September 30, 2020 5 min read
Unprecedented numbers of people are working, learning, and teaching from home right now. Understandably, they might be searching for an online version of a whiteboard—one of the most central and versatile physical tools we have in our schools and offices. These apps aren’t hard to find. Zoom has a whiteboard tool built right into the interface. Microsoft launched its virtual whiteboard more than two years ago and offered similar functionality in OneNote. Google has developed Jamboard and Chrome Canvas. And there are dozens of other reasonably good options from lesser-known developers.
These online whiteboards do some things well. They offer another tool to connect remote workers in a shared, often collaborative space. Online whiteboards make it easier for people to brainstorm together and think visually. They are versatile enough to facilitate creative thinking, and they offer plenty of tools for incorporating multimedia and integrating with other technologies. In many ways, they are a powerful technology adding to schools and companies' toolsets worldwide. However, they are not without their flaws.
Compared to physical whiteboards, online whiteboards are not yet a mature set of technologies. For instance, a quick search for reviews of online whiteboards reveals a wide variety of flaws.
Online whiteboards can still offer a lot of essential functionality, not the least of which is to facilitate collaboration between remote workers. That alone makes them a tool almost any organization should consider adopting. But only in rare situations are they the best choice as a stand-alone solution.
If they haven’t already done so, most organizations are in the process of figuring out which video conferencing tool they will use going forward. It’s becoming a requirement for most organizations to function at all. Many of them will also consider an integrated online whiteboard tool. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that online whiteboard tools are the only strategy for replicating some of the advantages of traditional physical whiteboards. Even working remotely, physical whiteboards can offer a wealth of functionality.
Maybe you and your team won’t be returning to the office anytime soon. Maybe you will remain a remote workforce indefinitely. Maybe you’re adopting a hybrid workspace of people in the office and people at home. In any case, the question between physical and online whiteboards is still essential.
It might seem unfair to compare physical whiteboards with online versions, especially with so many people working from home. If your organization is working remotely, you might assume that your only option is online. That’s not necessarily true.
Even when working remotely, online whiteboards aren’t necessarily the most effective way of collaborating. One frequently used online whiteboard tool is Zoom’s integrated whiteboard space. While you’re using the app for conferencing, switching from a Zoom meeting to its whiteboard space isn’t precisely friction-free. And if you’re on a single monitor or laptop, you lose what little body language and facial expressions you could see in your co-workers.
Imagine that same scenario, but the people in the meeting each had a 15” x 12” M.C. Squares Surface personal whiteboard. Instead of dealing with a janky interface, when they had something visual to contribute, they could jot it down on their Surface and show it to each other via their webcams. An even more practical strategy is to focus the webcam on a wall-mounted whiteboard for presentations or collaboration. If you happen to be using an external webcam, you could reposition it to look directly down on your whiteboard as you brainstorm at your desk.
Eventually, your company or organization will have to decide whether or not employees will return to the office. Coming back means physically sharing a space. As anxious as that might make some people, the reality is that you’re going to have to find ways of collaborating and working together while managing to stay apart. You’re not going to ask everyone in the office to go to their desk and log in to an online whiteboard. You’re likely to gather the fewest number of people necessary into a conference room and get started in front of a large, wall-mounted whiteboard.
And we’re going to guess that you’ll finally start to appreciate what you took for granted before the pandemic. You will appreciate just how you read people’s eyes and the details of their facial expressions. You’ll remember how much people communicate through body language. You’ll stop accidentally interrupting people, and you’ll recognize when someone else has something to say. You’ll be amazed at how great it feels to simply point at someone or raise your hand.
This is what it’s like in front of a physical whiteboard. Maybe you’ll admit something you never thought you would: “I really missed my whiteboard.” We know. These are strange times.
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