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.”