Interview | Promethean’s World Turns

The new CEO of Promethean World is moving the whiteboard, once the company’s mainstay, to a peripheral role in a full device-agnostic instructional delivery system.

by Judy Faust Hartnett

Before joining Promethean in 2011 as the president of North American markets, Jim Marshall was CEO at Spectrum K-12 (now Global Scholar), which offers RTI solutions to improve student performance.

Marshall has been in the education space for most of his career. In 2002-2003, he was vice president of the education division of Apple and was responsible for some of the earliest large one-to-one laptop initiatives in the United States, including the one at Henrico (Va.) County Public Schools. Marshall also worked closely with former Gov. Angus King on the state of Maine’s one-to-one initiative, which remains one of the most successful one-to-one implementations in the nation.

As the recently appointed global CEO of Promethean World, Marshall has a big challenge in front of him. The company has experienced revenue challenges in the last two years and the whiteboard, which for years was considered the end-all solution by many educators and school boards, is so no longer. For Promethean and other manufacturers, it plays a smaller role in the movement toward full instructional delivery systems that integrate all the software and hardware used in a classroom. iPads, Chromebooks, and other individual learning tools have replaced the whiteboards, once earmarked in technology budgets. I asked Marshall how he plans to turn things around.

Judy: How will you continue to evolve the Promethean product line to keep it relevant in the 21st century? 

Jim: This is a great question. The way students learn is changing—they are digital natives with an intuitive understanding about how to use technology. The opportunity being presented to Promethean is that we can empower teachers with a new way to engage students in learning activities. Just 10 years ago when 1:1 initiatives started popping up, teachers were freaked out because they were not prepared to teach to the back of kids heads and they no longer had control over what the students were doing. Teachers still want to have the ability to bring the whole class together, but they also want the flexibility to break students out into groups or have the option to personalize learning by child, by content or by lessons.

So, when we talk with educators about our vision of helping teachers change, how they deliver lessons in a fully integrated environment, they get excited. That is where we are driving. We are working hand-in-hand with educators to help them evolve how teaching and learning happens in their classrooms. This new approach leverages digital content and technology to create a fully immersive and interactive experience. And, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Last month at EdNET I told a group of folks that while I would prefer our new software solutions to run on an ActivBoard, we are looking at a software strategy that is device agnostic. They all looked at me funny because so many people in the industry see Promethean as only a hardware company. But we are much bigger than just hardware.

Our vision for the future is to help create a digital fabric in the classroom, if you will, an educational technology ecosystem that allows teachers to be more productive with how they use their time and resources, because anything they want to do will work seamlessly on any of the devices—an ActivBoard, ActivTable, mobile phone, etc. This is where we are setting our vision for the future.

Judy: Is Promethean working with any districts that are coming close to this transformed approach?  

Jim: Yes. One example of how this looks is the new Middle School of the Future that Superintendent Richard O’Malley has introduced in Edison, N.J. Every middle school in the township will have two model 21st-century classrooms where teaching and learning activities will leverage the latest interactive technology to advance whole group, small group, or individual instruction.

Working hand-in-hand with us, the Edison middle school teachers are transforming science and social studies lessons so that the content, assessment and activities can be used on Promethean’s ActivBoard, the ActivTable, or any handheld devices. Teachers want to change what and how they teach according to the needs and progress of their students; we aim to support their efforts in this respect.

Judy: Promethean is associated with hardware, not software. How will this change your approach?

Jim: Sure, many would associate us more readily with our hardware solutions, but teachers know about our award-winning software, ActivInspire. Why do I say this? Over 1.5 million educators are members of Promethean Planet, that earlier this year reached two milestones. We now have five million learner response systems and the one-millionth sale of ActivBoards. Why is this significant? If our hardware were our only flagship product, why would we have more Planet members than ActivBoards in classrooms?  The reason is that it is our software that is the glue that pulls everything together. It enables teachers to collect and analyze data. Our current students software solutions provide teachers with self-pacing functions to engage students and challenge them to answer progressively more challenging questions. In the coming weeks and months, we will be expanding our software solutions, as it is the lynchpin to helping us create a new delivery system for education. Once it is in place, teachers will be able to easily use digital content aligned with the Common Core State Standards to drive a higher level of learning.

Judy: Is there one thing you wish Promethean had done earlier?

Jim: My first introduction to Promethean was when I was with Apple, and I knew it first as an interactive whiteboard company. But if you look at more recent history, with the introduction of Promethean Planet and ActivProgress, the company has made a purposeful move from its original position of just providing technology pieces to the classroom, to being a company that helps teachers effectively use the technology in their classrooms.

Jean-Yves Charlier, my predecessor, was committed to investing in research and development, which has kept the company on the forefront of innovation. Robert Marzano has studied the impact that the effective use of our solutions has on student achievement. But that is not the only research that has been done. Dr. Omar Lopez from the University of Texas and a new study by the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at the University of York have reported the same gains that Marzano’s team found: Teaching and learning delivered with our integrated set of solutions and digital content can achieve in 9 months what typically takes 12 months.

We introduced software for laptops, tablets, and iPads before many districts were looking at these solutions. The latest hardware solution, the ActivTable, has been designed with a keen sense to how today’s students need to engage in-group work to build collaboration skills that they will need for the future.

When I joined the company in 2011, we began putting additional context around these innovations and connecting the dots between the plethora of innovations within the company to help us map out what the future could look like. This transformation is evident in our partnerships with Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt and Channel One News.

Judy: What do you see as the most important tech trends for education over the next few years?

Jim: I think over the coming years we will see more and more disruptions in the classroom as teaching practices evolve to include the use of digital content and modern technology. As districts relax policies around student-owned devices and as mobile devices become a more common learning tool, the flow of learning will change. But, I really believe teachers will still want the flexibility to choose how a lesson is delivered. They will want the option to bring all their students together for whole group discussion, debate and instruction, but also have the ability to break students out into small groups for project-based learning.

The biggest trends are going to be around personalized and collaborative learning. We believe teachers can more effectively deliver the right content to the right students at the right time when technology is used as part of the instructional delivery system. Simply put, this is personalized learning.


Judy Faust Hartnett is a contributing editor to EdTech Digest. She was editor-in-chief of District Administration magazine for nearly six years. Passionate about education technology, she is a recognized leader in education journalism. Previously, she was the managing editor of Write to:

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