Digital Whiteboards

Whether you're teaching fully online or in a COVID-aware classroom where your movements are constrained, you might want to explore digital alternatives to a physical whiteboard. A collaborative virtual whiteboard becomes even more desirable if you frequently ask students to write on the whiteboard.

Implementing a digital whiteboard has two dimensions: software and hardware. Appropriate software is indispensable, as the software produces the canvas on which activity takes place. Hardware enhancements are optional and secondary, but can improve the usability of the software and the quality of the results.

Pepperdine University supplies and supports Courses, Google applications, Panopto, and Zoom. Neither Pepperdine University nor Seaver College provides funding or technical support for the other tools introduced on this page.

Software Components

The core of any digital whiteboard solution is, of course, the "board" or "canvas" itself, along with the annotation tools that the software supports.

Zoom

Zoom's built-in whiteboard is very convenient. Its annotation features vary across different platforms (computer, tablet, and phone). The tools support text, lines (with optional arrowheads), rectangles and ovals, and a limited number of stamps. Colors and type styles can be customized to some degree (again, depending on device). As the meeting host, you can reserve annotation privileges for yourself, or grant them to all participants. Zoom also allows you to save whiteboard images.

One of Zoom's great advantages is that any shared screen — not just the blank whiteboard — can receive annotations. Thus you could display a diagram or image using presentation software and ask students to mark certain features on the screen. This technique can also be used for informal polling or voting.

Google Drawings

Google Drawings (accessed through your Google Drive account) can serve as a whiteboard alternative for you and your students. You can display a Google Drawings file on the screen, or share it with your students with the same range of sharing options that other Google Drive files enjoy. To find Google Drawings, open your Google Drive in a web browser and choose New > More > Google Drawings. You can also launch Google Drawings from within a Google Doc by choosing Insert > Drawing > New. (This option doesn't appear in Google Slides, because Slides itself includes the same suite of drawing tools; however, you can insert an existing Google Drawing into a Google Slide by choosing Insert > Image > Drive.)

Google Slides

Google Slides (accessed through your Google Drive account) can serve as a whiteboard alternative for student collaborative projects. If you would normally ask students to work in parallel on different sections of a whiteboard and share their results with the class, you can instead assign each group to its own slide within a shared Google Slides deck.

Google Jamboard

Google Jamboard is very limited as a software application. Users can draw freehand in six colors (including black and white), add sticky notes, and add images. The Jamboard app also features a "laser pointer," essentially a red marker that fades away after a few seconds. The Jamboard app is really designed to work with the Jamboard hardware (a $5,000 "smart" whiteboard) and does not offer much when only the web-based whiteboard is used. Google Jamboard software is free to Seaver faculty as part of the Google suite of applications.

Miro

Miro offers the same basic features of the Zoom whiteboard, plus several other types of annotations. Users have more options for styling text, 21 shapes, arrows, and freehand drawing. The "smart drawing" feature, if activated, will "clean up" a freehand drawing if it approximates any of eight shapes or a connector line between shapes, and it provides a shortcut for erasing (just scribble over another shape). Sticky notes (with text visible) and comment bubbles (with text hidden until users ask for it) make the whiteboard a locus for collaboration. With "apps," users can also add streaming videos, web pages, tables and charts, mind maps, and more to the canvas. If you would normally ask student groups to work in parallel on different sections of an in-class whiteboard, you can achieve a similar result in Miro with the frames feature. You can define multiple frames and assign a group to each frame, then zoom to each frame as each group reports their results. You can also move through frames sequentially in a presentation mode.

Educators can get Miro for free, with a limit of 99 other users on your team.

Explain Everything

Explain Everything is a digital whiteboard optimized for recording lectures to be shared asynchronously. To get the most out of Explain Everything, you need an iPad. There are web-based and Android versions available, but they lag well behind the iOS version in features. For this reason, Explain Everything is not recommended for collaborative work, though it might serve for presentations.

Explain Everything offers special education pricing: a limited version is free, while a version limited only by cloud storage space is $3 per month or $25 per year.

Other digital whiteboards that the CTE has not reviewed include Educreations and MURAL.

Hardware Components

No special hardware is required to use a digital whiteboard effectively. However, many people find it awkward to draw freehand using a mouse. Supplementing your hardware with a pen mouse or drawing tablet can make your use of a digital whiteboard a better experience.

Pen Mouse

A pen mouse is simply a wireless computer mouse shaped like a thick pen or marker. Most connect to your computer using a small USB plug. Writing on a digital whiteboard with a pen mouse will not likely feel "natural," but with a little practice it may feel more natural than trying to write with a mouse. The most awkward aspect of using a pen mouse is that, as with a conventional mouse, you need to hold down a button while you draw.

Pen mice are very inexpensive, selling online or in the "as seen on TV" section of some department stores for $10 to $15

Unfortunately, almost all pen mice assume a right-handed user; the right-click button is positioned on the left-hand side of the pen, where a right-handed user's thumb would typically rest. One model, by Penclic, attempts to address this by allowing users to custom map its buttons, but it is expensive ($70) and gets poor reviews for fragility.

Drawing Tablet

If you frequently need to draw freehand on a digital whiteboard, and you find that drawing with a traditional mouse or mouse pen is too difficult to insufficiently precise, you could turn to a dedicated drawing tablet. For most of us, a drawing tablet will offer far more capability than we really need to draw on a digital whiteboard. Drawing tablets are designed for graphic artists, and tend to have pressure-sensitive styluses and other affordances that whiteboard software typically doesn't recognize.

If you choose to try a drawing tablet, give yourself plenty of time to practice before you use it in a class. Typically, you move the stylus around slightly above the surface to move the mouse pointer, and then touch the drawing surface to "click and hold" the mouse button so that you can draw. This eliminates the need to physically hold down a separate button, as with a mouse pen, but does take some getting used to.

Depending on their sizes and features, drawing tablets cost anywhere from $30 to $500 or more.