12 Days of Teaching, Day 1: Tablet vs Whiteboard

I have rarely used a whiteboard in teaching in the past decade. Before you all gasp and think I’m subjecting my students to various forms of cruel and sadly fairly usual teaching via ‘death by powerpoint’, the reason for this is simply that I’ve used a tablet PC, enabling me to create powerpoint presentations that contain the space to enable all whiteboard appropriate content to be delivered via annotations on the slides.

This isn’t something I normally think about but a tweet by Carl Poree drew my attention:

Well first up, I’m allergic to curly arrows so I immediately reached for the anti-organik-bugge-spraye, but second up I thought that this was an interesting dilemma and thirdly that I regularly teach in rooms where the whiteboards are absent, oddly placed (under the projection screen, or only on one side of the room) and it never even crosses my mind when teaching in a new space whether there are white boards or not. About 10 years ago, I had funding for a Keele Teaching Innovation project, looking at how we model and encourage expert behaviour in students when teaching the interpretation of spectroscopic data, specifically NMR. I wanted a way to show students the process that I was familiar with: get spectrum, identify residual solvent peak and any ‘common’ impurities and cross them off, Then work through the spectrum systematically to interpret it. As part of that, we obtained funding for a tablet PC – a laptop with a screen that swivels around to permit annotations. And that was it – while my approach to teaching spectroscopic interpretation didn’t change much, my approach to teaching changed totally (and without me being aware) with that piece of technology. There’s longer term impact of a teaching innovation project for you. That project was also my first ever presentation at my first every Variety in Chemistry Education conference where I braved an oral bite (it was the Loughborough conference, 2010).

The advantages of using a tablet with a sophisticated pen (there are lots on the market, but an iPad and apple pencil works just fine) to replace a whiteboard are numerous and probably quite individual:

  • You don’t have to turn your back on the class
  • You don’t have to worry about whether the bit you are writing (on a visualizer or OHP) is the bit being displayed
  • Students don’t have to switch between a bright screen and a darker whiteboard
  • The projection is likely larger than you could write on the whiteboard, and easier to see in large rooms
  • You can provide annotated notes afterwards for any absent students (or the whole class)

It takes a little thought: you cannot simply take your powerpoint/whiteboard lecture plan and do it all on a tablet. You have to decide where on the spectrum you exist between just using the tablet pen to highlight key points, through to going full chalk and talk with a deck of blank slides and writing it all out. I’ve done both and have decided that the method that best suits me is:

  • Powerpoints with any wordy bits done as text (eliminates issues with handwriting legibility)
  • Gaps to annotate, either entire slides or parts of slides. [Don’t try to cram your handwriting onto a slide that’s already ‘full’]
  • Larger spacing between lines of text or images that I may wish to highlight or annotate
  • Maths – work through with annotations but then have a version done in equation editor on a subsequent slide
  • Reaction schemes – allow plenty space
  • Graphs, spectra – make them full slide sized to allow drawing on them
  • Try to give slides a title in the title box to facilitate the use of screenreaders/prompt the students, however I’m not sure screenreaders can cope with the annotations anyway (but that is an issue with whiteboards or annotated slides).
Two headed arrow going left to right with 'highlight key points' on left and 'chalk 'n' talk technology style' on right. 'Replacing whiteboard use' in middle above arrow.
The extremes of tablet use: from simply highlighting key points on pre-prepared slides through to full on ‘Chalk ‘n’ talk’

It’s now just how I do things so it takes a bit of effort to consider the negatives or considerations you need to make. Firstly, you need the technology to project properly and effectively – you can’t rely on the podium PC as backup if you need to annotate. I’m fortunate that I’ve only had major technology issues twice (in 10 years), both where the VGA or HDMI cable was faulty. In one case there was a smart screen in the room that I could use to annotate, and the other time I couldn’t project at all so used the visualizer with my notes. Secondly, you need to make decisions about what happens to the annotated notes: do you make them available to students or not? And if you make them available, do you ‘clean them up’ a bit versus the live copy? I used to make them available (before we had campus wide lecture capture) but now I don’t: I expect my students to come to class with the ability to take notes as we go or to use the lecture capture to enhance those notes if needed: the tablet is not my way of taking notes for the students. You also need fairly legible handwriting and the ability to spell words properly without the benefit of autocorrect! Thirdly, it can get a bit uncomfortable hunching over the lectern to write on the slides: consider something to raise the screen up to a more comfortable standing-writing height.

From a technical standpoint, GoogleSlides permits very basic annotations on an iPad with pencil (highlighting) so you need to use PowerPoint (I haven’t tried Keynote but it’s probably similar or better) for proper annotating. I use the marker pen option and stick to dark coloured inks. Changing colour can disrupt the flow of the lecture (just as selecting a new pen could) so you need to allow time to get into the habit, and also work out how to erase lines. It takes a wee bit practice. It will also take time to figure out how to design the slides in a manner that suits how you want to use a tablet. Also, remember to save the annotations at the end of the lecture – you want to keep that copy! You may also find that you save time preparing the slides: you can just leave white space to draw a particularly complex scheme rather than wrangling software to get something that works. Partial diagrams and ‘fill in the blanks’ work really well.

These days I have a tablet PC (not the original although that’s still in use in the department) and it has sparked another change to my teaching: lecture capture. I sometimes use an iPad and Apple pencil which works well too. That’s a post for another day however.

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