Chris Drage wonders whether SMART's 800 Series can catch Promethean's multi-user, collaborative whiteboards
Promethean, and now SMART Technologies to capitalise on their benefits.It had to happen. Whiteboard technology has moved once and for all into the gesture-driven realms of tablet devices and mobile phones. The multi-touch interfaces that so many youngsters are now familiar with have spurred
Thanks to Windows 7 and Apple’s OSX, what has become second nature to smartphone and tablet users is now fully available to teachers and students using interactive whiteboards in the classroom.
SMART’s new 800 series SMART Boards – available in 77, 87 and 94-inch sizes – adds to the 600 series so familiar in many of our schools and offers real student collaboration. Combined with the latest release of SMART Notebook 10.7 software, SMART Board 800 series users can take full advantage of gestures within Notebook lesson activities.
Using SMART Notebook will enable freestyle interaction, where two students can work together on the same interactive lesson activity and perform different tasks simultaneously. This can include activities like writing with digital ink and manipulating digital objects, and it can happen anywhere on the interactive whiteboard surface.
SMART hardware has undergone a sea change – from 'soft' to steel
There has been a sea change with the hardware. Gone is the ‘softer’ resistive technology of the older SMART Boards, now replaced by a solid steel board, with cameras mounted in each of the four corners, and surrounded on three sides by a reflective edge. This combination turns the board into an interactive array based on camera technology.
The review SMART 800 Series board included a SMART 685ix ultra short-throw projector with an optional integrated sound system (the speakers simply clip on to the sides). One of its most notable features is the extended control panel which places most of the important controls, like those of the projector, at the teacher's fingertips – no more lost remote handsets.
To power-up the system you simply press the 'on' button and at the end of the session, press the 'off' button. Similarly, with the sound system: all the controls are neatly to hand where the teacher can adjust them very quickly and efficiently. So if you want to show a high-definition (HD) DVD then it is a simple matter of plugging it in at the control centre and viewing it via the HD-ready projector. Inputs include S video, composite, HDMI and two VGA. If, for any reason, a teacher gets stuck, pushing the ‘help’ button on the panel will launch the help menu on the screen.
For dual-use, the pen tray has undergone a complete redesign. When two pens are being used colour switching is done via buttons on the pen tray. As the new board has input recognition, it can differentiate between a stylus, a finger and the palm of your hand. This means that any object that teachers or students have in their hands can instantly work as an on-screen pen to produce 'ink'. So even if the stylus gets 'lost' you can still use virtually any other item that comes to hand. I can see this feature as being important for some SEN pupils who have only limited motor control to participate on the board using, say, a tennis ball.
This inclusivity is further enhanced by the fact that you can ‘lock’ the ‘ink’ so that only ‘ink’ will result from a touch on the board. The other important aspect of the shape recognition will be appreciated by all users: you can write on these SMART Boards with a stylus while using the side of your palm to erase any errors as you go. How many of us 'old uns' wondered how we managed to avoid dermatitis when we looked at our hands after a heavy session with dry-wipe markers?
Downside to camera tech is unwanted touch recognition
There is one down side to this implementation of technology though. Should a young child wish to rest his or her hand on the board in order to write, just as they do when using paper, unfortunately the board recognises this touch and does not permit any writing. This can cause confusion for users.
You have to avoid resting any part of your body – your hand or your arm – on the board when writing. The big plus though is when you want to use, say, a real paint brush to execute an electronic ‘painting’ task as you might when using software like ArtRage from Ambient Design. The resulting experience cleverly mimics tactile painting when brushing electronic paint on an electronic canvas. And as the new boards permit two users to work simultaneously – one writing with a stylus and one selecting, moving and sizing objects – it opens up more opportunities for a range of collaborative activities.
Most of the rest of the new features offered by the SMART 800 series can be found in the latest version of SMART’s Notebook software. Here, regardless of whether the host computer is running Windows XP, Vista or Win 7, gesture-driven actions are supported. As you expand, shrink and rotate objects and ‘swipe’ Notebook pages completely off to the side, the whole thing feels as though you are working with a huge Galaxy Tab or iPad. However, gestures will, so far, only work on other software or items like web pages if the host is running under Windows 7.
New tools added to Notebook in this iteration include the calligraphic pen tool which is very stylish, turning my rather clumsy handwriting into a much more appealing style. And the expanded version of Maths Tools is very impressive indeed.
These have evolved as a result of listening to maths teachers (who tend to be heavy users of IWBs) and they feature such items as 'adjustable' rulers, very slick protractors and set squares and auto-measurement of angles. For upper secondary maths teachers a special upgrade includes more esoteric features which include intelligent shape recognition, equation editing, ‘maths ink’ and instant graphing by inputting tables of data.
Similarly, 3D objects created in, say, Google SketchUp can now be viewed in Notebook – a feature well worth checking out.
Secondary teachers should note that SMART’s plug-in approach to give Notebook enhanced tools for curriculum areas is a long-term strategy. Other items of note concern improving the ease with which you can set up and customise the board for individual users; for example, setting up a customised, floating toolbar and adding and removing tools has become a very simple drag-and-drop function. With the SMART network installer a ‘whole-school simplified toolbar’ can be quickly distributed to every machine connected to a board and will always be available.
In use, the 800 system certainly delivers a much easier, smoother user experience. If you are familiar with any SMART Board then you will instantly be at home and will immediately appreciate the gesture-driven interface. However, during evaluation I picked up at least two unwelcome features in Notebook running under Windows 7. The first concerned recognising a handwritten number 9 – if the number was drawn in the manner in which we teach children, Notebook’s recognition insisted that this was always a ‘g’. Also, I was surprised to find that the usual range of near ‘choices’ was no longer offered. Strangely, it only correctly recognised a ‘9’ when it was written from the bottom upwards.
A second ‘bug’ occurred when trying to use the paint pot to fill a shape. No matter what colour was selected I always got grey! When trying this same tool under Windows XP no such problem existed which suggests that SMART software engineers have some testing to do before the total Windows 7 compatibility is achieved. These are two small, but annoying points which, by the time you read this, may hopefully have been corrected.
One question worth asking is: "Can I purchase Notebook 10.7 to run with my projector and a different brand of interactive whiteboard?" There are currently no licensing arrangements to allow that as SMART sees its hardware and software working in combination to provide the easiest and simplest solution. However, in recognition of the fact that teachers and students do need to be able to work with Notebook away from the SMART board, the company offers Notebook Express, a 'lite' version of the Notebook software which runs in the 'cloud' under any web browser that is Flash enabled.
It has virtually all the authoring/editing tools necessary to open and or create files and to use the screen in a virtual interactive manner. There are no licence restrictions in using Notebook Express. Files can be sent to and from the cloud and eventually to the SMART Board where they are intended to be used. This could prove quite handy as you can try out lessons or resources gathered from SMART Technology's SMART Exchange website and try them out and adapt them wherever you are as long as you are connected to the internet. This could also prove a useful collaboration tool.
The second question is: “Are SMART’s 600 series boards now redundant?" The new 800 series SMART boards do not replace the 600 series in any way. What they offer is an upgrade path for those who want it. The wider board provides both the physical space and a new technology for multi-touch, multi-user work.
If there is one shortcoming of the 800 series boards then it is in its limitation of handling only two touches simultaneously. Promethean certainly has the upper hand here in offering a true four-touch system – especially when it comes to manipulating objects on the boards. However, this is SMART’s first foray into the multi-touch world and the company has the technology to extend multiple-touch in the future – after all, the SMART Table certainly employs it. It’s also worth noting that the new collaborative aspect of interactive whiteboards has only just appeared so it will be interesting to see how classroom pedagogy exploits it. The level of response from the classroom may well determine how much further down this road the interactive whiteboard companies will travel.
Another improvement I would like to see is fully integrated speakers, similar to the ergonomic way in which Promethean has implemented its own. For contexts where good-quality sound is important they shouldn’t have to be optional extras.
Schools that already have SMART boards will find the new 800 series boards so intuitive that more teachers and students will want to use them. For institutions looking to invest in either the Promethean 500 series or SMART 800 series boards the choice is not so clear cut. They need to carefully evaluate which features and which modus operandi suits their learners the best. Whichever system is chosen, rest assured gesture-driven technology is here to stay!
My recent review of a Promethean 500 Series board dubbed it a “sexy beast” in light of its advanced design which cleverly integrated both speakers and controls, and because of the high level of collaboration it offers. SMART needs to be rather bolder and more ambitious in its approach to rival Promethean in these two important areas.
Whiteboard suppliers certainly need to stay on their toes and demonstrate the effectiveness and value for money of their product, because there's a new breed of teachers coming in who are already talking about being in a "post-whiteboard era" (see Kevin McLaughlin's "Switching off the interactive whiteboard for good").
Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose 4
Ease of use 5
Value for money 4
SMART Board 885ix interactive whiteboard
Interactive whiteboard with one 5-metre USB cable for connection to computer, one 1.8-metre power cable, one 81.3 cm wide wall bracket and fittings, links to download necessary software. Loudspeakers an optional extra, from £1,324.00+VAT (without projector)
SMART UK distributors - Steljes