An Interview with Peter West: The Lightboard

About Peter West
Peter West is Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College, an independent K12 school on the Gold Coast, Australia. He is an educator who has been driving organisational change using educational technology in K12 schools for over 15 years.

While he is an accomplished teacher and educator, he also has significant technical knowledge, having managed technology departments in a number of schools. He has designed, built and maintained networks, and can talk ‘tech’ as well as education. Thus, he is a bridge between the two areas.

His focus for many years has been blended learning, the effective use of Online Learning Environments and whole organization change (rather than having just a few “lone innovators”). Peter is a Microsoft Innovative Educator (Expert) and Surface Expert, has presented at national and international conferences for many years, and publishes numerous articles.  He can be contacted at pwest@ssc.qld.edu.au.


1) Peter, first of all, tell us about yourself, your education and experience.
I have been involved in education for decades, with the past twenty years focused on leading schools in the area of technology; leveraging the appropriate technology to enhance learning and teaching. Technology used in schools has come so far in that time. My first initiative when I moved into this type of role was to lobby for network cards for our computer laboratory and then connect them to the Internet (which was quite basic 20 years ago) via a 128k ISDN line that we had to get specially installed. That makes me think back and smile about what it was like “back then”.

While I have run IT Departments, built networks, etc., I am primarily a teacher and have purposely stayed in the classroom; our core business is education, not technology, and we need to always remember that. I believe that a ‘bridge’ between education and techs is needed in educational organizations in order to drive meaningful, long term change. It is unfair to expect techs to understand the classroom, and it is also unfair to expect educators to understand the intricacies of technology. Yet someone needs to understand both in order for education to leverage technology effectively.

2) What exactly do you teach and where?
I am Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College, which is about 30 miles south of Brisbane, Australia. (www.ssc.qld.edu.au)

I currently teach Year 10 Mathematics but most of my time is devoted to driving eLearning initiatives, running Professional Development for staff, etc.  In the past I have taught Senior Chemistry, Computing/Programming, Science and Mathematics.

I originally taught for many years in Government schools (public schools) and moved to independent schools (where parents pay fees) over fifteen years ago. (Not sure of the terminology that you would use in the USA, so I hope this makes sense.)

3) Now, it appears that this “lightboard” is the latest cutting edge of technology. Who first developed this and why do you think it is effective?
We are indebted to Michael Peshkin at Northwestern University. I researched Lightboards after hearing about them at a conference, and his lightboard.info site was extremely valuable. It provided everything that we needed, from plans and technical information to tips for using a Lightboard effectively. We didn’t have the budget he had, but we had sufficient funds to create a good device.

We have been building online courses that contain tutorials for years; we have a rich Online Learning Environment that operates for all classes in the Senior school. We developed many resources within these courses and created some tutorials that record handwritten explanations of concepts/solutions to questions with narration. Several years ago started we started working with  LiveScribe pens that created PDF files that could be played, rewound, etc. (https://www.cnet.com/videos/livescribe-echo/) These were great at the time, but there was a ‘technology barrier’ for staff. They took extra time and effort, and what you got was text/writing and a disembodied voice.

We introduced pen based laptops (Surface Pro 3s) over two years ago for all teachers. These, combined with software such as Office Mix (https://mix.office.com/en-us/Home), Office Snip (http://www.eschoolnews.com/2015/09/10/app-snip-khan-402/), Camtasia, etc. allowed this type of tutorial to be made more easily. However, there was still a ‘technology barrier’ (even though smaller than with the LiveScribe pens) and there was still text and writing with a disembodied voice.

The Lightboard has a very small ‘technology barrier’. If a teacher can stand at a board and ‘teach’, he/she can create a Lightboard video. We have removed the last vestige of a technology barrier as our eLearning staff take the video from the camera, rotate and edit it, and place it into the appropriate online course.

4) Advantages, disadvantages and pros and cons of these lightboards?
One big advantage is that the tutorials produced are more ‘human’. I will explain more about this soon.

These tutorials also allow students to learn when they are ready. How often do we teach a topic and have some students who aren’t ready for the information, or who understand only part of it. In the past, they had to book a time to see the teacher to go over the concept again or try to get an explanation some other way. In our case, they can review the information whenever and wherever they want, when they are ready. For teachers, it reduces or eliminates “groundhog day”…repeating the same “concept” over and over again for students who didn’t understand the first time.

A disadvantage for some is the cost (ours cost about AU$4000, about US$3000, in total). There are some sites that explain how to build a cheaper version, but we chose to go with a full featured system. The Lightboard also needs to be in a special room. It is not something that can be moved, or be part of a normal teaching environment.

5) Is there specific clothing that you should be wearing for optimal student response or student reception?
We use plain dark colors without writing or images/patterns. Writing will be reversed when viewed in the tutorials. In fact, we bought five black T shirts in various sizes for teachers to use so that clothing problems would be eliminated. These are always available in the Lightboard room.

6) How does this “humanize” learning in your view?
These tutorials “humanize” learning in a number of ways:

  • For the students
    The tutorials themselves are more ‘human’ as we no longer have the older style of tutorials with a disembodied voice explaining concepts. Instead, it is a real person with expressions, hand movements, body language…everything. It is also often the student’s teacher, or another teacher they know in the school. This makes it more personal and relatable.The teacher can also point to sections of the work on the board, while in previous tutorials pointing didn’t work; you had to draw a circle or underline the appropriate part so that the viewer knew what you were referring to.In fact, I played one of my tutorials in class when I was introducing students to the concept. I paused it part way through and stood in front of the “projected me” to emphasize the point that it was just like being in a normal theory lesson.The first MOOC I did was very well produced and the lecturer was visible while teaching at a board, etc. It was a high tech implementation and better in some ways than being in a lecture, but I felt “connected” and it was more like he was teaching to me. I knew I was one of thousands of online students and he would not even be aware of me, but that didn’t matter. I suppose it is similar to the way some people feel they know actors and TV presenters as they get to see and hear them so often.I realized that Lightboard tutorials also had that characteristic.
  • For the teacher
    The teacher has a more “human” experience as they are doing what they enjoy; standing at a board with markers teaching a concept. The only difference is that there is no physical audience.We have removed the technology from their experience; the editing is done behind the scenes. They teach, and within a short period of time the tutorial is available to students in their course in our Online Learning Environment.These tutorials also take little time to make; teachers are usually time poor. Once created, the teacher will also get that time back many, many times when students view the tutorials…teach once, have students learn over and over again. Essentially, these tutorials are an investment for the teacher that will continue to provide returns for many years.
  • For the class
    These types of tutorials actually create more “individualized” learning and more time for deeper and more personal conversations in class. They also allow learning to occur when the student is ready, not when the school timetable says that every student in that class is ready.A couple of examples may clarify these points.One of our Chemistry teachers was in the lead up to exams. She was helping a couple of students in class and another student asked how to solve a particular question. Rather than interrupt what she was doing, she pointed him to a tutorial she had made on the concept. He watched it, and then came back to her and said he had solved the question and understood the concept. Without the tutorial, he would have wasted time, or gone on with other work while still feeling confused. She had effectively cloned herself and everyone got what they needed when they needed it.One of our Mathematics teachers received an email from a student at 8pm the night before an exam. She was having difficulties with some advanced problems. He was in the middle of marking and providing a lot of individual solutions would have been difficult. Instead, he looked through the large number of Lightboard tutorials he had created and pointed her to the three that applied to the area that was confusing her. She got back to him the next day; she worked out how to solve most of the problems and he then spent a few minutes on the specific, deeper areas of understanding that she was still uncertain of. The tutorials had allowed her to learn when she wanted to learn, and then allowed the teacher to personalize his teaching the next day to her specific needs.This is what education needs more of: targeted, specific teaching and learning when students need it. We have also had great feedback from students. They seem happier to engage with this type of tutorial online.

7) Now, the details: what kinds of machines or software or hardware are going to be needed to work with this stuff?
The Lightboard glass and stand was the most expensive and “difficult” component. We contacted a local glass manufacturer and they custom built a powder coated aluminum stand from the instructions we sent from lightboard.info

Patrick Dare, a Mathematics teacher at Saint Stephen’s College, explains some theory in a video tutorial created using the LightBoard.

We chose glass the same size as a 65-inch television; it was a special glass formula that is “very” transparent and without internal flaws. (Our first glass panel had to be replaced as it had some internal “ghosting” that was visible in the videos.) The glass manufacturer also attached “channels” at the top and bottom of the glass through which we could feed the LED strips. The LED strips are readily available online at a reasonable price. We purchased three LED lights online. These are for lighting the teacher evenly. We are going to add another two in the near future to allow more even lighting. These sit on tripods which we also purchased. The video camera has to be of reasonable quality with a range of image controls. It must also have an input for an external microphone. We also bought a tripod for this. We tried an external directional microphone but there was electrical interference, and this created a background hum. We could reduce it, but we couldn’t eliminate it. We now use a Sennheiser wireless lapel microphone and this has solved all problems and provides excellent audio. We use Camtasia to edit and “flip” the videos.

8) Where can people find out more about this technology and its use?
Our main source of inspiration and information was lightboard.info I would highly recommend it. We looked at other sites on Lightboards, but kept coming back to it. We owe Michael Peshkin so much for sharing his ideas and information in so much detail!

8) What have I neglected to ask?
This type of change has to be promoted to staff. Some have to overcome their reluctance to be on screen or to hear their recorded voice. It may not seem like a barrier to some, but for some teachers it is confronting.

The advantages to teachers have to be pointed out regularly; particularly how it can make their teaching richer and more personal in class. The ways that it can give them time for more individual conversations, solving individual areas of confusion for students rather that the shotgun/general approach, need to be emphasized.

Some initially have the fear that the tutorials will make the teacher redundant. This is so far from reality, it is almost funny. Passing on information is a small part of teaching; good teachers do so much more and online tutorials cannot replace this. I have taught in classes with lots of online tutorials available for many years, and they haven’t replaced me. Instead, these classes are more personal and individualized.

As I tell teachers, if having the information available online was enough, schools would have disappeared when Google started. Good teachers will always be in demand.

It is also good to have some “champions” or early adopters from a variety of faculties. We are lucky to have enthusiastic and capable teachers from Mathematics, Chemistry, Year 5 and foreign Languages, and we have only had the Lightboard operating for a month or two.

Finally, we are lucky to have amazing eLearning staff. They help set teachers up when they are first getting comfortable with the system. They also edit/rotate the video, upload it to our video repository and then use embed code to place the tutorial in the appropriate course in our Online Learning Environment. They are part of our “secret weapon”; the magic that happens behind the scenes to make it easy for teachers and insulates them from the technical parts of the process. They allow teachers to focus on their core business – teaching. They are a vital and very important part of the process.

An early setup of a light board. Modifications have since been made to the lighting locations and audio, including a move to a wireless microphone.

 


Michael ShaughnessyAbout the Author
Michael F. Shaughnessy is currently Full Professor at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales, New Mexico, where he also directs the New Mexico Educational Software Clearinghouse. He has authored, edited, or co-edited approximately 30 books and authored or co-authored approximately 500 articles in various journals and online publications.

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