Many new schools these days are constructed with the newest educational technology tool mounted right onto its classroom walls, the Interactive Whiteboard. But when you work in an older school or a Title I school (as I do), sometimes adopting the newest technology can be slow in coming.

So when I was told that I would be the only Language Arts teacher in our school district who would be included in the pilot roll-out of the Promethean Interactive Whiteboard, I could only respond by yelling, "See? There really IS a Santa Claus!" And so began my pacing like a dad in a delivery room, ready for the board's anticipated arrival.

I discovered educational technology only recently in my teaching career, but have since embraced it like a lover. See, I believe the writing is on the wall, and that our schools must incorporate technology into our curriculum in order to prepare students for their future roles in this global 21st Century community. Otherwise we're just preparing students in the same way kids were taught in an otherwise industrial society. And times they have a'changed.

It's important for schools to evolve technically as society evolves. In this case, studies have shown that with consistent use and training, a teacher can see up to a 29% growth in test scores through the use of the board and its remotes. So needless to say, when I was asked if I wanted one of the first boards I was both excited and somewhat fearful about what it would take to become an expert in its use.

The day it arrived, I met the Promethean crew there who set it up quickly and securely. The screen is durable, and like my 3 year-old son's Fisher Price camera, the Whiteboard is built for a lot of use, by not-so-gentle hands. And the whole set up: the board, the arm on which the projector is mounted, and the projector itself, is perhaps the most earthquake proof equipment in my classroom. Solid.

Promethean Whiteboard
Promethean Whiteboard without Projector

With the board and the software came training, and Promethean provides detailed training with great follow-up. The flipcharts take time to produce, but the online resources are accessible and help greatly. Promethean is definitely set up with education in mind. It's very user friendly. So I jumped into my Interactive Whiteboard relationship with my heart on my sleeve. I put everything I had into learning the technology, tackling the creation of the Language Arts lesson bank all by my lonesome, and because of my enthusiasm, have even been involved in training the teachers set to receive the boards in the upcoming waves of roll-out.

But my relationship with my board is a rocky one. I have been frustrated in the past with the lost instructional time of having to troubleshoot in the presence of a middle school audience or, worse, following longer sessions of grief, having to move on with the thought, "good enough" muttered like a curse. In education, "Good enough" never is.

Nevertheless, I will say that Promethean has been incredibly quick in its service and aid. It fact, the Promethean I.T. guy and I are on a first-name basis, and I have his cell on my speed-dial. Why? Because my only real reservation that continues to get in the way of instruction is in the quality of the Sanyo projector that comes with the board.

There are two issues at hand here.

  1. It's dark. I mean, it's dark in the way that increasing the brightness still doesn't help. It doesn't differentiate between gradations of shadows.
  2. It randomly shuts off with a blinking warning light (but this is a recent development and one that I only started seeing this, my second year with the projector.)

So I set about to solve my projector problems.

The second one actually proved rather easy to solve, and since it was the most dramatic in regards to how it affected my instruction, I was pretty satisfied in how it turned out.

Initially, I called Promethean to find out why my projector kept turning off, blinking warning light and all. We were perplexed because the projector was so new and because it didn't appear to be a lamp issue. It was at this time that Projector Central came in.

I had already begun talking to them about reviewing my Promethean projector in what was to become this very article, but the awesome by-product of our discussions was their advice on how to solve the very problems I was experiencing.

They explained a lot to me about the basics of the machine, and in so doing, I learned a lot about the fundamentals of the technology that teachers sometimes believe they don't have the need to learn. For one thing, we take for granted that where the machine is mounted is right for our classroom. But, unbeknownst to me, a Language Arts teacher with no real experience in technology other than in how it relates to curriculum, there are things to consider in how the projector is set up and maintained that affects its usefulness.

"Is the projector mounted on the ceiling or directly under a light or something?" Projector Central asked. I looked, and indeed, it was only inches away from a light.

"Is it particularly hot right now in the classrooms?' they asked. As a matter of fact, this was all during the height of a heat wave and the Station Fires in Southern California. In other words, it was hot, there was ash in the air, and as overheated as I felt, the projector was even more so.

Well, I wasn't able to move the projector in how it was mounted, but I could talk to my Director of Technology using the words and language of recognizable problems. I used words like, "overheating" and "recycling its own air" because I had been given them as tools by Projector Central. The district could, therefore, respond quickly because I asked more educated questions about the technology I had been given. Just shrugging and saying, "I don't have a clue as to why it's doing it," sometimes leads to slower callbacks.

So I was lucky. All it took was changing the projector's filter, and it hasn't shut down since. I guess we learned two lessons here:

  1. Despite standard maintenance schedules, the environment sometimes dictates when and how often we should check our equipment.
  2. It's always more efficient to find a common language when asking for help.

But if one is installing a board, make sure of the following to avoid the educational technology glitches:

  • Try to mount the board with space between it and a light source. Remember that heat rises, so try not to trap it in a pocket of heat with its initial placement.
  • Make sure there is airflow around the projector. Otherwise, as the hot air goes out, it just sucks it all back in, overheating it all the quicker.
  • Pay attention to the environment. If it's a particularly hot day, make sure the projector stays in an air-conditioned environment.

Now, let's go back to the first point and the fact that the projector is not displaying as crisply as I would like. This point has proven difficult to track down as to its cause and even more difficult to solve. But here's what I've done, what I've discovered, and what I've realized:

The projector is very specific in what it does not show. The colors on the menu bar, for instance, are bright and crisp. The highlighter tool, the magic eraser graphics, and the pen and paint are all clear and precise. But when I drag and drop a background onto a flipchart page, say for a Shakespeare dungeon background for Literature scenes, I cannot tell the difference between a cauldron and a castle. This summer, my Reading and Writing Enrichment class read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. At the end of the book, we watched the Francis Ford Coppola movie, planning to do a comparison between the two mediums. However, we couldn't tell Ralph Macchio from C. Thomas Howell. In fact, all we could make out was the occasional silhouette of some greaser's head. We couldn't even make a lick of flame from the climactic church fire scene.

I did some variable testing on the board to see if I could lay the blame on equipment other than the projector.

I started by adjusting the brightness itself. Now, to many of you readers out there this may be par for the course, but many teachers are not comfortable in troubleshooting technology at all. After all, we're trained in knowledge of content and certain methods of delivering that content. And since many of us in the profession started out prior to the advent of computers, the fact that I merely thought to check the brightness level should be congratulated. Nevertheless, that really didn't do anything to solve my problem. The image was still dark.

I got shades for my windows. Still dark.

I wondered further. Perhaps it was my Mac's fault. Perhaps Promethean doesn't get along with my MacBook? So I plugged in a Dell laptop. Nope. Still dark.

I plugged in another Mac laptop. Still dark.

Finally, the Director of Technology at my district and the Promethean guy both came in and changed out my projector with the one attached to the Promethean board in the district office. Finally, I thought, I will be able to distinguish the difference between images of the Parthenon and the Liberty Bell. We also brightened everything such that my menu bar seemed bleached, as if left out by the sun. And while there was some slight difference, I still couldn't see faces on dark backgrounds, and Macbeth may as well have been standing in front of a curtain of solid blah.

So I enlisted a friend (actually, my husband) to take a look at the board. He's the family "computer guy," the name all of us tech civilians give to those of you who help us in your free time. Every family needs a doctor, a mechanic, a lawyer, and a computer guy. My husband's him. Anyway, we crept into my school one weekend so he could take a look at the board and the projector. He'd apparently started getting suspicious of my time spent with the Promethean dude, so he thought to take matters into his own hands.

It seems that the darkness of my board, that quality that won't allow me to see a Teachertube video or the details in the map of a Google Lit. Trip, involves something called gamma. OK, now I always thought that when you have too much gamma, you turn into Lou Ferrigno or something. But it turns out that when you don't have enough gamma, or if your gamma is completely linear, then you get a dark Promethean experience.

We worked to improve the board's appearance by calibrating the colors of the projector. And after all this, I checked out my Macbeth background again. And you know what? It was a little better...but not by much.

Then I decided to think a little backwards. Maybe it's not the projector at all. Maybe the answer lies in how it relates images with the board. In other words, maybe I've been laying blame on this poor, sweet little piece of equipment when it could be that the board it communicates with is a great Interactive Board, but a stinky projection screen?

So I got large white chart paper, the kind with the Post-it goop on the back, and stuck it to the frame of the board. This allowed me to see a difference between an image projected onto the actual board surface and one projected onto another medium. And you know what? It actually sharpened the image a little bit.

Then I stayed late after Back-to-School night to see what would happen if there wasn't any ambient light to help dissipate the image. Again, there was a fractional difference in clarity.

In the spirit of the middle school scientific method, I deduced that the relationship between the board and projector is what makes the board so "soft" for lack of a better word. But there are steps you can make to lessen this "softness" and to help sharpen your projected image.

  1. Make sure the projector is calibrated to the laptop that will be hooked up to it the most often.
  2. If possible, don't get rid of your pull down screen when they mount the board. Instead, try to keep the screen available when you're showing video such as a clip from a DVD, TeacherTube, etc...
  3. Get some black out shades.
  4. Be flexible, don't be surprised if it's not the image you imagined it would be.
  5. Have a Plan B if it's really too dark.
  6. Be proactive. Learn a little about troubleshooting yourself. Have resources like TheInteractiveWhiteboardRevolution ning or Projector Central to go to when you're struggling. Better yet, don't wait until you're struggling. Ask questions as soon as they cross your mind. It's the best troubleshooting advice I can give.

The fact is that what the board is made to do, it does very well. It's made to present material displayed as dark lettering on a light solid background. It's made to interact with that material whether through the pen tool, the computer, or the remotes. And it's made to hold up.

Despite my projector struggles, I am still entering the new school year armed with fresh flipcharts that I have created for my lessons, and I'm still excited going into my second year with the Interactive Board. I'm no longer exploring the board; I'm using it daily and becoming more confident in its infinite tools of displaying content. I'm older and wiser in my relationship with my board. After all, knowing its flaws makes things run smoother, and I'm more prepared so that I don't rely on it to deliver an image it can't. And when it works, that is, when it is doing what it is meant to do, to aid in the clear viewing of my writing or typing and allow for student interaction with the material, the projector and the rest of the equipment is reliable, solid, and better then anything else out there.

But my gratitude is as muddy as the projected images. Do I appreciate the projector or those who made my comfort with it possible? I guess in the end, the quality of any technology is all in the quality of your support system. And between my district, my Director of Technology, my husband, Projector Central, and Promethean itself, this teacher is eager to start the new school year with her Interactive Whiteboard in tow.