Interactive Whiteboards; do they have a future in EAP?

Having a PC in the classroom is, I am guessing, a commonplace in EAP, certainly in the UK and possibly in most countries. However, I’m guessing too that access to an interactive whiteboard (IWB) is much patchier; that some EAP teachers are lucky enough to have one in all the rooms they teach in, some never have the chance to use them, and that there is a large majority of teachers who have different degrees of access to them.

The International Language and Study Institute (ISLI), where I work, has school status within the University of Reading, and is well-resourced. All the 10 teaching rooms that we manage have interactive whiteboards (IWBs), and on the full-time Pre-sessional programme, where I do most of my teaching, just about all classes are timetabled in those rooms. In the rest of the University, there are a few IWB-equipped teaching rooms dotted, or in clusters, around the university, and the rest of the rooms have a PC and projector as a minimum specification.

I am an IWB enthusiast, and many of my ISLI colleagues are too, so I was surprised to find that;

  1. in education in general, opinions on their usefulness are divided
  2. there is very limited interest in their use in higher education.

The perpetual technical issues are a constant niggle, but in time, and as we have progressed in ISLI to a second generation of IWBs with more stable calibration, teachers have learnt to sort out most of the problems for themselves, calling in IT support when it has been needed.

 How can IWBs enhance teaching and learning in EAP?

So, why should EAP teachers bother with an IWB? There are a number of different ways in which IWBs are well suited to an approach in which analysis, construction and deconstruction of texts play an important role.

Text annotation

The most obvious benefit in EAP is the ease with which you (or students) can annotate texts for display to the class. This is clearly useful when you are working on things like understanding textual cohesion, discourse structure, inferring the meaning of unfamiliar words, identifying examples of particular grammatical structures or language functions. Having a range of colours and a highlighting option makes it easier to show differences between different types of annotation. The way I tend to work in class is to use the IWB to explain the task, showing an electronic version of a printed text or worksheet when giving and checking instructions. Students complete the task on paper (individually, in pairs or in groups) and then the IWB is used again as a focus for eliciting responses, checking understanding and giving feedback.

Moreover, if you have a visualiser (or document camera) you can also display and annotate texts that students have produced on paper. In SMART Notebook, the software that we recommend for use with our SMARTBoards (the brand of IWB we have opted for), you can import Words docs, PDFs, PowerPoint slides, as well as images of student writing taken with the visualiser, and then write onto these.

Text manipulation

For any kind of text ordering or matching activity, whether that is at word, clause, sentence, paragraph or text level, the IWB is really helpful for checking task completion, once students have worked with a worksheet or by manipulating little bits of card. Before the lesson, if you have the worksheet in Word format, you can easily copy and paste into SMART Notebook the text you want students to manipulate, and then drag out the elements that need to be moved around the screen. Then, in the lesson, when you are checking task completion, you can either get a student to come up to the front, and have the class collaborate on dragging bits of text into the right places, or elicit the moves from students and drag them yourself.

The big advantage is that the process of arriving at the correct sequence or making the right matches can be worked through with a clear visual focus for the whole class. Students can try out, justify and argue for or against moves or matches as they work towards completion. You can even do without the little bits of card completely if you deliver the task electronically for students to manipulate on their phones or mobile devices – there is a web-based “lite” version of the SMART Notebook software (SMART Notebook Express) which you can use for this.

Other benefits

Other benefits include the ability to hide and reveal bits of text, and to have different media interacting seamlessly. The big ELT publishers now offer e-book versions of popular coursebooks, in which pages from those course books can be displayed, audio and video can be played, answer keys and other resources pop up, simply by clicking on links or icons. Something similar can be produced with the SMART Notebook software, for learning materials produced in-house.IWB

In addition, when demonstrating to students how to use a piece of software, or for example how to use the search filters in an online journal, the teacher becomes a “Great Big Talking Mouse Pointer”, and I would argue that this makes it easier to follow instructions and explanations, compared to sitting at the PC using its mouse pointer. The only downside to the GBTMP approach is that you have to dash back to the PC to type in text, or bring up an onscreen keyboard to do so.

 Why hasn’t the use of IWBs taken off in HE?

IWBs have been established in the primary and secondary sectors in the UK for at least the last 15 years. There is ample research into uptake by teachers, and their impact on teaching strategies and on student achievement (Higgins et al., 2007) in these sectors. Searches on Google and Google Scholar only revealed one research report (Cutrim Schmid, 2008) into the use of IWBs in an HE setting, and tellingly this was based on a study in an EAP context. The impression I have is that beyond HE programmes in education and languages, there is little perceived benefit to an IWB, compared to a PC linked to a projector and screen. This means that on EAP programmes taught in classrooms outside the language centre, access to IWBs may be patchy. My feeling is that staff need to be timetabled in rooms with IWBs for at least 50% of their teaching for them to adapt to using them regularly.

 Potential pitfalls of IWBs

Cutrim Schmid (2008), reporting on her research into student responses to the use of IWBs on an EAP programme, recognises pedagogical benefits in terms of increased engagement and motivation, facilitation of learning, the ability to cater for a range of learning styles, and ease of access to multimedia resources.

However, she also identified a number of potential pitfalls. The first of these is a corollary to the last of those benefits listed above. Because the teacher can prepare lessons in which text, audio, video, webpages and other sources are brought together in one place, and then, during the lesson, add annotations or manipulate content quickly and easily, it is possibly to end up with a slick, pacy lesson that looks professional in terms of the level of presentation and creative use of technology. However, the ease of access to content means there is a potential danger of students being overloaded with information. In addition, because different tasks can be linked seamlessly, there are no natural pauses during transitions (unless the teacher builds these in) when students can reflect and mentally process information. She notes research (Mayer and Moreno, 2003) which shows that students have difficulties mentally processing and constructing representations of meaning when presented with information on the same theme through several channels (text, audio, video, animations).

Cutrim Schmid also claims that there may be a tendency for teachers to spoonfeed students when using an IWB. For example, instead of having students explain key vocabulary to one another, teachers may tend to hyperlink key vocabulary in texts to electronic dictionary entries, or to images which show the meanings of those words.

Finally, many ELT commentators (Thornbury, 2009; Hockly, 2013) argue that IWBs encourage a teacher-centred approach, that they may lead to highly structured lesson planning and delivery, and a reluctance to depart from the lesson plan or exploit opportunities for learning created by the students.

…. so do IWBs have a future in EAP?

Given that IWBs;

  • are expensive
  • go wrong from time to time (as they are another interface between the PC and the users, more cables, sockets, switches)
  • need to be available in a sufficient numbers for there to be sustainable uptake by teachers within an institution
  • used inappropriately may not enhance learning

it could be argued that a set-up with a PC, projector and a visualiser (or document camera) offers similar features, is considerably cheaper and more reliable. It may well be that alternative technologies will evolve which make the current options for IWBs redundant, or at least cheaper and more reliable.

However, my view is that it is a significant advantage for an EAP teacher to be able to stand at the board, annotate and manipulate texts, elicit ideas from students and write them up, and demonstrate how to use online tools or websites. As it becomes easier for students to produce texts (or responses to tasks) on their mobile devices and have these displayed on a screen in class, then the need for a means to manipulate or annotate these texts will grow, so IWBs clearly have a role to play here.

As for the argument that IWBs encourage a teacher-centred methodology, this is an issue with the use of the technology, rather than the technology itself. It requires teachers who are lucky enough to have regular access to IWBs to step back, get feedback from students on their use in class, reflect on practice and its impact on learners, and discuss and document the conclusions they come to. A recent, well-publicised OECD report ( OECD, 2015) on research into the links between the use of technology and educational achievement by secondary school children around the world makes a similar point, and here I quote from the very last sentences of the report;

“… the successful integration of technology in education is not so much a matter of choosing the right device, the right amount of time to spend with it, the best software or the right digital textbook. The key elements for success are the teachers, school leaders and other decision makers who have the vision, and the ability to make the connection between students, computers and learning”.


Cutrim Schmid, E. (2008). Potential pedagogical benefits and drawbacks of multimedia use in the English language classroom equipped with interactive whiteboard technology. Computers and Education, 51(4), 1553–1568.

Higgins, S., Beauchamp, G., & Miller, D. (2007). Reviewing the literature on interactive whiteboards. Learning, Media and Technology, 32(3), 213–225.

Hockly, N. (2013). Interactive whiteboards. English Language teaching Journal 67(July), 354–358.

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2010). Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist, 1520(38), 43–52.

OECD. (2015). Students, Computers and Learning; making the connection.

Thornbury, S. (2009). On interactive whiteboards (again!). British Council Teaching English website.

Profile photo of Jonathan Smith

About Jonathan Smith

I work in the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading. In January 2015 I moved from my previous post as Programme Director for the academic-year Pre-sessional courses to a newly-created post as Director of TEL Projects. My role is partly to manage a range of TEL projects across and within different programmes in ISLI, and partly to support and provide training for teachers in a blended/flipped/distance methodology, where relevant. I have to cover a wide range of technologies, and my interests change over time. At the moment I am particularly interested in the student experience of the use of interactive whiteboards, and in the principles behind the design of online interactive learning materials.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *