Chris Drage reviews a new-generation whiteboard, the multi-touch Promethean Activboard 500 Pro
The ActivBoard 500 Pro system, demonstrated at BETT 2011, is the latest interactive whiteboard (IWB) to join Promethean’s ActivClassroom and it raises the bar for this technology with its pen-plus-touch capability for collaborative board work.
Students today are so at home with their touch-screen mobile phones that they expect to engage interactively with information technology, and the ActivBoard 500 Pro’s new pen-and-touch technology, combined with Windows 7's gesture capability, provides a natural way of interacting with technology modelled on real-world behaviour and gestures.
The ActivBoard 500 Pro comes in two sizes – 87-inch and 95-inch – and includes ActivInspire Professional Edition software. An 87-inch board is large by anyone's standards but the reason for this size is that you can have up to four learners or adults standing side by side working at the IWB. Combined with its extreme short-throw projector (stated bulb life 6,000 hours) mounted just above it, there are no issues with glare or shadows, and it's a very pleasant environment for a group to work in. The projector is also 3D-capable, another feature to add life to lessons.
'All in all it’s a pretty sexy beast!'
The 500 Pro can be fixed to a wall or mounted on an optional mobile stand. Both options allow for the height to be adjusted (or fixed if you prefer for the wall mounting). It is ergonomic, with no sharp edges or corners, and has a built-in amplifier with capable stereo speakers that can add considerably to the impact of presentations. All in all it’s a pretty sexy beast!
By developing a board which uses both stylus-touch (passive electromagnetic technology) and finger-touch (capacitive) technologies, whatever you select with the stylus becomes the 'tool' of the stylus and whatever you touch with your finger becomes the 'tool' of the finger. What this means in practice is that a teacher can be writing with the pen on the board whilst 'holding' the eraser tool with a finger on the other hand – a nice, natural way to work. Isn't that how we worked all those years ago with the chalk in one hand and blackboard duster in the other? Of course that's an over-simplification as the range of digital tools available for the spare hand to use is enormous: selector, highlighter, spotlight, blinds etc.
The advantage of combining the two touch technologies is that the ActivBoard 500 Pro does not rely on corner cameras or other optical systems with their implicit problems of dividing the board up into specific areas. So there is no conflict which limits multi-touch over the whole surface or if, like me, you are left-handed and you tend to obscure the camera from seeing the ‘active’ point you quickly lose the ability to use some boards altogether.
Most pleasingly, by developing its own multi-gesture touch technology Promethean ensures that it will function regardless of the computer operating system being used: Apple's OSX, Windows XP or Linux. Within these operating systems Promethean's multi-touch software allows for a stylus plus two touches. However, with Windows 7, full, four-touch capability is available. The decision to go with four touches is very sensible as the problem with interactive whiteboards that offer only two touches is that as soon as you have two people starting to collaborate you quickly exceed two touches.
Promethean's revamped ActivInspire software – which integrates ActivStudio and ActivPrimary into one program – provides teachers with easy access to a wealth of teaching resources such as appropriate maths tools, sounds and templates. So when you start ActivInspire you have the option to use either Primary or Studio from the outset.
You only begin to appreciate the functionality that has been built into the new software when you begin to use tools like the ruler or the protractor – absolutely marvellous for teaching mathematics. Images can be easily moved, scaled and rotated with finger-touch in conjunction with real-life “pen” tasks such as writing and drawing across the whole surface (this is the default setting but can be tailored to suit the users).
It all adds up to better functionality and less complication for the teacher. I particularly like the ability to turn off the touch functionality when required. If I am making or emphasising a point I frequently point or touch items displayed on the board and the last thing I want at that point is for a 'tool' to inadvertently appear!
There is a dual-user mode where you can have two styli working simultaneously with two toolbars invoked. So you can have two pupils working independently at the board or collaboratively where, for example, one child is copying another child when learning letter formation or symmetry. Again, the emphasis is on users working naturally with the technology assisting, not undermining, what they are doing. It's this flexibility of use which permeates Promethean's new multi-touch software.
The ActivBoard 500 also comes with Promethean ActivOffice software which allows you to annotate MS Office materials and save (and share) those annotations. This is an extremely useful extra for schools that are heavy users of Microsoft Office.
Welcome to the world of interactive whiteboard 'apps'
Promethean is also introducing 'apps'. Its concept mapping (brainstorming) application, Noteboard, shows the benefits of dual-mode multi-touch very well. For example, with most concept mapping software you use a plethora of icons to create a mind map or web of ideas; with Noteboard it is all done on screen with no recourse to using a toolbar at all. Links can be simply made or broken (see video below), items can be added, shuffled, reordered, resized and deleted on the fly.
When creating a word bank for example, if you have the ActivExpression handsets you can even instantly 'word seed', getting all the participants' suggested words rapidly on to the Noteboard screen. Then you can have up to four pupils working at the board together, using the multiple-touch to order, link and discard the submitted entries. With multiple-touch they can enlarge, move, turn and join the objects or break links or create sub-concept maps using the screen 'gestures' that have become so familiar to today’s youngsters.
The final mind map (topic web) can be saved as a PDF file and emailed to students or placed on the school's VLE (virtual learning environment). Noteboard really brings home that this is a new way of working with an interactive whiteboard and that the traditional software interface is rapidly changing and evolving. Expect more apps as these boards are more widely adopted.
Another notable feature is the handwriting recognition which has improved immeasurably. Recognition is very fast, including for cursive (joined-up) writing. We have all had that moment when a student has written something on the board and it has been mis-recognised as an inappropriate word that, as a teacher, you don't want to see in your class. Fortunately, that sort of disruption should be a thing of the past with the improvements made. I particularly like the ability to be able to highlight a whole block of writing and convert it to text (after any 'unsolicited' words have been changed).
Promethean intends to provide a software development kit (SDK) for third-party software developers in order to make the most of the board. However, with Promethean Planet now the biggest online education community across the world (more than 850,000 registered members, with 12 million downloads in 2010) you can bet that opportunities for international collaboration and shared resources are not going to be thin on the ground!
So your school has Smart Boards but you would like to include Promethean's 500 Pro boards as well? No problem. From my experience with the ActivBoard 500 Pro and Promethean’s refreshing attitude to schools with a mixed provision, this should be easy enough. Once staff are familiar with the different menus and toolbars they can continue to use the 500 Pro like a Smart Board and should naturally progress to using a stylus and finger touch. The advantage of having the four-touch system available cannot be over emphasised, especially for collaborative work. Promethean will provide support for making the transition.
The nature of modern computer operating systems today is that they are no longer operated by a single mouse but understand gestures made with our hands as well as understand what we do with a stylus or a mouse. Gesture-touch applications offer an interactive and engaging experience for today’s learners. This next generation of interactive whiteboards should offer a true collaborative learning experience. Promethean has ensured that its technology reflects that.
One thing is certain – the ActivBoard 500 Pro raises the benchmark for all interactive whiteboards and could have a profound effect on how whiteboards are used within the classroom in the future, especially with groups of learners. Will we see a whole generation of totally ambidextrous students emerge? Who knows, but the ActivBoard 500 Pro is thoroughly recommended.
Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose 5
Ease of use 5
Value for money 5
Promethean Activboard 500 Pro
New-generation interactive whiteboard that integrates multi-touch and gesture recognition for collaborative classroom work (stylus-touch uses resistive technology, and finger-touch capacitive technology). Includes ActivInspire and ActivOffice software suites. Two board sizes are available – 87-inch and 95-inch. Compatible with Windows, Apple OSX and Linux. The review model was used with Windows 7.
Prices from RRP £2899 for an ActivBoard System including ActivBoard 500, stand and projector.
More on ActivBoard 500 Pro