Blackboards, whiteboards, visualizers, …

A meeting this morning organised by the department of the College responsible for teaching rooms. Not as well attended as it might have been, as it’s in the vacation and several colleagues are stuck in foreign parts by the ash cloud, but quite a lively discussion for all that.

The presenter gave us an overview of the perceived (by whom??) advantages and disadvantages of blackboards and whiteboards, and proceeded to give us very short demonstrations of various technological solutions including visualizers (document cameras), “electronic easels”, and a system called “Papershow” (I keep wanting to type “Paperchase”).

Inevitably the discussion got off onto the merits of the tech fixes first, but it was eventually brought back to the strengths and weaknesses of boards (where there was no general agreement about the perceived list).

I was able to put in a pet theory of mine. My handwriting on a blackboard is better than it is on a whiteboard. I think that this is in large part because of simple physics: there is a degree of “bite” [technical term in physics!] between the chalk and the board which matches that between pen and paper, whereas whiteboards are just too slippery. I think this could perhaps be fixed by producing whiteboards with a matt surface. This would also make them able to double up as projector screens. The possible downside is that matt boards might be harder to clean. (Cleaning is already a major problem with whiteboards.)

There was a defence of smartboards from a small group in the audience, even though these were not on the agenda. I think they are a poor substitute, because of the low resolution and the timelag between writing and response; but there is a more serious issue. With a projection system, the really big item is just a white screen; with a smartboard, it has to have electronics in it, and presumably the cost goes up steeply with the area.

Of the tech solutions, “Papershow” seemed the best: you write on paper and the result is projected in your choice of pen size and colour, no need for a range of pens. Unfortunately the paper design is patented and pads of this paper are very expensive.

I was gratified to learn that the College is listening to all shades of opinion, and has recognised that board area is one of the main issues.

On the other hand, I was disappointed to learn that overhead projectors now fall foul of health and safety legislation, and it is possible that blackboards will suffer the same fate. (The fact that chalk dust is more dangerous than organic solvent fumes seems to be an urban myth with a powerful grasp on many people, like sans serif fonts and dyslexia.)

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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3 Responses to Blackboards, whiteboards, visualizers, …

  1. Andy says:

    Papershow reminds me of a gadget which I bought recently:

    It’s a pen that stores what you write as a vector graphic that you can later view and search (searching handwriting blows my mind) on your computer, as well as containing a dictaphone that links up timecodes with what you wrote. You’re able to tap the pen on any piece of the notes to play the audio that was recorded at that time. It also has other novel features and the ability to extend the usage with “apps”.

    At £130 it’s pretty unrealistic and the paper you write on is special (it has a non-repeating pattern of dots) so you can’t just grab paper off a friend if you forget your pad and expect it to work. Also, you don’t have to buy the dotty paper – you can simply print your own.

    I guess this is essentially what Papershow is, for the whiteboard?

  2. I don’t think it’s quite like that – but I didn’t take a very careful look. The Papershow paper is ordinary lined paper with little diagrams on one side which you tap with the pen to select size and colour, draw circles or lines, etc. The pen is clearly smart enough to
    recognise these, but how it recognises the position I am not sure.

    It is claimed that you can walk down the aisle to a student asking a question, and write your reply from there and still have it projected; but we were not shown this. I think not all the kit is in place yet.

  3. Emil says:

    It does look very similar to Andy’s pen……. With Andy’s pen, you write on paper that has a non-repeating pattern of dots. The camera on the pen looks at the dots and figures out where it is.

    A big issue with this system is that it needs special paper. What happens if they stop producing it – Or put the price up?

    The visualisers don’t suffer from this problem, but they have others: colours are not vivid, for example.

    However, the electronic whiteboards are so awful that I would certainly prefer these things.

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