I’m studying to become a teacher, and part of that involves getting a rudimentary introduction to digital tools. It’s funny what different people with different backgrounds consider digital tools; as a to-be teacher with no actual experience, I’m applying what I know from being a student and general technology geek to being a teacher. In other words, I use my iPad. For existing teachers, that instead includes things like digital whiteboards. Today I got a chance to play with a desk-mounted pen tablet screen in a classroom, and I came away from it loving my iPad mini even more.
There are a ton of different digital whiteboards out there. Some are actual whiteboards with special markers that allow you to draw on an actual whiteboard that’s being aided by a projector, while others are like the one I tried today, with a pen enabled monitor. Heck, a Wiimote, computer, IR diode, and some software makes for a half decent solution, even. What they all have in common is that you can use a projector to get a digital whiteboard that you can somehow interact with, giving you the benefits of digital handwriting (ability to save, undo, insert objects etc) in the traditional role of a white/blackboard.
I’ve seen several such solutions in use, and played with a few. I’m getting the distinct impression that the only reason that some of these products sell, is that they’re being sold as educational tools. We’re talking expensive equipment here, and it’s needed in every single room in order to provide full coverage. You then get the needed hardware, along with some proprietary software that allows you to doodle about on top of Windows or in a dedicated app. I’ve yet to be impressed with a single one of them, even before the price is taken into account.
In this specific case, the hardware itself was a joke. You had a typical digital pen that worked with a special monitor (that didn’t support normal touch) to provide you with pen input for a Windows computer connected to a projector. First of all, it was extremely annoying to not be able to mix touch input and pen input- something you get in a $50 Wacom tablet. Second, the entire system was ridiculously laggy, missing pretty much every other stroke of the pen. I don’t know if the hardware is that bad or if the software just couldn’t keep up, but the result was a hand written sentence that missed about half of the letters and punctuation. You can see what I’m talking about in the video below. I apologize for the video quality; I decided to grab some video for a post a minute before I had to leave the thing alone, and didn’t have time to look over the recording and redo it.
As you can see, it”s not exactly an impressive result for a piece of dedicated hardware. Next to it I had my iPad mini hooked up to a projector via VGA, with Goodnotes running on it. Goodnotes switches to a dual screen mode when an external display is connected; the external screen displays only the note/page, while the iPad displays tools, zoom box (for accurate writing), and so on. A dedicated external screen lock button appears in this mode, allowing you to lock and unlock the external display’s zoom level. If locked, you can zoom and pan on the iPad without changing the zoom level on the external display, while unlocking it allows you to adjust the external image. This way, you can zoom and pan around a document, being as accurate and “messy” as you want on your iPad, without the people watching the external display seeing anything but the resulting output. If you like me have used this app for years, it won’t slow you down a bit to work this way.
Moreover, I carry my iPad mini and a VGA adapter everywhere, meaning I have a digital whiteboard anywhere I go. One that has my documents on it, one that I know how to use. That’s a huge advantage over stationary systems, as those are sometimes restricted to bigger rooms or auditoriums due to budgeting constraints. A third or forth generation iPad as well as the iPad mini also have cameras good enough that you could actually use this as a makeshift document camera, another ace up the sleeve over a stationary solution- where a document camera is a separate piece of equipment.
I don’t expect schools to stop installing proprietary hardware in classrooms. I also don’t expect every teacher to have- and be able to use- a tablet. Still, I can’t help but find the situation a bit ridiculous when my iPad mini outclasses a huge, expensive piece of hardware in the only field said piece of hardware actually competes. It’s like having a dedicated, expensive hunting knife be outclassed for cutting by a cheaper, more functional multitool. I think it speaks to the versatility of a tablet, and specifically the iPad. Without Goodnotes, or something with a similarly well thought-through dual screen mode, it wouldn’t be as good of an alternative as it is. All I need now is a way to make Airplay work anywhere regardless of the available networks, and the setup would even be wireless.