The Rise and Fall of Premium IWB Content

by Tom Nieman

In October, SMART announced via email that it “will no longer be selling paid lesson content on SMART Exchange.” (We can’t find the announcement on the site to link to.) The announcement affected us because Green Light Learning Tools had developed hundreds of pages of “premium” content. One publisher spoke for many of us who had worked with SMART to create a premium IWB marketplace when he wrote, “You guys are idiots!”

Premium IWB content once seemed like a promising way to connect teachers and digital publishers. Now that market has all but vanished.

First Resource Packs

To the best of my knowledge, the paid IWB market began in 2005 when Promethean contacted Green Light to create the first “premium” IWB lessons. Even though Promethean Planet had thousands of free IWB lessons, the hope was that, like Apple with iBooks and iTunes, Promethean could create a revenue stream by inducing publishers to create professional IWB lessons and sell them on Planet.

We first partnered with Dorling Kindersley to create several “resource packs.” These “packs” used high-quality pictures and graphics from Dorling Kindersley books and the IWB software from Promethean to create standards-aligned resources for downloading. Premium meant, in effect, publisher-quality, as opposed to free and homemade.

Within a couple of years, numerous publishers had joined this effort and converted their published content into ActiveStudio or ActivInspire lessons and offered them for sale on Promethean Planet. Like Apple with iTunes, Promethean commanded a hefty premium of 30 or 40 percent commission for creating this marketplace. Then all they had to do was to wait until teachers downloaded the resources and the money flowed in.

Underwhelming Response

But there was no rush for the “resource packs.” They were in essence collections of assets (pictures, activities, graphic organizers) that teachers could adapt with the supposedly easy-to-use IWB software ActivInspire. Except, of course, the software was anything but easy to use for teachers. Sales struggled even to get into the hundreds of dollars.

We and other publishers soon began working with Promethean to create actual, ready-to-use lessons that teachers could simply open and display. Yet even that did not work, for at least two reasons besides Promethean’s smaller market share: 1) many teachers were not even using the new interactive whiteboards in their classrooms, likely because 2) they were not trained how to use the software. The introductory “trainings” provided by Promethean were perfunctory at best, and teachers weren’t learning how to use their IWBs on their own.

Half-life of SMART Exchange

For several years, SMART had no answer to Promethean Planet. SMART commanded a dominant market share through its intensive training efforts, but they didn’t have a website or “premium” content until finally, in 2013, SMART created SMART Exchange. It was like a shooting star, fast rising but soon sputtering out.

Lessons Learned

SMART and Promethean both learned that teachers are not, like most consumers, ready at a moment’s notice to whip out a credit card to pay for lessons. IWB companies also refused to take PO’s, which is how most schools pay for educational materials.

Next, they also assumed teachers would teach themselves how to use the software and thus need premium lessons. As it turns out, teachers never had the time or motivation to do so.

Finally, the whiteboard companies never worked effectively with educational publishers. Promethean and HMH made one valiant joint effort to create an entire Common Core-aligned math program in print and in IWB lessons, but neither the publishers nor the IWB companies felt that they needed to work together further.

Closed vs. Open Systems

At first, both SMART and Promethean also created systems that worked only with their handheld devices, but not with the tablets and smartphones teachers already had. The IWB systems were essentially closed. But America’s classrooms were open and free-wheeling. Google, as it turns out, was a better fit—open, free, and easy to use.

Starting in 2014, both SMART and Promethean released new software that worked with most tablets and allowed users to exchange documents back and forth with students, but now so did the free Google Classroom—which was better and easier to use.

Moving Toward Obsolescence

Interactive whiteboards are not quite, as some friends chide me, going the way of the LaserDisc players in classrooms, relegated to basement storage rooms. Whiteboards allow teachers to display content to an entire classroom, and for that reason continue to be useful. Boards focus students’ attention on the reading, problem, graph, picture, or video of the moment. IWB software—Inspire, Notebook, amp, ClassFlow—on the other hand, now seems very dispensable.

The End Is Near

Premium content for IWBs will soon have left not only the building but the entire district. “Free” resources appear to have won the day. Classrooms are moving towards a one-to-one environment where each student has a device just like his or her teacher. The teacher in front of the classroom dynamic is becoming obsolete as well, which is probably for the best, and it runs not on “premium” IWB lessons but rather on more teacher- or student-created ones.

Publisher-created materials in general are under siege by the do-it-yourself, “it’s free,” movement. “Open source” materials also attract considerable interest now, more for their price than their quality, and that may well be the way of the future. Yet a lifetime in publishing has taught me that there is a big difference in quality between lessons that are edited and vetted and ones that are not, but that—regrettably—is a minority view.

Tom bioTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.

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