Teachers are conditioned to tolerate a lot of abuse—it's a professional hazard—but what faculty members at Sir G. E. Cartier Elementary School in London, Ontario, went through last spring seems beyond the call of duty: a few of them agreed to be duct-taped to a gym wall while students hit them in the face with pies. Why on earth would they do that? To raise $3,000—enough cash for an interactive whiteboard, the most coveted piece of educational technology on the market right now. These Internet-age chalkboards are essentially giant computer touchscreens, and they're all the rage among teachers. But with little room for them in school budgets, many educators are doing whatever it takes to raise the money themselves. "We're a desperate breed, aren't we?" says Sharon Zinn, one of three teachers who volunteered for Cartier Elementary's whipped-cream-flavored firing squad.
At schools fortunate enough to have them, interactive whiteboards are a blessing for educators struggling to engage a generation of students weaned on the Web. In the U.K.—where 70 percent of all primary and secondary classrooms have interactive whiteboards, compared with just 16 percent in the United States—students in those classrooms made the equivalent of five months' additional progress in math. So far, the data on the efficacy of touchscreens in U.S. classrooms is inconclusive, but promising. Multiple recent studies suggest that the devices boost attendance rates and classroom participation. Ever since Dorchester School District 2 in Summerville, S.C., installed 1,200 interactive boards in its classrooms, disciplinary incidents are way down. "Students were bored" before the touchscreens arrived, says Superintendent Joe Pye. "Trips to the principal's office are almost nonexistent now."
But for some teachers, the learning curve with the device is steep, and a generation gap has opened with teachers who are still accustomed to writing lesson plans with a pen and paper. Many older educators are "petrified" of the boards, says Peter Kornicker, a media specialist at P.S. 161 in Harlem, where despite a student poverty rate of 98 percent, all 35 classrooms are equipped with touchscreens. "As always, it comes back to the ability of teachers to leverage this technology," says Andy Rotherham of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "We have to train them to use it. Otherwise, it's just another underused, expensive gizmo."