Saturday, 8 November 2014

Writing Surfaces in Lecture Theatres. A Contentious Matter.

First off I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to writing surfaces. I am opposed to writing surfaces that do not meet their primary objective i.e. that  ALL the audience can see what has been written.

The topic of writing surfaces and their usefulness in mid size and large lecture theatres raises its head on a regular basis. I often see this crop up on the SCHOMS forum and on the lecture theatre managers forum

The most contentious question is can all the students see what is being written?
Well today I entered a lecture theatre to find a lot of maths on a board left there by a previous lecturer, (I will come back to that) the dry wipe whiteboard is wide and can be raised so there are no obstructions. As the 172 capacity theatre filled, from the back as they usually do, I decided to ask who could read what was on the board easily, in my opinion if there is any eyestrain it is not working, all students in the back four rows said they had difficulty reading what was written.

Prior to the technological revolution in teaching spaces there were few, if any, alternatives, this is no longer the case.  We have interactive monitors, document cameras, even mobile devices that can be written on and the writing projected onto a large screen, using these methods the material can be recorded if a suitable system is in use.

So why do some lecturers continue to use this method of teaching in larger rooms which is detrimental to some students, in this case about 20% of the class, and why do the students not complain?

It is possible to  install cameras focusing onto the whiteboards to capture what is being written and relay that to the projection screen but I have other issues around this.
When writing on the board the lecturer has his or her back to the class, if they are talking and have decided not to use the microphone what is being said may not be heard, when they are writing what is being written is obscured by the lecturer. Now I know and accept that this was how it was done previously but we can now do it much better in the knowledge that all can see and hear the material, and it can be saved.

Writing surfaces in smaller rooms do not suffer from the same  problems and have a more legitimate case to be installed, in fact for group work several could be required.

I know I am not the only learning space designer frustrated by this resistance to use the better methods available to us but why can we not persuade the hard core academic community to change their methods for the benefit of the students and themselves.

I have never had a satisfactory answer from an academic when debating this matter and the one reply that gets my blood boiling is "it was good enough for me".

Mathematicians are notorious for wanting to retain walls full of chalk boards and white boards but I am working with a mathematician who teaches by walking around the lecture theatre using a Samsung tablet connected to the AV system wirelessly via a dongle and uses this as his writing surface so I know things can change if only people give it a go.

Oh and going back to the writing I came across, why can't people clean the boards prior to leaving? It's the polite thing to do!


  1. Sure. The answer "it was good enough for me" (having the boards) is frustrating indeed. But..., what that brave lecturer would do in a lecture room full of his/her students without the boards (will disappear immediately!!! agree?) with one big screen for a projector with a tablet in his/her hands and... with a small technical problem related to ... software, hardware, electricity,... (that being not so rare nowadays). And you have only a few lectures to deliver your duty ...

    1. You make a fair point but my point is that some still use writing surfaces as the modus operandi when it is not appropriate to do so and alternatives are available.

  2. Yes, agree. BUT :) the solution should be different (at least I can see it in this way):

    NOT to use this or that method INSTEAD of the other one, BUT... to complement them giving wider range of opportunities where it is only possible!

    What is the difference if you have also those BOARDS instead of the EMPTY WALLS???

    Try to persuade your estate people that BOTH methods are necessary and crucial. Please NOT to push your beautiful agenda with the flying things :) ... Time to time they are NOT and we need to deliver anyway...

    I guess :) those new things will make money for some companies :) ... taking simultaneously (to balance the sheet) one or two lecturer positions from the innovative people...

    Very best wishes

    1. I install writing surfaces in all rooms because I need to cater for those that still use them. My point is that in some locations some of the audience us too far away to see what is written. In what way is that good practice?

  3. For sure ;). And in those location students should have their lecture if electricity has been switched off for some reason not mentioning the broken tablet.

    If we have several boards there simultaneously and one can jump to one of them during the performance :) to show something even not less efficient on that board what would be a harm for innovation? On the other hand, I cannot see any harm from those facilities you mentioned for those dinosaurs using only the old fashioned methods. My point is also simple. University is a flexible place it is not something from the PF WALL album :).


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