Asking what’s wrong with online whiteboards is like asking what’s wrong with a cherry red slushie. They’re great, but there’s something just not-quite-right about them. Thankfully, you have other options.
Why are online whiteboards so popular right now?
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.
They're not quite mature yet.
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.
- Privacy and security concerns. Zoom’s false claims about encryption have been well documented, and hackers are always looking for new weaknesses to exploit. Employees’ private information might be at risk using a streaming service with compromised security. If you’re using an online whiteboard to brainstorm a new product or restructure some facet of your organization, you might be risking proprietary information or sensitive data. And don’t forget about the Zoom bombs.
- Lack of established practices. When you have a question during an online whiteboard collaboration session, how do you ask a question? No one can see you raise your hand or lean forward to signal you’re waiting for your turn. Maybe you have to decide between interrupting the speaker or waiting until she pauses for questions. If you drop your question into a chatbox, can anyone see it during the session? How do you nod your head in agreement? Or put on your puzzled face? Alternatively, collaborating within a video call allows you to see each other’s facial expressions and gestures can help mitigate some of these challenges.
- Bandwidth demands. Most whiteboard apps are, at their core, video apps. That means they can require a lot of your available bandwidth. For instance, some educators worry that video conferencing broadband traffic will effectively outstrip capacity in many parts of the US, often rural areas. Even Netflix and Disney+ have occasionally throttled back video streaming quality to accommodate increased traffic, primarily video conferencing.
- They can be expensive. The less you want to deal with the flaws above, the more you’ll have to shell out for a more fully developed product. At the moment, Miro’s Business tier for their online whiteboard app is $190/year per user. Microsoft’s Whiteboard is integrated into Windows, so you’ll need to pony up for an Office subscription for each of your employees. And Zoom’s Whiteboard is also integrated with its core interface, which costs $240/year per host.
- Poor mode-switching. Switching back and forth from one application to another is confusing, inefficient, and taxing for everyone on the call. In a face-to-face conference room, transitioning between writing on a physical whiteboard, projecting on-screen content (a slide deck, for instance), and facilitating a discussion can be relatively seamless. Switching between these different collaborative modes within interfaces like Zoom, Hangouts, or MS Whiteboard is possible. Still, most team members will find themselves longing for the days of conference rooms and PowerPoint.
- Reliability. Online whiteboards are almost universally buggy and crash more than your average app. A quick search on Reddit reveals an endless stream of complaints and requests for bug-fixes. For example, Chris Lee, reviewing Microsoft’s Whiteboard for Ars Technica, complains, “I was very excited to discover that I could draw rainbow-colored unicorns and less excited to discover that what I drew was not what was broadcast.”
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.
They aren’t your only option.
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.
Physical whiteboards still out-perform them.
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.