ELTM6B: Displays for Large Classrooms

Note: This was not intended as a separate post but, rather, as a response to a comment on the previous one. As usual, I rambled and decided to just put it as a post instead of as a comment.

Regarding displays, you’you’ve got me thinking, now, especially the ones needed in large, post-secondary classrooms. Here’s my perspective:

The first 18 years of my teaching career my mainstay was the chaulkboard. All of the classrooms in my school had them right across the front. Around 20 feet wide and set around 3’ above the floor, then around 5.5 feet high or so, reaching pretty much as high as anyone could. I taught around 10-11 courses per year and used the board for each one. For its time it was effective but it was also very, very messy. Each evening I’d be so full of chaulk dust I could not even run a comb through my hair! Chaulk does not like hair! What’s more all my clothes would be completely dusty. If anyone patted my back, a huge  white cloud would rise! Besides, the yellowish-white chaulk did not make a good contrast with the green board and, as such, was often hard to read at any distance.

Then there were the overheads. I used them from time to time but didn’t really like it. I much preferred the broad expanse of the chaulkboard for much the same reasons as you mentioned but also because it kept me moving. I could, of course, prepare my overheads in advance but the students did not really like that—more in THAT in just a bit.

Ordinary whiteboards—the ones with the markers—were just coming on stream when I got seconded to the Department of Education. I didn’t use them much but did not like them anyway. First, they were far too stinky for most students. In any class I had there would be a student who found the smell a problem—allergies or asthma meant that using them was irresponsible. Second, though they were—and are—bloody hard to wipe. In k-12 you have to clean your own and, let me tell you, it’s very hard to do well. Then, of course, along came the water-based markers but they were still stinky and just as hard to clean. Oh, and then there’s that foul substance marketed as whiteboard cleaner. It’s nasty.

Now, in the midst of all of this I got seconded to the DOE to be one of the first two DE online teachers of physics. That was 1992 and, despite not having Internet, we still had a digital telewriter and audioconference. I wrote on my electronic tablet in St. Johns and my writing appeared on all of the 20” CRT displays in all of our remote sites. It worked. First I used to just write freehand but I that first year O took the time to prepare slides using a paint program (that was before PowerPoint) and we installed the on the hard drives of all of the remote computers. I thought it was going to be brilliant but, alas, the students thought otherwise. All of those students who had me the previous year asked me to go back to doing it the old way. The pre-done screens were too intimidating; too boring. I settled back and redid them all, meeting the students part way. The  new slides had diagrams (or partial diagrams if they were complex) and I would write in the solutions an derivations live. That worked well and, in fact, we continue to do much the same today. But that’s the online, virtual class and cannot be done in the large classrooms.

So, for those we still have chaulkboards and ordinary whiteboards.

But we also have most classrooms with projectors, screens and computers with PowerPoint. Instructors can show very nicely prepared slides to the students and they can follow along (or hop online). It’s okay but t suffers from the same issues my students warned me about back in 1993 when I tried it using slides done with paint software. They are boring and intimidating. I really don’t like them for anything but a formal “lecture.” For class I really don’t like this.

Then there’s Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) such as Smartboards. They are clean, easy to use and erase. What’s more there are great simulations online, when needed. The software that ships with them is much better suited to classroom use than is PowerPoint. Besides, students love interacting with them. Unfortunately, they, too suffer from several major flaws. First, they are extremely expensive. A typical classroom setup will set you back around $7000 when you count in the board, computer and installation. Unbelievable! Let me do some quick math: $1200 for s decent ultra-short throw projector, $600 for a PC, $450 for installation (assuming 2 people, each for a half-day labour). The boards are mostly based on simple, resistive technology and, in truth, cost around $500 to make. Now, let’s add it up…let’s see, I get less than $3000 any way I look at it. You know, Dave, that means someone is pocketing around $4000 profit from each installation. Good Gravy!

But that’s not the only issue, the large ones around 8’ wide by 4’ high. That’s great for a HS classroom but minuscule by lecture theatre standards. No good for classes bigger than 40 if everyone is expected to actually view it. Now, that said, there’s another issue. IWBs work better when you let the students use them so we really need several in a classroom to make it work. There’s no way any educational institution can afford that.

I should note that I am coming at this from the perspective of HS and Post-Secondary. Let me also say this: any classroom below grade 9 that does not have at least one IWB can consider itself deprived. I should also admit that I would not want to teach in a HS classroom without one either.

As for large lecture theatres, though: forget it; too small.

OK then there’s the interactive Podium style of machines. These are large touchscreens that face the prof and which are mirrored on a MUCH larger display at the front of the room. They’re sort of like an IWB that uses a stylus. At my former work I had the chance to borrow one from the guys down in the shop for a few weeks as it was lying around for a while before they could get to install it. I spent quite a few hours experimenting with it and found it not bad. I could not get used to writing on the vertical screen bot found it tolerable when mounted more-or-less horizontally. There was one BIG problem, though, that I just could not get past.

In a class, when you are leading, students will tend to look where you are. You can have some real fun with this. Next time you are in a large class, just take 5 seconds to look intently at either one of the walls on the side or at the ceiling. Out of the corner of your eye, observe the class. You will find that the ones who are not shopping online or doing Facebook will be looking at exactly the spot on the wall or the ceiling that you are looking at. So this is fine with whiteboards, chaulkboards and such. Obviously you are looking at what you write and so are the students. With the stylus and touchscreen, though, you are looking at one place and expect the students to look at the big screen. This creates a permanent disconnect between you and your students that is very hard to get around.

Then, of course, there’s one more thing that does not really exist very well yet (yes, it can be done but it’s clumsy and hardly worth the bother at this point)—an IWB that automatically mirrors to tablets and laptops in the room. Yes, it can be made to work but, think about it (a) it suffers from the same problem as does the podium just discussed and (b) besides if you really wanted to run a class this way, why not make it a distance class, go get a license to use the very excellent Blackboard Collaborate software and just tell everyone to participate from home.

So there it is. Here we are, well into the 21st century and, at least in my opinion, there still does not exist an excellent display device that is well-suited for larger classrooms and lecture theatres.

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14 thoughts on “ELTM6B: Displays for Large Classrooms

  1. Wow … that was thorough and obviously drawn from lots and lots and lots of experience. You clearly know what you’re talking about … been-there-done-that. We must be pretty much of a vintage because I too saw most of the evolutionary sequence that you refer to. I haven’t touched a chalkboard in perhaps five years or so. In a small room of 20-30 students I do use Smartboard technology. In a large lecture hall of 500 students I used a Sypodium to very good advantage. In both cases I am projecting Word documents which are distillations of my lecture notes. [Please let’s not open a discussion of PowerPoint … I just finished my dinner.] I find that annotating my notes as I go … either directly onto the Smartboard or onto the Sympodium with a pen-type stylus, I do OK. My biggest complaint is that even though one can adjust the fineness of the ‘pen’ in use … it can’t be made fine enough to make my illegible writing lledible! In the laboratory I tend to use the chalkboard and I too come home dusted … from head to toe … Joanna always asks “What happened to you?” Anyway … thanks much for this thorough review. Before I sign off … I just saw the comment by postmoderndonkey … and must chime in that there’s no feeling quite like that experienced when you walk into a lecture hall of 500 students, go to log into your machine, and have the stuff ‘poop’ on you … horrid. There have been a couple of times that I’ve actually abandoned ship, turned around (with back to the students), and … OMG … get ready for this … USED THE CHALKBOARD! D

  2. Wow! I’d never thought about the consideration needed for all these different presentation methods. Where I work we have largely moved to the Smartboard which seems to fit the bill in most of our teaching areas (ages 11-16). A couple of whiteboards left (in the maths department) but definitely no chalk boards…
    That ticker tape experiment: for the most part I support literacy and humanities but have had occasion to enter the physics lab (!). I’ve done this experiment with a number of kids on very old, dodgy equipment – hence the dots are always too close together rendering them difficult to count and producing unsatisfactory data. Your way sounds much more fun. I think I might link your post to my friend Jane, our lovely head of Physics 🙂

    1. Thanks–please do! While you’re at it, send her to the website of my old work: http://www.cdli.ca and tell her to get a guest account (which will need to be okay-ed and this takes a few hours typically), then log in.
      – look at the top of the page when you log in then click “learning content” then (a) click science then check out physics 2204 and 3204 and (b) click MLOs and, again try physics 2204 and 3204.
      – . Go back to “home” look for the “Desire2Learn” link on the right hand side of the screen, click it and then look for the public exam review courses. There’s a MOOC in there for physics 3204.
      She might find some stuff she can use in those places.

  3. Very interesting – as usual!
    I cannot resist discussing Powerpoint although my experience is more related to “post-graduate” educuation and “professional training” (But isn’t it weird that there should be much difference to school??). I guess you would not find an MBA course or similar that does not heavily rely on Powerpoint.
    I believe people use and love/hate powerpoint when they want to prepare for the lecture / training and create a documentation / “notes” at the same time -and the result is neither of both: Either slides crammed with too much stuff for “presentation” (even if you use the notes feature) or presentation-only slides that could not be called a documentation.

    I have been guilty of that myself often, but there is one mundane reason I believe: This happens when presenters / teachers are not given time (let alone additional money) for preparation and writing lecture notes (assuming that there is no proper book available – which is typical for that type of education I have in mind). So I consider this a result of teaching as a “side-project” (as I did) or being part of that underpaid army of people who try to make a living of teaching and training as freelancers (very similar to the increasing number of adjuncts maybe).

    However, I have also seen worst case examples of tenured university teachers (to whom teaching should have been be a priority as these were not “research universities”) relying too much on Powerpoint – in particular on slides containing images copied from Google’s image search.
    I tend to think it is simply a way of optimzing the output / input ratio. Students’ evaluations will not be stellar but you aren’t fired either. If I try not too be too critical I could imagine that the administrative burden (“quality assurance”, “forecasting…) even put on full-team teachers has become a real dread and this reduces the quality of teaching.

    1. I could not agree more! Among administrators there’s a complete lack of respect for the amount of effort that goes into creating quality class materials. There’s no time or reward for doing a good job and worst of all there’s no real support for it either. Creating quality class materials is difficult, time consuming (and yes, fulfilling and enjoyable) work. Work that nobody can realistically do well given the time and financial restraints.
      Oh and yes, the worst way to die is “Death by Powerpoint.” 🙂

  4. Wow, very impressive for a layperson. I had no idea of all these new alternatives that exist! Very informative post and I learned a lot – although I will probably continue to use ppt as my aid when explaining something to clients 🙂

    1. And you should! I can deride it all I want but PowerPoint is still, hands down, the best tool out there for outlining ideas and for presenting then to others in a live format. It’s page layout tools are easy to use and, best of all, it integrates well with just about every other application out there that either deals with displaying information or general multimedia. My doubts are solely related to k-12 classrooms and in choosing it exclusively as the only tool when, in that environment, many other choices exist. In k-12 PowerPoint (and it’s close cousins such as Google Slides, which I am using more and more) should be considered as just one among many tools that should be used regularly.

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