Craig Tranter is a former educator, and now serves as a technology presenter for Cisco. This blog is part of a series on advancements and opportunities in education. All views are his own. 

One thing that all teachers will be fairly familiar with by now is the use of Interactive White Boards (IWBs). However, the level of interaction can vary wildly between schools and between teaching staff. Some teachers are what we might call “power users.” They know all the tricks of the trade, whereas others may simply use these expensive pieces of kit as a display for a PowerPoint. So, it’s safe to say that the student experience can be extremely different, depending on the teacher. So, what’s the point in having these costly devices, when the vast majority end up using only a handful of features?

Let’s take a look at the situation as it stands at the moment. In the UK, the vast majority of schools use SMART board, or Promethean boards. These are excellent and come with a vast array of tools.

This is great for those “power users,” but the problem remains that the vast majority do not use these machines to their full potential. So, is there really any point having all of these complicated features?

Another problem that many teachers will be familiar with is this…

Many of the older generation boards, which are still used in the majority of schools, use a projector-based display, which means that it’s often out of alignment and you need to waste valuable lesson time re-orienting the board. Surely there’s a better way? And of course, there is! We have been using touch-capacity technology for years now and with this technology comes much more accurate, much more responsive touch screens.

So, let’s take a look at the next generation of IWBs. The key to these, in my humble opinion, is simplicity and ease of use. There’s no point investing in new and potentially expensive technology if teachers and students are not going to adopt it into their teaching and learning. In addition, it’s not just about simply having an interactive board that you can use in the classroom for one lesson, we need a system that can allow the interaction to expand beyond the classroom through ongoing projects and continued learning.

Now that video conferencing is becoming a major part of this collaborative process, we also need a simple way to incorporate that into our education environment. Video conferencing allows us to expand teaching beyond the confines of the four walls of the classroom and allow distance learning and to bring in experts from all over the world.

We have seen the rise of personal devices, such as smart phones and tablets, that are much more portable and allow a deeper interaction amongst staff and students. We need to embed this into the classroom environment too.

Luckily, the Cisco Spark Board seamlessly integrates features from the Cisco Spark app (whether that’s on your Mac/PC, tablet, or mobile device) with the Cisco Spark Board. Alternatively, it can also be used as a standalone device.

Let’s take a look at why Cisco Spark could revolutionize collaborative work in the classroom and beyond.

Firstly, keep in mind that Cisco Spark is simple and easy to use. That’s how it was designed. So, it’s more likely that people will adopt it with ease. You can use it as a standalone device, where you have the three main options: Call, Whiteboard, Share, or you can pair it with your own devices through the Cisco Spark app (which you can download for free here).

The app is a brilliant collaboration tool that allows you to chat, share documents, whiteboard, and call, all in one. It’s available for iOS, Android, PC and Mac, so it’s always there when you need. It links with all the major Learning Management Systems (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and is also based on open APIs (Application Programming Interface) which means that you have extra added value as you can add bots and integrations to help you get work done. Anyone can develop new bots and integrations specific to their business needs too.

Let’s get back to the boards.

With other white boards, you must log in and have accounts to do anything. You also need to have access to multiple programs to get the most out of the experience. Cisco Spark just has the one app and can be on mobile or desktop and also has the added benefit of bots and integrations. There’s no need to log in to use Cisco Spark Board, as you can use it as a standalone device. You also have the added benefit of interacting from your phone and desktop just by walking into the room. This pairing works through ultrasound. Think of this like Bluetooth, but better. The Cisco Spark Board sends out an ultrasound signal which automatically pairs your device as soon as you walk in the room. No need to log in, or manually pair your device. The sound waves are weaker than Bluetooth, which sounds like a bad thing, but is actually very useful, as it means that they are too weak to go through the walls, doors, windows, etc. So, you know that you, and only you and the other people in the room, have access to any content that you are sharing wirelessly. In addition, the video participants will have access to anything that you want to share.

Other white boards can have limited video calling features. Cisco Spark on the other hand is based on open protocols, so it’s much easier to make calls to and from different video vendors and endpoints. Cisco Spark can view files, annotate files and screen shares, offers persistent chat, whiteboarding capabilities – all from within the same app and whilst on a call. You have the added benefit that everything that you do on the Cisco Spark Board is automatically saved in the app, so no need to waste time sending out notes at the end of the lesson. Everything that you need is already there as it’s part of the ongoing project within the chat space.

Whilst we’re talking about chat spaces, it’s worth mentioning that this is where you can store everything that you need for a particular project, lesson, module etc. Have you ever been running late to a lesson and then realized that you’ve saved that vital PowerPoint to your other USB drive that you happen to have left in the staff room? No problem, with Cisco Spark, you could have already saved that file into the chat space, so it’s there and available for everyone to access. As soon as you walk in the room, you don’t need to worry about USBs, or what adaptor you need to connect your laptop. Simply open up the chat space wirelessly using that automatic ultrasound pairing through the Spark app on your device. Easy-peasy.

Because cybersecurity is becoming an increasingly greater threat in education, Cisco Spark is encrypted end-to-end, meaning that your data is safe during transit and at rest. You can also own the decrypt keys, which means that Cisco cannot decrypt your information even if they wanted to, so you know that your data is secure. Plus, did you know that Cisco is the world leader in cyber security? That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it?

Finally, the Cisco Spark Board offers great value, with an easy to use system that staff and students are going to love! I wish I had access to Cisco Spark whilst I was still teaching as I know that it is such a powerful collaboration tool.

That’s it for now for my, totally unbiased, review of the latest and greatest in IWB technology.  Do you want to see how easy it is to use the Cisco Spark Board? Take a look at this short clip, where I explain the main features of the Cisco Spark Board.

Are there any topics you think we should cover next time?

Let me know in the comments, or tweet me @c_tranter.


Craig Tranter

Technology Presenter at Cisco