Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Dust in the Wind
Which of the following represents the greatest danger to the equipment in high-tech “smart” classrooms?
a. obsolescence, since technology moves so quickly
b. chalk dust getting in the vents
d. ever-shifting ADA requirements
The correct answer is b. But b is harder to remedy than one might think.
Tearing out chalkboards and replacing them with whiteboards raises several issues. What to do about the volatile organic compounds in dry erase markers? Can we get hypoallergenic markers? Is there asbestos behind the chalkboards in the older buildings? If so, how many asbestos remediation projects can we afford, and with how much notice? Can we get them done over the summer, or will they bump up against semesters? And what about the agreement with the math department not to mess with chalkboards in their classrooms? Would this constitute a change to the “terms and conditions of employment,” requiring impact bargaining?
Alternately, if we go with ipads or netbooks, can we be sure that the wifi can handle it? Do the students pay for the workstations? If not, where do we get the money? How do we ensure compatibility? Since we can’t afford to hire many more IT staff, who would be responsible for responding when something doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t work for a night class, or on Saturday? Who would be on call?
I am not making any of this up.
A problem that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to solve -- if chalk dust is a problem, just replace the chalkboards and be done with it -- becomes a chain of issues, each with side effects of its own. A decision that looks simple and obvious from the outside is anything but.
I have much more fun thinking about “the direction of higher education in America over the next twenty years” than I do thinking about “chalk dust in the vents,” but on a day-to-day level, the administrivia swamps the Big Ideas. A roomful of smart and dedicated people with graduate degrees spends an hour discussing the amelioration of chalk dust, finally landing on “let’s investigate some more.” Easy answers require resources. Let us tear down the old buildings and put up shiny new ones, and we won’t have chalk dust or temperamental wifi or rooms with tables in unmovable rows. Let us hire a full IT staff, and we can respond to emergencies as they arise. But in the absence of money, this is what we have to do.
It’s enervating, and a little absurd, and disturbingly reminiscent of the kind of inwardly-focused nitpicking that has doomed other institutions over time. It’s also what actually happens in closed-door meetings, even when everyone involved knows better. Starve institutions of money long enough, and the decisions will get progressively smaller and harder. In a setting like this, the easy default is to stick with chalkboards and junk the technology, hoping to hold the future at bay for just a little longer. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere...
Give me chalk or give me early retirement!
We have whiteboards in our new lab and I have adjusted, but I wouldn't let the chalkboard/whiteboard debate or the dust argument get in the way of moving forward.
They seem to be unaware that oxygen is a much bigger threat to bulb filaments; they burn up from the heat in the presence of oxygen. If chalk dust can get into the bulb, then so can oxygen molecules. No matter how fine you claim chalk dust is, I believe that oxygen molecules are even smaller.
I suspect that math is almost as much of a cash cow on your campus as English. (Our math adjuncts are paid less than our English adjuncts!) If you can keep math happy by maintaining the status quo, then just let them do their thing and bring in money.
It appears neither of these things are true, and so there are some conflicts that will either not be resolved or take a long time to resolve. Oddly, I can't imagine a similar situation happening in industry, despite having less dedicated and less informed individuals making the decisions.
This seems like a technical problem with a technical solution: filters. Put some filters over the intake ports on the electronics. Run an air filter which traps particles in rooms where it's especially bad. And yeah - vacuums have filters too.
Also, see if anyone sells low-dust chalk or even chalkboard markers that wash off with a sponge rather than an eraser.
Seriously -- this is the kind of problem that an engineer should be solving, not a management commitee.
(Though if I *were* on the management commitee, I'd ask if the teachers can nominate a student Eraser Monitor every week whose duty is to take the erasers outside and beat them against the side of the building...)
In addition to skipping on the costs of replacing all the boards, a box of chalk is much less expensive than a box of markers.
I say have IT take off the sides and vacuum them out every year during summer maintenance. Our staff spends enough time on each machine doing routine upgrades to also clean the innards.
We have had "smart" math classrooms with chalkboards for years without any problem. They are in a closed bunker, not sitting under the chalk tray.
Do you know the price of chalk in comparison to dry "erase" markers and erasers as well as board cleaner and napkins to take off the unerasable film that is left after even a single class? The only place whiteboards work well is in a room where they are never used.
I'm with several of the other commenters: low-dust chalk, filters, or other particulate-reduction methods really ought to do it. Or, seriously, just have someone go around with some canned air once in a while. A multi-hour meeting involving thousands of dollars worth of expended man-hours seems excessive.
This makes me feel bad for administrators who have to deal with groups of tenured faculty who have mindsets like this.
The argument of allergies seems like a bit of a moot point because I would have to guess that there are relatively equal numbers of people allergic to the chalk and to the whiteboard markers.
I teach at two different colleges; one uses chalkboards and one uses whiteboards. I have found that teaching with a whiteboard is more efficient and helpful than teaching with a chalkboard. A big advantage is the use of multiple colors. Different colored markers show up much more clearly than different colors of chalk, especially to colorblind students, and I've found that many colored chalks don't erase well, causing additional problems.
Also, the friction involved in writing with chalk slows down my writing significantly when compared to using a marker. And in a math class, sometimes those extra five minutes at the end of class could have been spent going over another example that would help straighten out a few confused students.
I haven't seen any reason that chalkboards are better than whiteboards with respect to student learning, and now I'm very curious as to why Dean Dad's math department is so hell bent on chalkboards.
Individually, each of these media seems benign, even inert. Considered together, however, together, the heat-generating potential of this trinity is infinite, as any extended meeting on the topic demonstrates.
I'm with Mary: designation of student Eraser Monitors could prove to be a Powerful Force For Good.
Now, I have no idea how true that is, or whether they get used to whiteboards after a while and writing is just as fast, or if the current generation who have often never used a chalkboard don't know what they're missing. Doesn't really matter.
It does seem silly to replace good, functional chalkboards. I don't really know what the actual threat of chalk dust is to computer equipment, but I'd bet the risks are much, much smaller now that we don't use floppy disks any more. Still, if I had to choose between a functional classroom without a computer and expensive renovations to add a computer, I'd say screw the computer. The professor and the classroom are much more important than any particular piece of technology.
Chalk vs. whiteboard markers is a METAPHOR for chrissake.
1) There are slate boards that are a dream to write on and that erase perfectly unless some moron washes them. Sending one of those to a landfill should be a crime.
2) Like one commenter, I find that some things (particularly drawing circles) are much harder on a white board even though I have used one for half of my classes for many years.
3) Some white boards, like most chalk boards, have a steel back that makes it possible to use some magnetic demos, but these are likely to permanently damage the white boards.
4) Chalk is cheap. Each marker costs more than a dollar, and will dry out between classes if left uncapped. I hate the odds of picking up a pen from the tray that will write.
Nonentheless, whiteboards are f'in useless with the cheap markers. So messy during erasing that I had a student buy me the good Expo markers one semester because the cheap ones don't erase, they merely smear out.
Also, I'm totally with Zeno, re chalk or early retirement --- white boards are awful when teaching math.
We have had to rewire several classrooms to put in zone lighting so that there is some light in the room while the projector is being used, and I think there are plans to do more of them that way. When classes transition to 100% SmartBoard use (as many of ours have, even in math) the room has to be very dark to see the screen if the bulb is fading or the room has the cheaper projector in it.
Bulbs are REALLY expensive, particularly the bright ones you need to use (see above), and their lifetime is measured in class hours, not years. On the upside, that does make their annual cost fairly predictable.
The difference in this case is that the issue is nontrivial AND everyone has an opinion. That's what DD is mixing up.
Anyways, technical problem, technical solution. Either clean the rooms more or put in filters or both. It's really that simple.
MULTPLE CHEMCIAL SENSITIVITY
You get that you get that for Life!
You do not get that from chalk.
White board markers contain toxic chemicals. Cancer causing chemicals.
The most vulnerable among us children, immune compromised etc are forced to be in rooms with these chemicals.
It doesn't go away!
Take a long time to consider the qualities between the two.