Tag Archives: affordances

The Affordances of the Whiteboard

All too often, professors and administrators view educational technology as an expensive and specifically digital tool.  I prefer a broader definition and so for this blog, I argue that reconsidering the use of whiteboards is indicative of the ways in which educational technology can be repurposed and redefined—the tools should serve users rather than dictate uses.

The whiteboard in the Mac Lab, with student work displayed.

A student’s wireframe for a website can be marked up in a classroom critique.

In the Macintosh Computer Lab (Basil 101), we have several whiteboards and I put in the request a couple of years ago to have a whiteboard placed under the screen.  The request was questioned, and I made assurances that this was not a mistake.  Typically, one projects on the screen and then writes around it, but I (and others) find it often helpful to write on the display. Projecting onto a whiteboard has often proved invaluable for discussing designs or student writing with the entire class. (Of course, Smart Boards have this feature and also can save the written content.)

Similarly, I’m now teaching a programming class and I often need to explain to individual students concepts best clarified visually. For the first few weeks, I walked to the board, which was a distraction for other students working on their own projects and created physical and cognitive distance from the student needing help.  Other times, I would write in a student’s own notebook, which had the advantage of giving him or her a permanent record of our discussion, but didn’t allow the student to reproduce the drawing (which would help to solidify understanding) and led me to feel oddly intrusive—I was writing in the student’s notebook.

My Own Whiteboard

Translating coordinates from (0,0) on the x-y axis and then determining the x and y coordinates of a moving circle using the radius and angle of a right triangle.

Finally, I purchased my own paper-sized white board—the kind you stick to an office door.  Now, I have it with me during lab time and I can write all I want when working with a student one-to-one without wasting paper or using the student’s notebook pages.   It’s easy, personal and green.

Technology can work for you.  A technological affordance refers to a way in which particular technology can be used, and often a meaningful affordance differs from the officially described use.

Case in point: the college recently installed Vision Classroom Management Software in PC labs.  The company’s website emphasizes its classroom management functions over pedagogical advantages. Consider its harsh and somewhat alarmist tone: “[m]ake classroom screens go blank in a click, locking students’ keyboards and mice. Capture attention and stop all activity the instant you need to,” or, “[v]iew an expandable thumbnail image of each student’s screen on your computer, so you can follow their activities from your desk in real time.” These “opportunities” are questionable.  I’d rather walk among the students, observing first hand what they are doing; if I am standing at the teacher’s station, I’m not sure I want to be aware that one student is virtually sneaking off to a social media site.  It would be hard to ignore, and yet I’d hate to disrupt my own lecture and the collaborative tone of the class to take time to penalize that single individual.

Some features of the system do function reasonably: sending my screen out to all student screens while demoing a new technique is appealing and limits distraction in a non-threatening manner. However, much of the promotional wording takes a “lock down” approach, which I found eerily close to philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon (discussed almost two centuries later by Michel Foucault), whereby prisoners’ behavior is self-monitored through the fear of observation. While students self-policing may be effective, this prisoner metaphor creates a disconcerting mindset for a liberal arts classroom.

However, this particular problem can be resolved by imagining pedagogical uses.  I haven’t been able to put any into practice yet: I’m teaching this fall in the Mac Lab (as mentioned above), which does not yet have the software.  However, when I find myself in a PC lab, I will reconsider the Vision Classroom Management Software as a teaching tool which can facilitate more efficient design critiques and peer reviews of writing. Like my hand-held whiteboard, I prefer to think of Vision as flexible enough for creative uses (and in my humble opinion, the company should rewrite its website.)

Balancing a Pencil.

Before dismissing a given technology, we should imagine everything it can do. Rather than place emphasis on official recommendations, we would do well to reconsider affordances that can address our pedagogical needs and teaching styles.  A pencil can be used for writing.  It also can demonstrate how to distribute weight evenly, be used to estimate distances or be used to poke someone.  It’s our call.