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Currently, there is some talk in my university concerning a change in our lecture rooms from blackboards to smartboards (or other alternatives, such as a smart podium). For that reason, I'm interested in the following:

  1. Do you have experience in teaching math using smartboards, as opposed to blackboards? Good/bad/...
  2. Do you have (second-hand) experience in teaching non-math courses using smartboards?
  3. Is the size of the group of students relevant for deciding to upgrade to smartboards?
  4. What is the general preference of students in this matter?
  5. Are there interesting alternatives (other than blackboards or smartboards)? Also alternatives which do not yet exist may be posted, if reasonably feasible.

I decided to post the question here, as I can imagine that similar discussions are being held at other institutions (and the outcome may have a profound influence on how we teach math in the near or distant future).

[Some more background: the specific lecture room we are talking about at my university has a capacity of 450 students; it is currently equipped with 9 big black boards (in rows of 3), all of which can be shown simultaneously as the room is quite high. There is also a beamer which can be used if one lowers the 3 blackboards in the middle, leaving 6 others for simultaneous use with the beamer. A typical course in this room is for 250 up to 450 engineering students - so not for mathematicians]

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For the sake of generations of future students: Please convince your university that often more technology ist not better, but the worst thing that can happen. This also summarizes my opinion (formed by active and passive experience) on smartboards. –  Abel Stolz Jun 10 '13 at 13:45
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I'm surely old-fashioned, but in my humble opinion nothing is better for teaching maths than the dear, old blackboard. –  Francesco Polizzi Jun 10 '13 at 13:47
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”Beamer” actually does not mean “projector” in English. –  The User Jun 10 '13 at 14:40
    
I gave a talk on delta-epsilon at my old high school to inspire the kids... I could barely write on this pixelated abomination. Ewewewew. –  Seraj Jun 15 '13 at 1:55
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7 Answers

I have taught on smartboard, and I was very happy with the outcome.

Warning:
There were a lot of tools that I only learned to master after 3 months of using. So you can only fully appreciate the smartboard once you've seen its full strength.

Here are some examples of stuff you can do:

• You can select a piece of text and drag it somewhere.
• You can select a piece of text and shrink it so that it fits in a corner.
• You can copy paste.
• You can go back to a previous page.
• You can prepare something (e.g. a graph) in advance.
• Open an internet page and write on top of it: e.g. suppose the page contains some formulas, then you can circle a formula in red to emphasize it.

These little things can be of great use. Say you don't want to erase an important definition. Then you shrink it to a corner, and go on writing in the middle. In that way, the definition always remains visible.

Also, you can easily save each class as a file, and make it available to the students.


Overall, I think that:
- A good teacher can improve his teaching by using a smartboard.
- For bad teacher, a smartboard can make things even worse.

At any rate, there is a learning process, which lasts at least several months before one gets used to the technology, and before one really understands all the possibilities of the smartboard.

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This is a late comment inspired by the fact that my university has just build two giant new lecture theatres with no (non-smart) boards in it - I feel that you make a great case for the presence of a smart board, but not for replacing blackboards by smart boards. It's good to be able to do the things you say when you want to, but for the rest of the time you're stuck with far less of your lecture visible at one time than would be possible with blackboards. Much better to have both options available so you can use them in conjunction with one another. –  Matt Pressland Oct 8 '13 at 14:21
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While I haven't taught maths using smartboards, I have been taught some, so my experience with that may still be relevant to you. In my case it really was a board, which the lecturer writes on in the same way as a blackboard or whiteboard - I'm not sure if some things might be a little different with a smart podium.

Overall, my experience of it was not particularly positive. The board seemed to be very difficult to write clearly on (all of the lecturers I had complained of this) and having seen two of the lecturers give talks with a blackboard I can be sure that the board itself really was making a difference to their handwriting. This is something that might be better on a podium, but you should probably try one out to see.

The other big problem is how little you can see at any one time - the amount that you can write on one "slide" on the smartboard is already less than can be written on an average sized blackboard, and we could only see two pages at once (this already requires two projectors and some setup - the default situation is probably only being able to see the page being written on). If you were using the blackboards in the room you describe I'd guess that the audience could probably see at least half the lecture all at once, which is much more helpful.

In our case, the reason for the smartboard is that the lecture was being broadcast to five institutions simultaneously (including the one it was actually happening in), and using a smartboard was the easiest way to transmit the content of the board - the video stream had too low a resolution to be able to read from. Unless you want to do this, I'd stick with the black/whiteboards.

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I teach using beamer slides. Our lecture rooms have a thing called Sympodium (from smarttech.com) which means you can write on the monitor with a kind of stylus and annotations appear on top of your slides. I find this occasionally useful for correcting typos but generally I don't like it. The writing is always large and untidy. If you have beamer slides that display in several steps, then the annotations disappear when you move to the next step.

If you want to display handwriting through a projector, you can write with real ink on real paper under a document camera/visualiser. I find that that works much better than any purely electronic system that I have seen.

I know that a lot of people have a strong preference for blackboards instead of slides, and I agree that some of the reasons they give are valid. However, I personally find it much easier to keep everything well organised with slides.

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Even though I voted to close (this question seems to me both off topic and subjective and argumentative), here is a kind of generic answer about the use of techonology in classrooms:

  • if you have a clear idea about how you're gonna use it and if it has some useful feature that are not already available, then it is worth trying.
  • but if the plan is to buy a very expensive gadget just because it's new, then I would recommend to avoid it.

My point is that one shouldn't be "Pro" or "Con": one should be very pragmatic and simply think about what one needs.

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I suggest discussing whether this question is ok on meta. I think it's fine, and that you feel inclined to answer it productively is an argument against closing it. –  Douglas Zare Jun 10 '13 at 14:47
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An answer to 5: "Are there interesting alternatives (other than blackboards or smartboards)?":

Another possibility is using a tablet pc with an active digitizer (not the customary iPad-like tablet - writing on those is a pain) or a graphic tablet/stylus solution.

After you invest some time in it, there are several benefits. Apart from the ability of recording one's lectures, one can teach sitting and facing the students rather than the blackboard, copy and paste previous material, easily make drawings with straight lines and circles.

You can find an example of a a Calculus course taught this way (pdf and avi) by an excellent teacher that knows how to use this technology here (in Italian; Google-translated version of the page here).

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@Federico: Why do you say that using an iPad is a pain? I have never tried to connect it to a projector, but I use it as tablet+stylus for taking notes during talks or simply when working on my own, and I find the result really good, both in terms of easiness of use and readability of the output. –  Filippo Alberto Edoardo Jun 15 '13 at 5:28
    
(1) worse writing quality than an active digitizer, especially for writing in smaller sizes --- and if you use it as a blackboard, you need to write small (2) can't disable touch input; this leads to spurious inputs whenever a part of your body other than the pen touches the iPad. You might get used to that, but if you give the tablet to, say, a student, they won't be able to get good results without some training. Of course, I realize that this might just be a pet peeve of mine after years of habit with active-digitizer tablets, but at least it's an opinion that is shared by several [...] –  Federico Poloni Jun 15 '13 at 10:20
    
colleagues where I work. And @GMark below writes exactly the same thing. –  Federico Poloni Jun 15 '13 at 10:21
    
Oh, and (3) 9.7'' feels a tad too small to use it as a blackboard substitute. How many lines of text can you fit on it? –  Federico Poloni Jun 15 '13 at 10:22
    
Regarding the Ipad one cannot in my experience get the same sort of precision: try to write a subscript of a subscript for example (at normal writing size). The typical pen sold (aftermarket) for the Ipad has a very fat end (it's just replacing your finger) so it's not too surprising. Like writing with the eraser end of the pencil instead of the lead end. –  GMark Jun 15 '13 at 15:18
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I have never used a smartboard myself, however:

  • I attended a lecture where the lecturer used a touchscreen and his writing got projected using a “normal” (not short-distance) video projector. He used “Microsoft OneNote”. It was horrible, he had always trouble when trying to correct things, often he had to rewrite his words because of small mistakes, or he triggered undesirable “features” of the software. I would even prefer overhead projectors using foils.
  • In another lecture the lecturer had to use (other rooms were not available because of repairs) pen and paper and there was a camera recording the writing (and the hands of the lecturer), then it got redirected to a video projector. There was really embarrasing, since there was not enough space and I do not see any benefits compared to blackboards.

Regarding smartboards I only have second-hand information: There is not enough space and the detection of the writing is very slow and inaccurate. It is hard to correct your writing because of the inaccuracy, thus you often have to start over with your word.

I definitely prefer blackboards—if you have an arrangement of nine blackboards you have enough room for everything you need. You can easily correct what you have written. You are flexible, you can even use colours. If you need some material you do not want to write live (or some graphics etc.) you can additionally use a video projector (or sometimes an overhead projector might be sufficient). Whiteboards are also fine, it might be a bit more comfortable to write on them, but I prefer blackboards, but that is probably a matter of taste.

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Yes, there are effective (but not perfect) alternatives to a black/white/smart boards.

I use a tablet PC (actual tablet PC with digital pen) (not an Ipad, see below) hooked up to an data projector. "Templates" for the lecture are distributed (via website) prior to the lecture, so students can print them off and bring them, and I use exactly those slides (as pdfs) and annotate them during the lecture.

The advantage is that one can have copying-intensive material already on the template: quick reviews of previously covered material, statements of theorems, complex diagrams and graphs that would be troublesome and time consuming to create in real time. Below a statement of a problem to be solved, or theorem to be proved, there's plenty of white space so that I can write the solution/proof etc and the students generally do the same on their version. The students are very enthusiastic about it, saying it allows them to think, rather than copy things down, and like the fact that there's a record of the whole lecture which can be posted later.

The quality of the handwriting is very good, as good as pen on paper. It would not be on an Ipad (I've tried) which was not set up for use of a pen; the result there is very clumsy.

A disadvantage of the system is that one does not have the massively parallel aspect of multiple boards. One can easily scroll back to refer to something already done, but sometimes it's nice to be able to point to two or three things at once.

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