Bringing a “Spark” to the Classroom?

A few of us had an opportunity this past week to get a hands-on demo of Cisco’s new Spark Board.  The product is getting a bunch of buzz in the enterprise marketplace (see here, here, and here) – to a large extent, as an electronic replacement for the dry-erase whiteboard.  Interestingly, in K-12, it is potentially more of a replacement for the interactive whiteboard – most K-12 classrooms moved past the dry-erase board some time ago.

Cisco is positioning the Spark Board as an “all-in-one” device serving three primary functions: wireless presentation, digital whiteboard, and audio/video conferencing.  At the core of the Spark Board is its integration with the Cisco Spark platform, a communications and collaboration tool that may require its own blog posting at some point (it’s deep).  While the Spark Board does not require you to use Spark, the device is only a (expensive) digital whiteboard without it – so it really only makes sense to use Spark if you are using the Spark Board.  Spark can be downloaded for free, although there are a number of limitations with the free version versus the enterprise flavor.


What we saw this past week was the “first-generation” Spark Board, so it is hard to make broad conclusions about this device for K-12 – but a few initial thoughts based on the demo:

  • The look and feel of the device is engaging. Others have described the look of it as a “big iPad” and there is much truth to that description (see above).
  • The device only requires one cable to operate – a power cable. When integrated with Spark, all content can be delivered wirelessly.  (The devil is still in the details about how Spark is technically rolled out though).  If we want our classroom/learning spaces to become more active and flexible – and to do so in some school buildings constructed long before the introduction of modern technologies – the near-untethered nature of the Spark Board is impressive.
  • The attention to the user experience in the Spark Board design appears to differentiate from other devices. The device is 4k capable, positioning it for very high-quality video.  The camera is also high-quality (1080p at 60 frames per second).  There are 12 microphones built into the Board, allowing for coverage up to 45 feet away – a great fit for a standard classroom.  Also, the Board has gain control – as users move closer or further away from the board, the volume adjusts to accommodate for the changes in distance.
Wireless presentation – mirroring content between Spark Board & user device

Particularly valuable is the attention to the user experience at the far end.  Too often, far-end participants get a less quality experience in applications like distance learning and videoconferencing because the technology at the hosting end is substandard.  Cisco seems to have considered the far-end in the Spark Board design to provide as much equity in experience as possible.

Because the device is “first-generation,” there are some key functions it currently is missing.  Cisco claims a number of these features will become available in a new release of the Spark Board’s firmware at the end of March:

  • Users can not currently annotate over content – a must-have going forward.
  • Camera is fixed today – “Speaker-track” like features (where the camera will follow the speaker) are coming per Cisco.
  • Audio is not passed through the Spark interface itself or the auxiliary HDMI cable – so displaying content with audio is not available yet.
  • Only the 55” version of the Spark Board is available today – most standard classrooms would require the 70” version that is forthcoming.

One final point I found interesting – Cisco was asked whether pushed content can be modified on the Spark Board itself.  The answer is no.  Content can only be modified within the native applications on the device(s) connecting to the Spark Board through Spark (laptop, tablet, etc.).  @Jared Heiner from Cisco indicated this was intentional – if the board requires a connected computer to operate, it provides another point of technical management and failure, and it further perpetuates a need for the user to stay at the board (i.e. in the front of the room) to operate it.  If we are trying to move towards more student-driven and less teacher-centric learning spaces, this shift away from standing near to the board make sense.  That said, the pedagogical shifts needed from some instructors could create challenges with adoption – the concept of not having a computer directly attached to your interactive board requires a shift in mindset and will likely make a number of teachers and schools uncomfortable at the outset.

There are still a number of other questions to consider in the short- to medium-term:

  • Cost – The board itself is on the higher end of similar devices ($4,999 list for the 55” and $9,999 list for the forthcoming 70” display). Perhaps of greater concern are the recurring costs for device maintenance (“registration fee”) and Spark services.
  • Technical connectivity and the use of Spark – a robust wireless network is a must with this device and the devil is still in the details about how districts would roll out Spark within a school environment.
  • Size of board – will even 70” be a large enough display in a standard classroom?

Ultimately, I was impressed with the direction of the Spark Board and the quality of the device, although recognizing the device may not be ready for prime-time use in K-12 (yet).  As mentioned in an earlier blog posting, the seamless meshing of the physical space (Spark Board) with the virtual space (Spark) is huge, creating great potential to break down the walls of our classrooms and school buildings, leading to significant new learning opportunities and learning modalities in our schools.  It will be interesting to see if the Spark Board will evolve in such a way to make it more feasible (technically, fiscally, and pedagogically) for broad use in schools.

My chance to try out to new Cisco Spark Board
Josh Whitham of Cisco demonstrates the new Spark Board

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