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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Chalk and talk, we miss you

By Steve Rowett, on 4 December 2012

Life in the lecture room used to be so simple. There were some rows of chairs, a blackboard and, if you were lucky, some chalk. Clever teachers always brought their own chalk and I remember one lecturer announcing that their presentation would be a multimedia extravaganza with no less than three different colours of chalk used as they wrote their notes for us to copy.

Since then various classroom technologies have come and gone. The trusted old OHP gave rise to a new form of presentation, along with any number of laser printers gunked up with molten transparencies. The whiteboard seemed altogether more modern than the chalkboard it replaced, even if they do all seem to become smudgeygreyboards in no time at all.

At UCL we’ve been debating which boards are best for our classrooms and seminar spaces. The ideal board would probably allow

  • Writing using standard dry wipe pens – and easy to clean
  • Projection of a PC screen, nice and bright, but not dazzling
  • Some interactive features for annotating slides or doing software demonstrations
  • Simple to use with little new to learn and no gadgets to be lost

It seems remarkably hard to find a board that does all of these well. Some boards are very interactive but can’t be used with normal dry wipe pens. We’ve looked at glass boards, but they aren’t so sharp for projection. The next step will be ceramic surfaces with special sensor pens, but how many of the pens will go walkies and need to be replaced?

Matt, of Matt’s musings fame on this blog, said to me today that gesture boards will be the way forward, with presentations controlled by hand movements using sensors. It’s a nice idea, but I can’t help but feel that many teachers like simple technologies that don’t go wrong. And for that, writing with pens – or even chalk – is hard to beat.

By the way, the OHP isn’t quite dead at UCL yet. There has been a steady removal of them, and often they are left in classrooms unloved and unplugged. But one academic strongly objected to their removal. We were surprised: he normally adopts new technologies with vigour. It turned out that he used them for teaching chemistry. Not for writing equations, but for pouring chemicals on the glass surface and letting students see the reactions take place on the big screen. We replaced his OHP without delay, but advise you not to try this at home.

As yet – chemistry experiments aside – we don’t have a good answer to this simplest of presentation requirements. We’d be delighted to hear what works – and what doesn’t – for you.

2 Responses to “Chalk and talk, we miss you”

  • 1
    Matt Ashby wrote on 5 December 2012:

    Couldn’t the chemist use a visualiser for his demonstration, perhaps combined with a plastic high-sided tray or bath for pouring the chemicals into? I would imagine the colour reproduction would be better this way, for reactions where that is relevant, and he could record the reaction for later replay as well.

  • 2
    Steve Rowett wrote on 5 December 2012:

    Hi Matt. That’s a good comment, and it may well be that they do that now, it’s been a little while since I caught up with the situation.

    It’s certainly true that a part of the role of lecturing is about performance, the rooms for lectures are not called theatres for nothing.

    Your point about capture is getting more and more important. It’s hard to find a good balance generally between things that humans find natural (eg writing) and things that are easily captured (and usually digital). But I suspect the capturing will increasingly become a factor in the technologies – high and low tech – that are used in teaching.

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