Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Dust in the Wind

For the benefit of those who wonder what administrators talk about in closed-door meetings, and why we come out looking annoyed, a multiple choice question based on an actual meeting this week:

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
c. theft/vandalism
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...

I think the dangers of chalk dust can be alleviated by proper room maintenance. (There's this invention called a vacuum cleaner.) Besides, it's not like dry-erase markers are dust free. If anything, they produce grime that is finer and more difficult to deal with; it adheres and smears. Besides, I hate whiteboards and have yet to see a reasoned argument that chalkboards are incompatible with technology. The "chalk dust in the vents" excuse is handed down from techie to techie with a notable paucity of evidence. Is it because white dust is more visible than blackish-gray dust in the guts of malfunctioning computers?

Give me chalk or give me early retirement!
On my campus we had this debate 10-15 years ago and while it is theoretically an issue, practically it doesn't matter much. You have to create a lot of chalk dust to create real problems. We had smart classrooms with boards and all was good. And yes, a vacuum cleaner might be needed from time to time.

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.
The anti-chalk tech folks have told us that "chalk dust gets into the [expensive] bulbs for the LCD projectors and ruins them."

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.
Actually, what I find interesting isn't the actual problem, but the process. If your college was flush with cash and resources, the discussion would look different. "Possible Asbestos? Call in the environmental crew, and get back to me in two weeks" or "We're going to build a new wing for classrooms anyway, so let's move on". If your college had, say, smoother administrative procedures and structure, things would look different. "Hmm, will math get upset about removing their chalkboards? I myself will talk to the department chair of math today and reach a rational, well-informed decision that benefits both sides". You also have some parties that can literally hold out years (decades) for an agreement without acting at all.

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.
I wouldn't ever have thought to try to solve a problem like this by negotiating with the math department, hiring people to do asbestos removal, etc. I mean, I get that this is all in the service of "removing chalkboards" but that really wouldn't have occured to me either.

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...)
I wish that instead of training a new wave of solar panel installers, we had trained temporary staff to remove environmental toxins (like asbestos) from superfund sites and schools. The Obama administration would hate this because it doesn't fit with their idea of what "green tech" is. The DOL would hate this because it requires people with more than no education to do the work. But it would have pumped money into a neglected part of the economy and would have left us all a little better off.
I'm a professorial hopeful who's allergic to whiteboard markers. Don't take my chalk!
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.
Disk drives are sealed and no one uses floppy drives for anything any more. The only place where dust is a problem is on the cooling fins for the cpu, and real dust (from clothing and carpets) and pollen as well as chemical pollutants cannot be ignored.

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.

PS -
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.
OK, I've been in meetings like that.

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.
Give me chalk or give me early retirement!

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.
Whiteboards work but cost more than chalk boards, stink and never quite clean up 100 percent; smartboards are wonderful but are pricey, can be glitchy and require practice in order to use even a tenth of their power; chalkboards are simple and cheap and require darned close to no training, but require good housekeeping practices.

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.
My understanding from my math teachers' and professors' complaints when my high school and then college transitioned to white boards was that white boards are slower and harder to write on: since they have so little resistance to the writing implement, more effort is needed to stop a particular stroke, so writing is slower, and mistakes are easier to make. Math departments whine about this the most because they write the most stuff on the board.

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.
Geez, but y'all have sure underscored DD's point: He's writing about "inwardly focused nitpicking" and the frustrations of an administrator: The smaller the issue, the longer the more heated the meeting.

Chalk vs. whiteboard markers is a METAPHOR for chrissake.

A metaphor for what, multiple choice versus true-false tests in a calculus class? Faculty who can only do a problem correctly by revealing the next step in a Powerpoint presentation?

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.
Is there a reason why you can't paint the chalkboards white and then screw a piece of Lexan over them? It would be a crime to do to a good slate board, but it would be a cheap conversion and you'd never have to find out what was or was not in the wall...
I have been in this meeting before--for a new building where asbestos, etc. wasn't even the issue. We had the chalkboard vs. whiteboard debate forever. Turns out, chalkboards--the good kind--are quite expensive. That helped the decision. My solution was to give the faculty their own laptops so that the computers weren't in the classroom all the time, but that, too, costs money.
Dean Dad, have you read the original Parkinson's Laws,the little book by C. Northcote Parkinson? This is precisely the setting of his discovery of the Law of Inverse Triviality (the time spent discussing something in committee is inversely proportional to its importance). Except the academic committee he describes (in Singapore, I believe) is discussing a proposal to roof the bike racks.
I don't consider this trivial issue at all. I see it as a POV thing, wherein something that can make your life significantly harder (faculty POV) is not particularly the most important goose to cook (admin view). And the reason for this is that there are different priorities, as there should be since each type of position has different goals.

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.
I know that my mathematics building at Big State U has one of the highest janitorial costs on campus because of all the chalk that we use. Despite this, our projectors seem to work fine, maybe because they're mounted on the ceiling and chalk dust is pretty heavy. Though we're doing a design study for possible renovations, and one question from the architects was whether we would continue using chalk long term --- if so, they would put in heavier duty air circulation systems with better filtration.

Also, I'm totally with Zeno, re chalk or early retirement --- white boards are awful when teaching math.
I was reminded today of two hidden costs that DD and his committee may not have considered.

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.
This is occasionally known as the Bike Shed problem -- everybody feels qualified to opine on the color the Bike Shed should be.

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.
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.
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