Oct 31 2006

Professors and Students: Do You Prefer LCD Panels or Whiteboards?

Interactive presentation panels help the University of the Incarnate Word increase classroom interaction and remain competitive when recruiting students.

To all the skulls, fairies, goblets of poison and other standard fare in Shakespearean productions, add one more: portable LCD panels. For years, colleges and universities across the country have incorporated electronic whiteboards in their classrooms as digital replacements for traditional pen-and-ink whiteboards. But now, as interactive LCD-based panels become easier to use, professors are finding new and more creative ways to use the technology.

At the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, the fourth largest private faith-based school in the state, theatre students use 15-inch presentation panels to help them learn the intricacies of Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Bryn Jameson, assistant professor of theatre arts, presents the bard's verse on an interactive panel and then asks students to mark the beats and identify the rhythms of the classic poetry using a panel stylus.

How do these budding drama kings and queens react to the new technology? "'Cool' is the word I hear,” Jameson says. “This is certainly more visually useful than just a blackboard.”

The screens are also employed in other institutional venues. The school bought 32 interactive panels (at $1,900 each), including 29 for new classrooms in the math, science and engineering building. Faculty from all departments periodically reserve the remaining units to meet their special needs.

The university's strategy for using the panels is twofold. First, it believes the technology can bring about higher levels of class interaction and collaboration among students and teachers. The second mission is an even greater one: State-of-the-art technology helps the school remain competitive when recruiting students.

“The panels are part of a bigger effort to move the university forward,” notes Sara Boettcher, the director of instructional technology at Incarnate Word and a proponent of the presentation panels. “Competition for high-ability students in San Antonio is growing, and we need to be as innovative as possible in our recruitment of students, as well as in ways to engage and retain them.”

Easy Does It

Large electronic whiteboards and smaller 15- and 17-inch panels have been around for years, but for much of that time they were as difficult to grapple with as VCR clocks. Given a choice between firing up an electronic presentation panel versus popping the cap off a marker and attacking a traditional whiteboard, faculty and administrators often chose the analog alternative.

Market research by panel vendors quantified this problem. PolyVision, a panel producer headquartered in Suwanee, Ga., analyzed 3,000 hours of videotaped meetings and came to the conclusion that difficult-to-use electronic whiteboards usually sat idle in classrooms and conference rooms.

The current generation of electronic panels are easier to install and use. At Incarnate Word, the audiovisual department simply connects a PC's monitor cable to the back of the panel and then runs a quick software setup program before Romeo and Juliet or some trigonometry equations pop up on the interactive screen. “It's not rocket science,” Boettcher says.

Although interactive panels are specialized technology products targeted primarily for education and presentation applications, they benefit from advances in mass-market notebook and Tablet PC designs, says Chris Connery, vice president with LCD market research firm DisplaySearch, an NPD Group company in Austin, Texas. “Ease of use gets better each year,” he says.

The panels may become more economical in the months ahead, too. Consumer interest in large-screen PC and TV LCD screens is spurring manufacturers to build more production plants worldwide. As this occurs, LCD supplies for niche markets, such as education, also increase.

Answering Skeptics

Most of the instructors at Incarnate Word are embracing these new teaching tools. The eyes of faculty who use this technology “light up because the panels can be used in any number of new ways,” Boettcher says.

For Absael Antelo, a visiting associate professor in the School of Education's graduate program, this means a new approach to class preparation. “When I'm planning for an upcoming presentation, I spend time thinking about adding comments, notations or drawings,” he says. “I may decide to add an illustration during the class that wasn't included in the original PowerPoint. That's a very good feature; it attracts attention and can be very motivating for students.”

Antelo's now considering going a step further by incorporating video clips of interviews with experts relevant to a presentation's topic. “My students will also use the system in their own presentations in class,” he adds.

Theatre instructor Jameson uses the panels in her voice and speech class to help students get up to speed with the International Phonetic Alphabet–both the process and results. “They have to learn to write a whole new alphabet, and I have them transcribe a text passage using the panel so that everyone can see how they do it,” Jameson explains.

In the past, Jameson used a traditional whiteboard or a blackboard for these types of lessons, but finds the digital alternative much more effective. “It's a lot easier to see [notations] because of the different color options available from the electronic pen and highlighter tool,” Jameson says. “And I can have one person do an analysis, then wipe out the markings and have someone else try their version. I think it really engages the class's interest.”

In the future, she plans to use the screens for script analysis. “I'll display some text on the board and have a student break it down in terms of beats or write notes about objectives and actions. Different actors have different takes on a script. So each student can add ideas in a different color, and the class can talk about the differences and what effect those different choices would create.”

Other instructors, however, have been slow to adopt the new technology and continue to rely on traditional overhead projectors and whiteboards. To encourage them, Boettcher focuses on engendering new technology-driven teaching methods. “I can teach them the ‘how to' of using the panels easily, but getting each faculty person to change the way he or she teaches is a whole different aspect,” she says.

Boettcher is proactively engaging skeptics by organizing small group discussions designed to introduce the technology through brainstorming and teaching theories. “Getting them talking to each other works well because, as professional educators, they all have lots of good ideas,” Boettcher says. “When I build in time during the technology training for sharing teaching ideas, the [faculty members] get motivated and excited about their content.”

She also acts as a role model by using the interactive panels in training presentations that are not directly related to teaching the basics of presentation panels.

As additional instructors become confident in using electronic panels, the university will evaluate how much of a return it's getting on its technology investment. Electronic panels alone may not convince students and parents that the University of the Incarnate Word provides a more engaging experience than competing schools, but it may be an important piece of the puzzle. After all, this year's enrollment of 5,217 students ranks as the highest in the university's 124-year history.

Three Must-Have Functions

When Sara Boettcher shops for updated technology, her must-have list includes these three qualifiers: ease of use, portability and full electronic whiteboard features.

1. Ease of use: The old electronic whiteboards at the school required faculty or AV staff to download custom software whenever the boards were connected to a computer. “It was a major download, and some days took longer than others” because of Internet traffic, Boettcher recalls.

The new panels use thumb-sized USB drives that connect to the PC's USB port and load any necessary software drivers, a process that takes only about a minute, she says.

2. Portability: Because not all of the panels would be dedicated permanently to a classroom, Boettcher sought panels the faculty could easily move around. That requirement turned her away from the larger-sized whiteboard products on the market. “We wanted something that had the same features as a full-sized whiteboard, but that came in a more portable size,” Boettcher says.

At just over 10 pounds, the screens met that requirement. But compactness also presented a drawback: The small display area wasn't appropriate for a classroom setting.

To compensate, the university runs two cables from the classroom PCs–one to the electronic panel, the other to ceiling-mounted projectors that capture screen displays and reproduce them on a wall screen. “We run cables from the projector down to a wall plate, and from there we'll run a cord to the computer,” Boettcher explains.

3. Features: The 15-inch LCD models Boettcher eventually chose filled the features requirement: Students and teachers can annotate anything being displayed on screen. “If the PC is connected to the Web, instructors can circle areas of a Web page they want to highlight,” she explains. “And they can use a mouse or [electronic] pen to follow links on the page, or close one and open a new one. They can even pause displays, so if they're showing a movie, they might pause a certain clip and use the pen to highlight an area. There are many different ways of interacting with the panels depending on the content instructors want to show.”

Solving Challenges

Challenge: Faculty technology skeptics
Symptom: Won't part with traditional whiteboards, blackboards and overhead projectors
Solution: Divide and conquer: Organize them into small groups to gradually introduce the technology and brainstorm about new teaching methods

Challenge: Panel setup difficulties
Symptom: Configuring panels and PCs is a tedious, time-consuming process
Solution: Choose panels that support quick downloads from portable thumb drives

Challenge: Enrollment competition from other schools
Symptom: Not netting your fair share of parent and student comparison shoppers
Solution: Use attention-grabbing flat panels to demonstrate your commitment to innovation and leading-edge educational tools

University of the Incarnate Word

Location: San Antonio, Texas
Founded: 1881 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word
Enrollment: 5,217
History: The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word came from France to San Antonio in 1869 at the request of the Catholic Bishop, Claude Dubuis, to care for the victims of an epidemic of cholera and to establish the city's first hospital.

Alan Joch is a New Hampshire-based writer.