The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us fully into remote teaching and learning. For some the change has happened gradually and for others it happened all at once. Each course has unique qualities and realities that may make it easier or more difficult to convert to a remote environment and the same can be said for each instructor. Sometimes the right combination of factors can line up and make this transition work particularly well – one example of this is Michael Justason, Assistant Professor with the Walter G. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology, and his use of the lightboard as a teaching tool.
The journey to his now celebrated use of the lightboard had a few steps. Back in 2015 when the Bachelor of Technology (BTech) program was transitioning to be fully online, Michael Justason was involved in converting some of the courses for the online space. In response to student feedback, Justason decided to record sample problems and to make them available on Avenue for ease of review. The first attempts were through the Smart board, and then it was Khan Academy-style writing videos, which were better but still not quite right. This iterative experimentation was driven by Justason’s desire to create useful and engaging video examples for his students, as he himself was familiar with the desire to find helpful on demand explainer videos through platforms like YouTube. He kept experimenting and eventually came across the lightboard that the MacPherson Institute had created around the same time.
The instructor stands behind the glass and looks through it into the camera. You can write on the glass board with florescent whiteboard markers. You can, for example: write notes, draw diagrams, solve math problems and so on. It is also possible, through freely available software, to insert existing videos, photos and powerpoint slides on to the lightboard so that the students can see that along with you standing behind the board. These sessions can be recorded and shared as videos or they can happen live through the use of communication tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
“Together with a Digital Media Specialist at MacPherson I made almost 40 Engineering Economics videos. They were so well-received by the students that I made another set of almost 44 for the Probability and Statistics course. And I really think that the student response to these videos that I made in the MacPherson Studio was really what earned me the President’s Award for teaching in 2019,” says Justason. Working with the lightboard allowed him to reconceptualize what connection and student-instructor interaction could be like in a remote context.
“In the classroom I make eye contact with all my students. I ask them questions, I get feedback, and when someone asks a question I need to go to the board and to draw it to explain what the answer is. I never found the right medium in the online world where I could feel like I was really a teacher. So I had to make it. I guess that’s really the only way that I can describe what I’ve done.”
Experimenting with the lightboard technology eventually led Justason to work with Adrian Kitai and the start-up company based out of the Hamilton Technology Center to create The Lightboard Depot. Michael’s belief in this idea has taken him from experimenting to offering this simple but effective technology to others.
Change can be hard for anyone and taking a leap to try new technology requires a certain amount of bravery and a willingness to experiment and make mistakes. This is a challenge that has followed the rise of technologically enhanced teaching and learning from the start. When it comes to Michael Justason stepping into the unfamiliar to teach with the lightboard, the change was not an insurmountable challenge.
“As faculty members, it’s important for us to set examples for our students. If I retreated from this sort of challenge and just sort of pulled my head back into my turtle shell and just posted my slides and said there you go, there’s your online class – what kind of an example is that setting for students? We have to show students that we are open to change, and we are open to technology and that we are resilient and adaptable because those are the skills students will need more and more in the future.”
Justason believes that if we expect our students to figure out difficult concepts and to meaningfully absorb new information then we, as staff and instructors, should have the same expectations of ourselves.
Justason’s enthusiasm about teaching with the lightboard is clear and through word of mouth and some media support he has become a spokesperson for this technology. Through trial and error, Justason has surpassed his goal of just trying to problem solve for making example videos available or working on student engagement – he has reinvigorated his passion for teaching.
Justason has trained Engineering Teaching Assistants to run their tutorials through the lightboard. He has also supported colleagues in Engineering and across campus in places like Physics and even the Divinity College, in hopes that they can in turn encourage others to try this new approach. Through trial and error, he has surpassed his goal of just trying to problem solve for making example videos available or working on student engagement – he has reinvigorated his passion for teaching.
“I think after you go through all the pain and suffering of getting the details working you can actually have fun teaching again, and I’ll tell you, as a teacher, there’s nothing better than teaching a class and at the end of the class feeling like ‘that was a good one’. Like I had the students, they listened, they asked really good questions and they learned something. That’s really what I love about teaching – being able to have that kind of effect on people and I’ve got it back with the Light Board. I know when I have a good class. I know when I’ve got full attention and attendance. I know people are coming and tuning in because they want to see what I’m up to,” Justason says.
The end of the 2020 fall semester has brought Justason clarity about the future of his teaching and his students seem supportive. “Honestly, I think I can do some stuff online better than I can do in person and the feedback from the students is consistent with that. When campus reopens again whenever I’m not so sure I’m going to go back. I think I’ve got a pretty good thing going here, and I mentioned that in class and the chat just sort of filled up with students saying keep doing what you’re doing – no need to go back to the class. This is better and we prefer this. The feedback to me has been overwhelming.”
If you know of someone who is doing something interesting, or particularly effective, with their teaching at McMaster, please contact us.