Michael Peshkin: I'm Michael Peshkin, I'm a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. I've been here a very long time, like almost 30 years.
Gerry Bayne: Cool.
Matt Anderson: So I'm Matt Anderson, I'm a professor of physics at San Diego State University. I've been here for 17 years.
GB: That's great. Could you guys describe Lightboard and how it works and how you came up with the concept?
MP: Wanna do that one, Matt?
MA: Sure, I'll start. Like Michael will probably say also, I had a lot of inclinations towards recording video lectures, either for a fully online class or just little augmentations for my existing class, and I didn't really like any of the approaches out there that I saw, the voice over PowerPoint or recording yourself standing at the whiteboard or the blackboard. I didn't really like that. So the idea of writing on glass was fairly immediately obvious to me as I'm sure it was to Michael. There were sort of two big technical hurdles that we each had to overcome. One was the idea that it's gotta be really visible, the writing has to be crystal clear. So we solved that technical problem by internally illuminating the glass, and in physics parlance it's called total internal reflection, the light is internally reflected in the glass until you put pen on it, and then that frustrates the total internal reflection, and it pops out of the glass. If you use fluorescent markers, it shows up really bright and crisp. So that was one of the big hurdles. And then the second hurdle was this idea that we didn't wanna have to learn how to write backwards. I didn't really even take a stab at that one, Michael, I'm not sure if you ever practiced, but it's really hard. So we quickly figured out that it's just a horizontal flip of the image. If you're looking in your rear view mirror and you see "Ambulance," you know that it's written in backwards and the mirror does that flipping of the image. So you can do it with a mirror, you can do it digitally, you can do it in the computer and software, there's a variety of means. So that was sort of the motivation for me, I wanted to take my stuff online, I was a big fan of chalkboards and whiteboards and doing things with pen and paper, and yet I didn't want to have my back to the camera the whole time. I think literally for me this idea came to me at like three in the morning, I woke up in a panic and had to go write this stuff down and then started working on a prototype.
MP: So I had a more traumatic invention story, which is that I had foolishly agreed to teach my electronics design class like a MOOC. It wasn't a MOOC, it was a private online class, but like that. The university had contracted a production company, and they said, well, you give lectures, come on out and we'll film you facing the camera, giving your lecture, and then we'll add on whatever graphics you need, you know, in the background. And when I considered doing this, I just realized not only was I afraid of being on the camera to start with, but I'd never not had the prop of a blackboard. You wave your hands around, and you write your equations, and it's just not pronounced stuff. So I just had to come up with some way of doing something. So I quickly prototyped sort of the same process Matt just described, and showed it to them, and they said, wow, we really need something like that. So the production company instantly built their own copy.
GB: Did you actually use it for that very first course?
MP: Oh yeah, they were out in Virginia, so by the time I'd got there, they'd built one.
MA: Early on, Michael and I had a pretty long discussion about making this open source versus not making it open source, and we both decided to put our academic hats on and really say, we're gonna share this with the world, and we want people to make it and use it, we want it to spread, we don't want people to feel worried about building their own like they're gonna get in trouble. So we pretty openly decided to share it. Now since that time, I have started a company to make and sell them, because the demand was so high. So there is other intellectual property that we are pursuing, but the original design, the original idea, that is open source.
MP: I think it's interesting too, how that's worked out. It's like, you would think that somebody, that a company trying to sell a device, would not want to at the same time publish how easy it is to make one yourself, but that information has been on my Lightboard.info site all along, and it's also on Matt's Learning Glass Solutions site. It's like, you wanna build one yourself, go ahead. And in a way it almost must reassure customers that "Sure, I could do it, and this is how hard it would be, "and now those prices don't look so bad," when you consider all that goes into actually coming up to speed yourself.
GB: So why is Lightboard a better method for instruction?
MA: Think that's an excellent question. I think Michael and I basically had this idea that I wanted the students to be able to see me. I wanted them to see my eyes, I wanted them to be able to see my facial cues, my gestures, and that's really the heart of this whole thing. It's eye contact with other humans is more important to the learning process. And they've been studying this for a long time in media studies, various actors looking at the camera versus not looking at camera, so forth, and it's pretty well proven that this is a key component to improving learning outcomes, is this idea of eye contact. The other thing that I think is really key here is there's also this sense of simultaneity. So if I'm writing an equation on the board, and it's right in front of me and right in front of you, everything is immediate, you can hear what I'm saying, you can see what I'm saying, but you can see the equation too. But if I'm doing that on a blackboard, and I'm over here, you can't see my mouth, there's a delay between the writing and what I'm saying, and it's harder to make that connection. I think this is sort of an important point, it's this idea of simultaneity, all the information right there in front of your face, readily available.
MP: See the instructor's mouth, see the things that have been written, I'm gonna go with hands, too, are enormously important. Our hands are just wired into our brains very much the way that our mouths are, that our speech is. So people watch each other's hands, and that actually is conveying information quite a bit. So again, whether you're pointing or gesticulating, this really encourages that to come through clearly. Also just cool, you know. Students just enjoy the sort of brightness of it and the novelty of it, and I never tell them what we're doing, so they have to speculate where this came from.
MA: One of the things I wanted to tell you about, Gerry, was what we're doing at San Diego State. I know James couldn't be on this call, but James Frazee and his team at Instructional Technology Services have really pushed Learning Glass forward. We built a whole studio over here that is an active, engaged studio, so up in the front we have a 4x8 Lightboard, and then around the Lightboard we have six tables, we have round tables where the students can come in and sit. And then around the edge of the room there are giant high-definition monitors with the flipped image on it. So it's lecturing to the camera but in front of a live studio audience, and this is something that I think is really critical to having a fully engaged recording is to really have live human beings on the other side of the glass. So for the past several years, I've been teaching a hybrid online course where I have 300 students in my class, 30 of whom will rotate into this live classroom, and the rest are at home watching in a synchronous manner. And this way they are really engaged even at home, because they know that their friends are in the class, the questions that are being asked in the class are very similar to the questions that they have at home, and as far as I know, this is the first of its kind, active, learning environment that has a giant Lightboard, and I think it's pretty unique.
GB: Great goal.
MP: That's great. I always offer my students, you know, if you've got some kind of conceptual thing that you're not understanding, chances are you're not the only one, or if it just comes up in some homework problem, hasn't been understood, one of the things I really appreciate is the ability to just after class, while it's still fresh in my mind, I run down to the Lightboard studio and I can make a video in, if it's a six minute video it probably takes me 12 minutes to make it. And part of the reason for that, by the way, is that I'm not too fussy. I'm no more perfect at it down there in the studio than I was in front of the students. I don't go, this is here for all perpetuity, it has to be perfect. Getting to that point is a thing in itself, good enough is good enough. So that's been really great because I can make that video in 20 minutes and post it, and the students have it immediately. And they really appreciate a high-quality instruction coming out that fast. And the plug was, if people who are watching this thing are interested in getting a Lightboard or building a Lightboard, check out Lightboard.info which is the sort of open board site, and that includes, by the way, a forum, a user forum where people can join the Lightboard group and write to each other. And of course, check out Learning Glass Solutions to see what complete packages cost.