Finding the Excitement in Teaching Remotely: Doing CS with a Light Board

16 September 2020
By Victoria Morse

Why would you build your own light board in your home office? It sounds exciting but how does it work and why should you consider doing it (or not)? I talked with David Liben-Nowell about his experiences building a homemade light board set up for teaching his computer science courses. 

Why did you want a home light board set up? 

David says that he teaches blackboard intensive courses but he also sees eye contact with the students as key to good teaching. Normally these two things are somewhat incompatible…but what if you could stand behind the board, writing and looking at the students or camera at the same time? With a sheet of plexiglass, industrial easels, camera, lights, a clip on mic, and some clamps, David put together his board. Because the recording flips the image, the writing looks fine. Because the board is clear, David can talk through a problem, write as he goes, and still be present for the students.

Did you need to make changes in how you lecture?

As we are seeing from other reports on teaching remotely, there are some habits that you have undo because good teaching in a recorded format has some different requirements from good in person teaching. For example, if you avoid talking while writing, you can edit the recording to speed up the writing sections and cut sections of the writing to move things along a bit faster. Avoiding transitional words and phrases makes editing easier because there are blank spaces between segments. Finally, David bans ‘left’ and ‘right’ since there are just too many variables. He also had to un-train some carefully learned skills: after many years of struggling to make his explanatory gestures in class more intuitive for the students by using House Left, not Stage Left, as the start of a table, he suddenly had to persuade his brain to re-reverse all of those gestures.

Are there downsides?

It is not as good as a physical classroom full of students, David says. The board is smaller than you might wish. You need to allow extra time for uploading video to Panopto (typically 45 minutes) and for editing. Dividing the lecture in smaller chunks for a series of short videos did not always suit the material very well, and you need to train yourself to present the material in the ways David described above.

What are the upsides?

You can focus on the students while you write, speak, gesture at the board, and write again. Perhaps most important, you stand facing the students and have the physical, performative energy of your body to work with in putting the concepts across. David sees it as a tradeoff between time and quality, worth the extra time because he liked the challenge of setting it up and because it produced a product that made him happy. For him, the set up allowed him to have an authentic teaching experience; the student responses (and their fascination with his set up) suggest that they had an authentic learning experience to match.