe the teacher but have no tactile experience themselves. Researchers question the prevalence of these vicarious interactions, which are fundamentally no different from that afforded by traditional chalkboards and whiteboards.
The IWB promotional material1 includes 32 testimonials wherein the term interactive is used repeatedly to claim the IWB enhances classroom lessons where students interact physically or by use of peripheral hardware. In each testimonial, interactive was used ambiguously and without evidence for, or explanation of, the role of the IWB in making learning interactive. For example, one teacher contrasted lessons taught with an IWB to traditional lessons where students sat in rows. Yet, the teacher used the IWB to provide visual support (pictures) and to facilitate interactive discussion while the students sat at their desks. In this case, the IWB served as a projector; the interactive component of the lesson came from the teacher’s use and discussion of the images.
Another technomyth is that IWB use promotes and facilitates greater interaction between teachers, students, and lesson content. Some case studies claim the IWB’s capacity to display content and provide access to text and multimedia content from the Internet has the potential to increase lesson interactivity. Again, the word interactive is not explained. Since increased interactivity is the main benefit claimed, some researchers have suggested IWBs are only as interactive as the lesson permits. When teachers use IWBs to display content but do not invite participation, then IWBs are not interactive. However, effective interaction can happen vicariously. Quashie uses the example of the math teacher who projected a blank pair of axes on the IWB to teach the class how to plot coordinates. Through discussion, the students worked with the teacher to label the axes, set the scales, order the numbers, and plot the coordinates. Together the teacher and students built the graph. Clearly, the IWB can be beneficial in some classrooms, but the key is how and when teachers use it.
Unsubstantiated claims of increased interactivity serve as the backbone for further technomyths of increased student achievement, enhanced engagement, and heightened motivation.
The first of these secondary claims is that IWB use improves students’ achievement and retention of information. Most testimonials make general, unsubstantiated claims such as “Kids learn better … and retain what they’ve learned when their lessons are rich with visual images and graphic organizers.” Often, improvements are reported as increases in test scores or grades. Based on 14 testimonials, it is impossible to know whether increases were due to IWB use, changes in teachers’ methods, factors that are neither mentioned nor measured because controlled studies were not conducted, or whether the increases in test scores and grades hold true for all students of similar ability over the same period. Furthermore, testimonials claim the IWB’s effectiveness for addressing multiple learning styles (i.e., visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic); educational psychologists know this schema to be “a gross over simplification and misrepresentation of neuroscience” and claims of improvements in student reading fluency, comprehension, and retention of information cannot be substantiated by available research evidence.
The claim that students reading of, viewing from, listening to, or touching the screen content supports all learning styles, and that these multiple representations facilitate students’ understanding and recollection of the content, is naively oversimplified. For example, Quashie discussed secondary mathematics students’ perceptions that the IWB made learning easier. Students used easier in different ways: easier to read typed text on the IWB than to read teachers’ handwriting; easier to get examples for discussion; or easier to see differences in how teachers organized information when presented on the IWB. These perceptions relate to how the teachers chose to organize and present information for the students, not to the technology itself.
The IWB can be used to facilitate the organization and presentation of multiple forms of information (text, graphics, animations, and sounds), but the teacher decides what, how, and when to present that information. Unfortunately, without controlled studies, it is difficult to say which features of IWBs improve student learning – or how, when, for which students, and to what extent.
Student Engagement and Motivation
The other two most commonly claimed benefits for students are improved engagement and motivation. Engagement is a complex concept not easily measured without procedures beyond those available in the classroom, so attention to task cannot be confirmed. Students may passively watch the IWB without paying attention to or processing the content.
Equally problematic are the unsubstantiated claims for improved student motivation. In theory, when individuals are motivated to perform a task, they experience a sense of interest, enjoyment, and confidence in their abilities that in turn leads them to desire to do the activity even when external rewards are not provided. The most frequently reported aspect of student motivation is enjoyment or enthusiasm, but it is unclear how enthusiasm impacts student learning. It is possible to be enthusiastic about a topic and not understand it, and the converse is also true. For example, some testimonials suggest that the IWB is a tool for teachers to compete with media to hold students’ attention or that the “wow factor” makes students become “instantly engaged”. Yet, neither evidence of how flashy presentations including graphics, sounds, and animations promote student learning, nor any caveats that these may distract students’ attention from the content are discussed. Similarly, the main remark given by students in Quashie’s study was that lessons with the IWB were fun; they also found it simpler than the textbook, and clearer than the teachers’ penmanship. Students are enthusiastic about the use of new technology, but Quashie remained unconvinced of improved student learning. We are not saying that enjoyment is unimportant; rather we are saying that learning is the goal of education. If fun, and not improved understanding, is the main criterion cited for the benefits of IWB use, then the expense of installing IWBs is difficult to justify.
Guarding Against the Spread of Technomyths
Promoting any technology as the key to improved student learning is simplistic and ignores teachers’ role in planning lessons to improve students’ educational experiences. The IWB is one tool teachers can use to facilitate teaching lessons that are interactive, engaging, and motivating. Perhaps its most important benefit is not that lessons are more interactive, or that students learn better and are more engaged and motivated, but that it may prompt teachers to revisit and refresh their practices and to present content in novel ways. Unfortunately, the technomyth proliferated by the testimonials is that IWB use, itself, improves teaching and learning and that students are somehow disadvantaged if they do not have one in their classrooms. This message is evident in the words of one Grade 3 teacher who uses her IWB for every aspect of the curriculum:
“I’ve written lessons for the SMART Board interactive whiteboard on everything that’s required of me to teach,” [she] remarks. “And if I don’t have a lesson for it, I will make one. If it can’t be taught with the SMART Board interactive whiteboard, I don’t think I am doing the best job I can for my students.”
This overstated claim that the IWB must be used for teaching to be effective and that everything in the curriculum can and should be taught using an IWB represents what Mohon refers to as optimist rhetoric that would not withstand the scrutiny of rigorous academic study.
The expense of installing IWBs in all classrooms is steep. Based on the sales figures of one manufacturer alone, billions of dollars have been spent on IWBs in classrooms across North America – often at the expense of other resources. For example, one school district’s purchase of IWBs came from funds set aside for textbooks. The reason given was “… the computer and a SMART Board interactive whiteboard function as a textbook.” Multiple copies of books are “unnecessary” because one copy can be scanned and projected on the IWB. Several limitations are apparent when students read only from a common text. For example, students may not be able to see and track print on the IWB, particularly when it is small or dense. In addition, they cannot access the information independently either to reread or to do their work at home or to learn on their own. If the IWB is used instead to access the Internet, the use of digital information presents further challenges such as determining the credibility of sources, establishing appropriateness of language and content, and guarding against copyright infringements.
Manufacturers of educational technology pay little attention to the research on interactivity, achievement, engagement, and motivation. Their aim is to market and sell their products, and the testimonials they provide support that aim. We endorse the use of technology for teaching and learning, but we caution against wholesale adoption. Before committing to the installation of IWBs – or any new technology – in every classroom, educators need to consider which teaching activities and outcomes are best supported by their use, the ideal frequency of use, how much training and support teachers require to integrate their use effectively, and what expenditures will be sacrificed to support their purchase.
Educators need to study carefully the claims made by manufacturers and hold those claims up against available research evidence in order to guard against credulity and slow the spread of technomyths.
 “Quick facts and stats,” SMART Technologies, last modified February, 2012, http://www.smarttech.com/us/About+SMART/About+SMART/Newsroom/Quick+facts+and+stats
 Elizabeth H. Mohon, “SMART Moves? A Case Study of One Teacher’s Pedagogical Change Through Use of the Interactive Whiteboard,” Learning, Media and Technology 33, no. 4 (2008): 301-312.
 Valerie Quashie, “How Interactive is the Interactive Whiteboard?” Mathematics Teaching Incorporating Micromath 214 (2009): 33-38.
 Maureen Haldane, “Interactivity and the Digital Whiteboard: Weaving the Fabric of Learning,”Learning, Media and Technology 32, no. 3 (2007): 257-270.
 “Greenbriar West Elementary School,” SMART Technologies, last modified 2006, http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/sitecore/en/pdf/customerstories/k12/greenbriar.pdf
 Daniel Ansari, “The Brain Goes to School: Strengthening the Education-Neuroscience Connection,”Education Canada 48, no. 4 (2008): 6-10.
 Judy Cameron and W. David Pierce, “Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation,” Review of Educational Research 64, no. 3 (1994): 363-423.
 “Fernhill College,” SMART Technologies, last modified 2008, http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/sitecore/en/pdf/customerstories/hed/fernhillcollege.pdf
 St Paul’s Catholic Primary School,” SMART Technologies, last modified January, 2008, http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/sitecore/en/pdf/customerstories/k12/greenbriar.pdf
 Quashie, 36.
 “Kress Elementary School,” SMART Technologies, last modified 2007, http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/sitecore/en/pdf/customerstories/k12/kresselementaryschoolcasestudy.pdf
 “Jennings School District,” SMART Technologies, last modified 2007, http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/sitecore/en/pdf/customerstories/k12/custcasestudyjenningsschooldistric
Editor’s note: We offered SMART Technologies a chance to respond to “Exposing Technomyths.” Their counter-argument follows:
A Solid Foundation of Success: Research Supports the Effectiveness of Interactive Whiteboards
By: Heather Sadler Jones
Today’s savvy technology consumers look to numerous sources before buying a cell phone, TV, or tablet, often asking friends, online consumer reports, and referencing blogs. So, why would their practices be any different for buying education technology? In a day and age when education practitioners are inundated with claims that certain technologies will revolutionize education, SMART Technologies supports the suggestion to be an informed consumer. Investigate a company’s record of success, examine the full solution being provided, and learn from the experiences of others, including other customers and scholarly research. For numerous schools and districts that have already done this, SMART has proved to be an excellent choice, and we are excited to celebrate their successes.
To highlight one of many SMART customer success stories, Marilyn Steier, owner of SMO Consulting and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, identifies SMART Boards as one factor that influenced the success of her SMART Showcase School when she was principal at Millgrove School in Spruce Grove, Alberta. With over 30 years of experience in public education, Steier identifies herself not as a researcher, but as an “in the trenches research consumer” who has seen the positive effects the SMART Board® interactive whiteboard can have in the classroom. With a thorough professional development plan and time for teachers to transform their pedagogy, her school saw a strong return on investment as they prepared students with 21st century skills. Steier says, “In Alberta, digital literacy is no longer an option – it’s a requirement,” adding that teachers must begin to transform their own practices to create student-centered, engaging classrooms. Steier adds that it is difficult to quantify the educational value of new technologies; certain things can’t be measured in traditional ways, especially how the SMART Board “brings a glow to the faces of students when they use it.” Sometimes, seeing is believing.
Underlying SMART’s rich anthology of success stories is a strong foundation of research. When SMART Technologies says its products support motivation, engagement, interactivity, and student achievement, these statements are based on a diverse research portfolio that begins before a product is even released publicly. SMART Technologies integrates research-based practices throughout its product life cycle. During product development, product teams collect data on the need for products and their application within the classroom. Once the product has an identified education use, prototypes are tested in classrooms as well. Finally, before a final product is released, a “beta” version is tested in numerous education settings for use and functionality. After the product is released, SMART Technologies continues to evaluate the products’ implementation and efficacy in the classroom by supporting independent research. Many of these independent research studies and action research projects can be found within SMART Technologies’ rich research repository at smarttech.com/research. While all of the relevant resources are not housed within SMART’s repository due to publication copyright, the repository is continually being expanded by the generous contributions of our global research network.
Highlights of the literature on which SMART bases its claims of increased motivation include:
• Passey, Rogers, Machell, and McHugh[i] clearly defined metrics to measure motivation based on existing motivational theory, which are closely tied to student engagement. This Lancaster University (UK) study found that the ability of the interactive whiteboards to foster interest was maintained through years of use, and could not be attributed to the novelty effect, providing increased motivation and engagement for pupil and teacher, as well as increased efficiency of classroom time.
• Another recent study completed by WestEd,[ii] a U.S.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency, also found the SMART Board interactive whiteboard increases student engagement, collaborative work, and motivation.
With just a touch, it is apparent how the SMART Board interactive whiteboard (IWB) got the word “interactivity” in its name. With the ability to annotate over content, edit texts, and manipulate 3D objects, it seems to bring content to life for students. Smith, Higgins, Wall, and Miller[iii] define these characteristics as “technical interactivity,” differentiating it from “pedagogical interactivity.” Based on Smith et al’s differentiation, a case study conducted by Hennessy, Deaney, Ruthven, and Winterbottom[iv] found that the depth of pedagogical interactivity varied within and between IWB lessons, with teacher pedagogy seeming to be the limiting factor. These results were mirrored by Quashie.[v] Based on four pedagogical interactivity metrics, the case study found that all six of the lessons observed exhibited some level of interactivity, with the teacher’s design being the limiting factor. In addition, Quashie reported, “a common view shared by teachers and students alike is that the IWB increases the level of engagement, motivation and participation in a lesson,” lending further support to the value of this type of technology in the classroom.
It is no secret that, when using any new education technology, teachers and students will experience greater success with support and training.[vi] This is one reason SMART provides a variety of training options, including free technical support and online training through the SMART Learning Space, SMART’s online learning management system. eMINTS (enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) is a non-profit organization providing research-based professional development programs that have taught educators how to use technology effectively since 1999 in more than 3,500 classrooms across the United States and in Australia. Monica Beglau, the executive director of the eMINTS National Center, is a strong proponent of the importance of professional development and training. She comments that “according to seven years of eMINTS program evaluation research, technology-enriched classrooms that include SMART Board interactive whiteboards can have a statistically significant impact on student learning when paired with teacher support and intensive professional development, as compared to learning environments without the same affordances. Further, marginalized and disadvantaged students show even greater gains when provided an environment with these learning opportunities.” There is clear evidence to support the claim that SMART solutions have been shown to have a positive impact on various forms of student achievement, including literacy and retention.[vii] Many of the resources referenced, and a wealth of other relevant literature, can easily be found on SMART Technologies’ research website at smarttech.com/research.
While I cannot speak for the authority on which other technology providers base their claims, as SMART Technologies’ efficacy research manager, and an Educational Leadership doctoral candidate, I am proud to work for a company whose commitment to education research is deeper than its pockets. As a founding member of C21: Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, SMART Technologies supports the organization’s vision that access to highly skilled, technology-enabled teachers and research-based learning environments is a universal right of every Canadian learner. SMART Technologies is an industry leader committed to investing in education to meet the needs of all learners in Canada and globally, to ensure they are prepared with the skills to be successful as 21st century global citizens.
Heather Sadler Jones is efficiency research manager with SMART Technologies.
2. Betsy McCarthy, Sara Atienza, Michelle Tui and Danielle Yumol, “The Use of SMART Boards in Piloting Classroom Media Suites: Engaging Students in Transmedia Play,” WestEd (2012). Retrieved at: http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/research/international_research/usa/westedsmartwhitepaper.pdf
4. S. Hennessy, R. Deaney, K. Ruthven and M. Winterbottom, “Pedagogical Strategies for Using the Interactive Whiteboard to Foster Learner Participation in School Science,” Learning, Media and Technology 32,, no. 3 (2007): 283-301.Retrieved at: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/istl/LMT_IWB.doc
5. Emilie Magnat, The Use of Interactive Whiteboards to Develop Phonological Awareness in English Among 7-8 Year Old French Learners,” (Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France: PhD Diss., Université Stendhal, 2012).
[vi]. Health and Education Research Group, “Applying SMART Board Technology in Elementary School Classrooms: Investigation of School-wide Initiative,” University of New Brunswick (2008). Retrieved at: http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/research/international_research/canada/unb_final_report.pdf
[vii]. See, for example:
Lilla McManis, M. McManis and Susan Gunnewig, “Lighting the Fire: The Effectiveness of the HATCH TeachSmart Learning System in Improving Literacy and Mathematics Outcomes for Preschoolers,” HATCH Early Learning (2010). Retrieved at: http://downloads01.smarttech.com/media/sitecore/en/pdf/research_library/k-12/hatch_research.pdf
L. Tate, “Using the Interactive Whiteboard to Increase Student Retention, Attention, Participation, Interest and Success in a Required General Education College Course” (2002). Retrieved at:
EN BREF – Dans certaines provinces, on recommande de doter chaque classe d’un tableau blanc interactif (« TBI »). D’après l’éloquent argument principal véhiculé dans la documentation promotionnelle et les témoignages anecdotiques, les TBI favorisent l’interactivité, d’où trois corollaires : la réussite, l’engagement et la motivation. Une analyse rigoureuse démontre que la recherche à ce sujet est peu probante. Prétendre qu’un outil technologique, n’importe lequel, constitue la clé de l’amélioration de l’apprentissage des élèves est simpliste et ne tient pas compte du rôle que joue le personnel enseignant pour planifier des cours et rehausser l’expérience éducative des élèves. Avant de décider d’installer des TBI – ou toute autre technologie – dans chaque classe, les éducateurs doivent déterminer quelles activités pédagogiques et quels résultats en bénéficient le plus, la fréquence idéale d’utilisation, la formation et le soutien nécessaires au personnel enseignant pour intégrer efficacement leur utilisation, ainsi que les dépenses à sacrifier pour financer leur achat. Cet article est suivi d’une réplique de SMART Technologies.