Archive for blackboards

In Defence of Blackboards

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on August 21, 2022 by telescoper
Lecturing from Home

I wasn’t very surprised to find that the large lecture theatres in the swanky new building at Maynooth University are not equipped with chalkboards, as I had been told that the powers-that-be were finding it difficult to “source” boards of the appropriate size. I was more surprised and disappointed to find that none of the smaller teaching rooms have blackboards either; the best they have is very small whiteboards which are useless for teaching mathematical subjects.

I know people think I am very old fashioned in persistently using a chalkboard (a better word than “blackboard” as many chalkboards are actually dark green). They also find it quite amusing that I bought one especially so I could do lectures during the pandemic from home using it. One reason for that is that it’s far easier to get a decent contrast on camera than using a whiteboard. I also find that standing up and walking around allows me to communicate more effectively, at a decent pace and with a reasonable amount of energy which made the lectures from home a little less unbearable to give and, hopefully, to watch. Here’s the green blackboard in my office that I used to give some lectures during lockdown:

The very chalky chalkboard in my office on campus

It was never the intention of course that the board in my office would be used for lecturing. We have such things to facilitate the communication of ideas during a discussion by scribbling mathematical expressions or diagrams.

I found some time ago an article about why Mathematics professors at Stanford University still use chalkboards. I agree with everything in it. The renowned Perimeter Institute in Canada and the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge also have blackboards, not only in teaching rooms but also in corridors and offices to encourage scientific discussions.

For teaching I think the most important thing for the students in a lecture on a subject like theoretical physics to see a calculation as a process unfolding step-by-step as you explain the reasoning, rather than being presented in complete form which suggests that it should be memorized rather than understood. Far too many students come to university with the impression that their brain is just a memory device. I fill it’s our job as lecturers to encourage students develop genuine problem-solving skills. The example in the first picture above – Gaussian Elimination – is a good illustration of this. Most of my colleagues in Theoretical Physics and in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics seem to prefer chalkboards too, no doubt for similar reasons.

I know that many in Senior Management think of us as dinosaurs for clinging to “old technology” but the fact is that new technology isn’t always better technology. Whiteboards are just awful. As well as being impossible to read in a large room or to record from, the marker pens are expensive, filled with nasty solvent, and impossible to recycle when empty. Unfortunately the purveyors of these items seem to have cornered the market I hate whiteboards so much I call them shiteboards.

Anyway, with the new academic year due to start in a month, and there being no likely resolution of the accommodation crisis, it looks like many students will be unable to attend lectures in person. It doesn’t matter whether rooms have blackboards or whiteboards or enhanced multimedia digital display screens if the students can’t get to the campus…

Chalk and Talk

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 22, 2021 by telescoper

Today is the last day of teaching ahead of next week’s mid-term break. As it happens I did two consecutive lectures from 11-1 today instead of the usual one from 12-1 because of a rearrangement necessitated by a staff absence. I don’t mind admitting that I’m looking forward to a bit of a pause during Study Week, before embarking on the remaining 7 teaching weeks of the Semester.

The room I give my 12-1 lecture in has a chalkboard but the one for the 11-12 slot only has a whiteboard. The downside of the whiteboard is that it is almost impossible to make a lecture recording because the contrast is too low. I was happy to move to the usual room for the second one, which isn’t great either but at least has a decent blackboard.

A still from one of last year’s Engineering Maths lectures from home…

I know people think I am very old fashioned in persistently using a chalkboard. They also find it quite amusing that I bought one especially so I could do lectures from home using it. It’s far easier to get a decent contrast than using a whiteboard and I find that standing up and walking around allows me to communicate more effectively, at a decent pace and with a reasonable amount of energy. Most importantly of all I think it’s important for the students to see a process unfolding.

It’s proving much more difficult to provide decent quality lecture recordings on campus than at home because of the lack of decent camera facilities, but I’m doing the best I can.

Anyway, I was pleased to find a recent article about why Mathematics professors at Stanford University still use chalkboards. I agree with everything in it and will continue to use chalk and talk as long as I can. The way things are going with Covid-19 I may even be using the one at home again before too long…