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Professors yearn for blackboards in era of technology

BY MAX FREUND | DECEMBER 01, 2010 7:20 AM

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Electrical sockets poke out of the thick gray carpet, awaiting 20 sleek computers. Two pristine new projectors hang from the ceiling. But amid the shiny and new elements of the soon-to-open math tutoring lab are pieces of technology hundreds of years old — blackboards.

And they aren't going anywhere.

"They have served a very useful purpose for an incredibly long time," University of Iowa mathematics professor Keith Stroyan said, gesturing at a large 100-year-old board stuck to his office wall.

Stroyan's office holds two slate boards, a third sits in pieces in the closet. Orange glue is hardened on the back — a testament to its rough departure from the wall when Stroyan saved the board from the trash.

"The point is they work, and marker boards do not," he said. "Why throw away a slate chalkboard? It is wasteful."

It's a sentiment echoed by several others across numerous departments — blackboards just work better. But for others, chalk holds a special place in their heart.

"Back in the 1930s, when I was a student in Cleveland, Ohio, you were honored when the teacher asked you to stay after school and clap the erasers," said UI art and art history Professor Virginia Myers, an almost 50-year-veteran of the UI. "There was this humanistic dimension that is a very important key … As soon as you lose that humanistic dimension, you have lost the most important tool of all time."

Some don't care what they write on. But Stroyan's defense of the boards, and his efforts to ensure their place in the new lab — which is relocating to the first floor of MacLean Hall — is tied to their functionality, a reality other professors miss.

"I am not happy," said UI English Associate Professor Linda Bolton, referring to the switch from black to whiteboards throughout the English-Philosophy Building. "I can never get that ghost of the writing off the whiteboard," she said.

Professors complain about the difficulty of finding markers that work and the need to clean the whiteboards with a special solution after frequent use.

But cost can be one of the barriers for keeping classroom walls lined with the smooth black surfaces for students to scribble on.

Rob Oman, a customer-service representative for ERGO In Demand — a Oregon-based company that sells black- and whiteboards — said the slate blackboards are no longer sold, and the porcelain-coated 8-foot-by-4-foot chalk boards cost $514; whiteboards of the same size cost $370.

Many of the UI's new or remodeled buildings are receiving whiteboards instead of blackboards, while the university is pushing to integrate more technology in the classroom. By the spring, the UI will have four high-tech "Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage" classrooms, one of which is attached to the new tutoring lab and another of which is open in the Main Library.

Accompanying the blackboards, the lab will be outfitted with group tables, perfect for four-person study sections, mathematics literature, and teaching assistants on hand to help students with their problems, said Yi Li, the head of the mathematics department. And while Li said officials decided to keep blackboards because they are best way to "exchange an idea spontaneously," English Professor Bonnie Sunstein said blackboards may hold a deeper significance to mathematicians.

"There are cultural artifacts that we work with … and for English professors, that is books," she said. "There is something about the connection people make to their material artifacts that creates their history, so it is not a surprise the math department doesn't want to get rid of its blackboards. Think of all the great thinking that gets done on those boards."


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