I think most teachers would agree that technological breakthroughs have changed the modern classroom for the better. Such innovations have added many tools to the teacher’s toolbox that have changed the way we teach, the way students learn, and how we communicate with our students. Even though many of these benefits are obvious to me now, that was not always the case. It took some time for me to discover technologies that worked for the content I teach. Chemistry involves solving equations, drawing complicated chemical structures, and properly writing reaction mechanisms. These kinds of drawing and writing skills are also important in other disciplines, such as mathematics, engineering, physics, and art. In such disciplines, it is critical that students learn to be proficient at these tasks by doing them. I always relate practical skills such as drawing and writing to carpentry – you have to hammer more than a few nails to learn the trade.
A perfect time to combine the teaching and practice of these basic skills is during class. Writing and drawing complicated structures and processes while students do the same gives them the opportunity to learn the proper technique through imitation. Early in my career, I taught these skills using chalk talks. As new technology evolved, projectors and computers became a normal part of every classroom, often at the expense of blackboard space. As a result, PowerPoint presentations were more commonplace. In my case, however, digital slide presentations just didn’t have the same teaching power as lessons done by hand. I was forced to look for other ways to present the material and, in hindsight, couldn’t be happier that I did. Thanks to advances in tablet computing and drawing software, I finally found a digital classroom that works for me. I couldn’t imagine going back to the old blackboard.
I now teach primarily on a tablet computer with OneNote installed. Everything I draw on the tablet is projected on a large screen at the front of the room. With all the variations in pen color and style, such presentations can be made attractive and colorful. This digital blackboard provides many advantages over the traditional one.
- The tactile feedback of the screen is very much like a thick pad of paper. The result is a more natural drawing surface and better drawings than on a traditional board.
- A wide variety of colors and line thicknesses results in cleaner drawings that are easier to interpret for students. It also allows the use of color to focus attention on a specific part of the drawing.
- Everything written on the screen can be saved as a PDF file and placed online for the student to access later. I also keep a record of every lecture that I do. After class, I will annotate the lecture to remind myself of things I want to change for next semester. This has helped me a great deal in assessing and improving my teaching.
- Integrating other technologies is easy. I often use computational software, chemical modeling software to demonstrate molecules in 3-D, and spreadsheets to teach the handling of large data sets. Switching between the various packages is seamless.
- The tablet can also be used for group activities in which students come to the front of the classroom to solve team problems.
If you are like me and must teach material that involves drawing complicated images during class and you feel trapped on the blackboard, then give the tablet computer a try. If you do, I strongly advise that you use a tablet with a screen that works with an active stylus rather than with a passive one. Whereas an active screen responds only to the stylus, a passive screen responds only to touch. Some modern devices respond to both methods of input but give priority to the pen. These devices are ideal for the classroom. All iPads and similar devices have passive screens and are not the best for drawing.
“As a teacher of writing, I also like to incorporate drawing into students’ learning processes. However, rather than students’ observing me draw, as Neil Gray describes here, I ask them to visually depict their writing process. Using a low-tech approach, I bring in large pads of paper and markers and give them a seemingly simple prompt: “Draw your writing process.” Some students jump in while others struggle to get started. Some draw a literal depiction with them walking to the library, sitting at a desk, and working on their laptop. Some take a more creative approach, depicting their process as a car trip, a movie, or a rocket launch to the International Space Station.
When everyone has finished their drawing, students are invited to walk around the room and look at everyone’s. After, they are asked to discuss their observations – what seemed common, what was unique, what are they interested in knowing more about, what activities are productive and which seem less so? The activity is concluded with a writing activity.
I’ve also used this activity with graduate students who will become teachers of writing. The biggest take away for this group is how no two writing processes are the same, an important realization before they ask their own students to write.”