Analysis of Online Whiteboard Tools

NOTE: This post was revised considerably on 5/31/12 after a followup use with Dabbleboard proved to be awful.  Given this new development, I have to recommend Scribblar and I will plan to have a “backup” whiteboard handy in case the chosen system is “having a bad day.”

When I meet students online for office hours, it’s vitally important that we have an shared online whiteboard to use as a space to do problems.  These online whiteboard tools tend to come and go, so don’t shoot the messenger when one of the tools in the list below disappears. The good news is that these types of tools seem to pop up on the Internet all the time, so where one disappears, three others take its place.

Solving a problem in DabbleBoard

Solving a problem in Scribblar

I’ve been on a search for my “perfect” online whiteboard this week, so I thought I would run through several of the available options, and do my “math teacher analysis” for each.  I use the Chat interface in Canvas to see and hear my students, so I’m really only concerned with finding the “perfect” drawing space.  I paste the URL for the whiteboard in the text chat window, and we can all view the drawing screen from that link.

Here are some of the features I find important in an interactive whiteboard:

  • Large writing space
  • Ability to quickly clear the screen
  • Ability to add more space to the whiteboard or go quickly to a 2nd screen
  • Responsiveness of the pen with freehand drawing
  • Colored ink
  • Highlighting tools
  • Easy ability to share the board with students (ex: by pasting a URL into a chat window)
  • Ability to add a graphing grid or image

This morning I took a look at the following online whiteboard tools:

For the record, none of these tools will work on an iPad.  They all run using Flash and/or Java plugins.  The native Canvas Chat is actually Tinychat, and there is a whiteboard plugin included. However, it’s Flockdraw, and of all the tools I tested this morning, it is in the bottom two in terms of performance (toss up between Flockdraw and Google Draw for worst tool).  Here’s my detailed analysis of the six online whiteboard tools.

Analysis of Online Interactive Whiteboards (click on image to enlarge)

In the “War of the Online Whiteboards” I was torn between Dabbleboard and Scribblar.  I listed Dabbleboard as my top choice on Wednesday, but then its performance on Thursday was so horrid I’ve reversed my decision.  Scribblar has a couple of advantages: highlighter pens (the only tool I looked at that included this option for drawing) and if you do splurge for a Pro account there is a built-in WolframAlpha button which pastes the output of a WolframAlpha search directly to your screen.  The only downside of Scribblar is that students are prompted to “login” when they follow the URL to the whiteboard.  They don’t really have to login, they just have to provide a username for the board, but you will probably have to explain this to every single student that follows the link (sigh).

Guide to Dabbleboard (click on image to enlarge)

 

Guide to Scribblar (click on image to enlarge)

My recommendation for math teachers using the Instructure Canvas Chat: Ditch the Flockdraw whiteboard and create a “permanent space” in Scribblar or Dabbleboard (both will require you to create a free account for a permanent room) where you can keep a collection of all the pages you’ve used for a given class.  Create a different space for each class.  Then paste (or re-paste) the URL to the room URL  into the text chat whenever a new student arrives in Canvas Chat (since they don’t see the past history of the chat).

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Comments

  1. You might also want to check out Groupboard Designer (http://www.groupboard.com/products/gbdesigner_licence.shtml), which meets all of your requirements and works on the ipad and uses html5 so doesn’t require java or flash. It costs $19.99/month, but we have a free version of Groupboard if you don’t require all the features. Lots of schools, universities and online tutors have been using Groupboard for distance learning for almost 15 years.

    • busynessgirl says:

      Do you have a guide somewhere about which features are included in the free version? It was 7th on my list of programs to check, and I actually downloaded the iPad version, but grew so frustrated with it that I decided to do all the iPad apps for interactive whiteboards in another post.

    • Bob Mathews says:

      David, I took a look at Groupboard Designer, using the free demo version (both “regular” and html5/ajax), but couldn’t paste anything in from the clipboard. Tried it in both IE and Firefox, both plain text and graphics, and kept getting “clipboard is empty” errors. Ctrl+V, contextual menu, “paste” icon all had same effect.

  2. Shawna Haider says:

    Curious if you’ve tried Tinychat. We are using Canvas and Tinychat is what our instructional designers recommended to me for whiteboard and tablect PC. I haven’t yet had a chance to experiment but what they showed me looked reasonable.

    • busynessgirl says:

      Hee hee. If you read closely, you’ll see that IS what I said I had tried first. I am using Tinychat for the web/audio/text part of the online chats, but the Tinychat whiteboard (which is technically FlockDraw) will drive you nuts. No way to clear the whiteboard. You have to choose the eraser, increase the size of the erase tool, manually erase the screen, switch back to the pen, and then decrease the width of the pen tool. Do that about five times and you’ll never want to do it again. :)

      • Shawna Haider says:

        Oops—sorry I missed that—I’m as bad as a student. I read so much good info at this site today! You have saved me a ton of time/frustration as I begin the Canvas journey.

  3. Bob Mathews says:

    (I’m gonna use some HTML here in the comment, hoping you have it turned on in your Dashboard.)

    Good analysis. One thing missing though — which of these whiteboards has the capability of displaying mathematical expressions? Naturally, for simple stuff, like \frac{\sqrt{2}}{2} for example, it’s quicker to just draw it in if you’re using a tablet. If you’re not, or if you have an equation in a document that you want to just paste in, it’s good to know which of these allows that. So I’ll fill in those gaps for you…

    Flockdraw — no capability at all
    Google Drawings — Can use the “Google Docs” translator in MathType.
    Dabbledraw — equation images, either from your computer or from URL (save as GIF from MathType)
    Scriblink — The Sitmo equation editor is built in. Can point & click, or use LaTeX (either type it in or paste it). To use MathType with it, use the Zoho Writer translator.
    CoSketch — equation images, but must be JPG or PNG (can’t save directly from MathType; take screen shot)
    Scribblar — There’s a built-in “Scribblar” translator in MathType.

    This part you know, but for any of your readers who don’t, for any of these applications that use a translator in MathType, you choose the translator from MathType’s Cut and Copy Preferences, create the equation, select & copy it, then paste it onto the whiteboard.

    • busynessgirl says:

      The reason I don’t care about equations for online whiteboards is that I’m typically using a tablet to use these (no keyboard) and so it’s faster to just WRITE the math. :)

      • Bob Mathews says:

        Yep; I agree. And that was the point I made too. But if you write as poorly as I do (you probably don’t), you want your students to be able to read the math. ;-)

  4. Here is a list of features in the free version:

    http://www.groupboard.com/products/gblicence.shtml

    What frustrations did you have with the ipad app?

    Bob: the copy/paste in Groupboard Designer only allows you to copy and paste from within the whiteboard itself (due to java/html5 limitations). However you could try our Groupworld product (http://www.groupworld.net) which has this feature. Groupworld does require a (small) plugin to be installed, but it includes audio/video conferencing, screen sharing, multiple sessions, user/password management, etc. Most of our online tutoring customers use Groupworld.

    • busynessgirl says:

      @David What annoyed with the iPad version of Groupboard me was 1) not being able to figure out where the tool options were, and then 2) having to switch back and forth between the whiteboard and the tool menu every time I want to pick up a different pen color, width, or tool, and 3) Not being able to figure out all the terminology you use – how do I share the board via URL with my students? I love the interface in “Paint by fifty-three” where you can just bring up the tools on the bottom of the screen when you need them. Switching screens just seems annoying to me now.

    • Bob Mathews says:

      Thanks David. I tried GroupWorld, and I like that it’s very easy to paste equations from MathType. Rather than hijack Maria’s blog with the discussion though, I’ll email you at the info-contact email address.

  5. josh g. says:

    I tried using both Scribblar and Dabbledraw last night, and I don’t know if my writing is just too horrendous or what, but both of them tended to drop pen strokes as I wrote. Scribblar seemed to have a slight delay between lifting the pen and when I could start another line without losing it, so quick short marks in (non-script-style) letters would be lost. (May have been made worse by testing over school wifi, but still seems like a flawed model for tablet writing.)

    Dabbledraw seemed to have a similar problem, although there I think the bigger problem is that it interpreted many of the pen strokes as selection-taps on existing letters or lines. If this tool had a “write-only” pen mode that didn’t try to incorporate other UI features into clicks and drags this problem would probably disappear.

  6. Maria: when did you test the app? We have made changes in recent months…you can now press 3 fingers on the whiteboard to bring up the drawing tools (it should say this in the options window). You can also now invite other users by clicking the Invite button in the Connect tab and it will email a link to users.

    Also you can use the web version on the ipad if you prefer…just go to http://www.groupboard.com in safari, then click on the ‘get your own free Groupboard instantly’ button (then click NO when it asks if you want to use the app).

  7. Greetings From Alaska – I am going to being designing an Applied Mathematics course for High School students and am curious what Tablet PC you recommend. I am an avid iPad user but the state is reluctant to require iPads. Thanks!

    • busynessgirl says:

      I use an HP Elitebook (a PC Tablet), but you can get by with a peripheral tablet like a Wacom Bamboo for this sort of thing.

      • Wow. Thanks for the quick reply :-) What other “hardware/equipment” do you use. iPad? Android Tablet????? Thanks for letting me pick your miraculous brain. You are my new HERO. I LOVE THIS BLOG wish I would have discovered this years ago! Thank you for sharing!!!!

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