Profs avoid SMARTs

SMART boards in classrooms, while technologically advanced, often pose more problems than they solve
SMART boards in classrooms, while technologically advanced, often pose more problems than they solve Photo by Esther Zuckerman.

Justin Neuman, an assistant professor of English, had Herculean plans for his first section of the “European Literary Tradition” this year.

He wanted to use a SMART Board in his Linsly-Chittenden Hall room to break apart the first verse of the Iliad. His idea was to display the passage on the interactive screen and use its various colored markers to annotate the lines.

But, alas, as students filed in, the markers would not sing — or write — for Neuman. He called Media Services and alerted his students that he was “troubleshooting some technology.” All the while, he was keeping the rage of Achilles in check.

After a technician came and could not fix the screen, Neuman declared, jokingly, that the inkless pens “must be out of ink.” Not even the will of Zeus, it seemed, could make those pens write.

But what about the will of Yale’s tech gods?

SMART Boards, which connect to regular computers and allow users to edit documents on the larger screen with stylus-type markers, came to Yale about four years ago as a high-tech alternative to chalkboards. There are currently about a dozen of the machines, which cost about $12,000 each, scattered in classrooms across Central Campus.

The challenge for proponents of technology at Yale, now that the boards are in place, is to teach instructors how to operate them. While a handful of professors have made a point of learning to use the boards’ more advanced features, most are either unaware of the new technology or unable to use it, said Pam Patterson, a senior instructional technologist with Yale’s Information Technology Services division.

Members of the English Department decided to take things into their own hands at the start of the semester. Neuman organized a meeting with Patterson, which took place on Aug. 27. Six professors attended the class, which was held in LC, the department’s home and also the home of three shiny new SMART Boards installed over the summer and three older ones.

The goal was simple, Neuman said: to make the teachers comfortable with the boards so they could use them without making the use of the boards itself a distraction.

“The best kind of technology will be the invisible kind of technology,” Neuman explained in an interview before his decidedly opaque encounter with the SMART Board in class. “You want, to the extent possible, your technological prosthetics to fade into the background.”

That task falls to people like Patterson, who said she meets with some new members of the English Department every year to teach them how to use the SMART Boards. The workshop that she gives to the English Department is unusual, however. Typically she works individually with professors — especially in language departments such as the Spanish Department — who ask her for help.

Either way, she said that most professors she deals with just want to project images onto a screen.

“We can probably go back in a year and maybe two of them will have used [the boards],” said Patterson, who noted that students may be more familiar with the boards than professors because the technology has been widely adopted in K-12 classrooms.

Pedro Monroy, who oversees classroom media services at Yale, added that he does not get many requests from professors asking that SMART Boards be added to their classrooms across campus.

That’s an unfortunate commentary for a technology in which Yale has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the boards, some of which are outfitted with rear-projection technology, were originally seen as a cheaper alternative to costly overhead projectors in LC, they have appeared in other locations such as Sterling Memorial Library alongside those projectors.

Patterson, for her part, acknowledged that the boards require professors to rethink the way they teach their classes. For this reason, technology is often a tough sell at Yale; her department stopped holding general lessons for faculty across the University before SMART Boards even came to campus because of lack of interest, she added.

That said, many professors’ technological interests lie in areas other than writing on a SMART Board. The Instructional Technology Group is helping English professors build WordPress blogs for their classes, Patterson said. Neuman proudly displayed a blog he had set up for his seminar on the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.

Still, English lecturer Deborah Tenney, who is teaching two sections of English 114 this semester, said the SMART Boards have changed the way she teaches, making her classes more visual. She said she now shows movie clips and images in addition to recording class discussion on the board, features which other English professors have expressed interest in.

Other professors, though, including Anne Fadiman, Yale’s Francis writer-in-residence and adjunct English professor, are content to teach with just chalk and a blackboard and a dozen students gathered around a table.

Asked why she doesn’t use a SMART Board, Fadiman replied in an e-mail message, “They’re too smart for me.”

Comments

  • Interesting

    “The Instructional Technology Group is helping English professors build WordPress blogs for their classes, Patterson said. Neuman proudly displayed a blog he had set up for his seminar on the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.”

    This success of blogs as an instructional device looks like a story worth exploring. Why has the blog done so well relative to the SMART board for many English professors? Is this success an example of actual fulfillment of the promise of blogs as early conceived, or does this reflect a change in a particular group’s expectations of blogs. And in that light, do tools such as blogs have a useful “flexibility” that allows them to be adapted better to various needs than say a piece of hardware like the SMART board (and was this a result of a stricter vision of purpose), or is there unexplored flexibility in the SMART technology (it’s connected to a computer, after all.)
    The quote: “Patterson, for her part, acknowledged that the boards require professors to rethink the way they teach their classes. For this reason, technology is often a tough sell at Yale; her department stopped holding general lessons for faculty across the University before SMART Boards even came to campus because of lack of interest, she added,” is particularly interesting as it appears to reflect a one-sided version of technological innovation, which may not take full advantage of the opportunity tech advances might offer. That is, should the SMART board vision itself also be altered to accommodate teaching, as well as teaching style being altered to accommodate the technology in a back-and-forth of adaptation (a process of which the blog may proved an informative example;) has University IT given up on the SMART board because of a rigid notion of the SMART board’s function and a resultant lack of faculty interest without really attempting to see if that vision can be changed in a way to maximize the utility of these devices?

    Old Blue ’84

  • anon

    SMART Boards aren’t worth the effort. A Spanish professor of mine spends more time figuring out the device than using it!

  • ITS

    The article focuses on the interactive aspect of the SMART boards and seems to gloss over the fact that most were installed as more economical and less destructive Audio/Video solutions compared with standard projectors/speaker installations. In fact, in LC the wood work is so intricate it would be sacrilegious to drill holes for AV cables.

    As far as adopting the technology for instruction, the professor should go with what feels most productive for him/her. Technology should never be anything more than a tool.