Virtual Whiteboard +

   

Recently, my classroom was equipped with a new 1080p projector and a 120″ (diagonal) projection screen. This system was chosen to allow ample resolution for demonstrating software while still providing reasonable visibility in the back of the room. We used an educational design standard that recommends a minimum of 1′ of screen height for every 6″ the viewer is away from the screen. The screen is roughly 60″ high, so this should work for users up to about 30′ from the screen (which happily is about as far away as they can be in this room).

When in use, the screen is about 5′ tall and 9′ wide and the only viable position for the screen is front and center — right in front of the existing whiteboard. We installed the screen as high as possible, but it still covers the top half of the whiteboard (the most useful part) and only leaves 1-1/2′ of unobstructed whiteboard on either side. In other words, I can either use the projector OR the whiteboard at any given time.

Since the screen dominates the front of the room, I began to experiment with the idea of the projection doubling as my whiteboard. To achieve this, I would need software that would allow me to annotate any content I was projecting and give me a virtual whiteboard — a blank screen that would cover other content.  I would also need a simple (and reasonably inexpensive) pen interface for my computer since I would now be writing and drawing on the computer screen and projecting the result.

While I waited for the projector installation to be completed, I experimented with some annotation software. Initially, I settled on Ink2Go software for annotating the screen, but I have now switched to IPEVO Annotator which has a good user interface and is a little more responsive that Ink2Go, and it is free. Honestly, each package has advantages and disadvantages, so I’m not sure where I will end up. I also really like Epic Pen, but while it has the best writing and drawing experience, it currently lacks features like a whiteboard mode and shapes, so, for now, it is a no-go, but if they add a few features it will be my annotator of choice (update 10/4/17: Just came across SwordSoft ScreenInk. It has Epic Pen responsiveness and a full toolset. This is my new favorite). All annotation programs take a little getting used to, but they are fairly straightforward.

The pen interface was more difficult. I have used low cost digitizing tablets (like a Wacom Intuos or Bamboo), but I never liked having to watch a screen on the computer while trying to write on a disconnected drawing surface. The Wacom Cintiq tablets are wonderful, but they cost as much as a nice laptop and have features that are far beyond what is needed for presentations. I toyed with the idea of using a 2-in-1 laptop but did not find stylus options to be very compelling, though a Microsoft Surface or similar unit would certainly work. I looked at services like Splashtop that would allow me to use a tablet and roam the room, but would also tie me to an annual subscription and would require pretty robust WiFi to be reliable.

In the end, I settled on Ugee 1560 Pen Display. It is a 15.6″ 1080p pressure sensitive display for $460 (about $1000 less than a Cintiq). Since it has the same 1080p resolution as both the projector and my laptop, I don’t have to deal with window resizing as I move them from screen to screen. Although using a pen display takes a little getting used to, it is a pretty natural transition and far more intuitive than non-display tablets. The Ugee 1560 package comes with the pen display, 2 rechargeable pens, a pen holder, a drawing glove, a screen protector a USB cable and an HDMI cable.

My first thought was to mirror my computer screen to the Pen Display and the projector, but I wanted to be able to use the extended display features of PowerPoint (slide with notes on one screen and slideshow on the other). Windows allowed me to extend the display across three monitors (laptop, pen display, and projector), but I really needed to mirror the extended display so that I would have an “instructor screen” on my laptop and have the same “student screen” on both the pen display and the projector. My solution was simply to use an HDMI splitter as my second display point, sending the same video signal to both the pen display and projector but treating them (as far as my computer was concerned) as a single display. In practice, this has worked pretty well, but I have found that both displays need to be turned on before the splitter is connected to the computer or Windows gets confused and the system doesn’t work right.

For now, the pen display is on a media cart and my laptop sits beside it on a desk. This works fine but is not optimal. Ultimately, I would like everything to sit on a stand-up desk which would allow better control and visibility of the laptop while standing. Being able to stand while using the pen display allows me to move in much the way I would have while presenting with a whiteboard (though I can’t be as animated while drawing). I am also now able to draw and write “on the board” without turning my back on the class, which I have found to be a huge advantage.

First impressions from my class have been positive. Students are able to see what I project (sometimes with a little zooming in on the software) and the annotation capabilities make discussing worksheets and lab notes much more engaging. Everyone also likes the fact that everything is higher up so the bottom of the screen is still easy to view. The only downside is that the projected image lacks the high contrast of a flat screen. This is inherent to projection systems since the only way to get black on a white screen is to eliminate all light in the room. There are “black” projection screens on the market that promise higher contrast ratios, but they currently cost more than my budget allows.

I honestly thought that I would miss the simplicity of a standard whiteboard, but I have quickly adapted to the new system and don’t really want to go back. It works well and didn’t break the bank. Even better, it is more than a whiteboard since I can also annotate anything that is being displayed (PowerPoint slides, photos, documents, document camera image, etc). I also purchased a 5-megapixel document camera ($150) so that I can display sections of the codebook or a textbook and I have the same ability to mark up the camera image.

Update:

After using the system for a few weeks, I hit my first snag – Windows Update broke my pen display driver. Ultimately, this just required me to do a full uninstall and re-installation of the driver, so not too bad, but it did mean that I was unable to use the system for one evening and had to go back to the old whiteboard (this represents a support problem if the system were adopted by all instructors). I was amazed at how dependent I had become on the new system in such a short time. Furthermore, several of my students told me that they did not get as much out of the presentation and hoped I would have everything working for the next class, so after conducting only 3 or 4 classes, my students had developed a clear preference.

Often, when technology is introduced to the classroom it only gets used until the toy value wears thin and then it sits idle. When I began experimenting with this idea, I thought it would work, but there was always a lingering doubt. I am happy to say that this setup has worked better than expected. I thought that I would still use the whiteboard quite a bit, but I honestly haven’t felt the need and prefer the new system.

One last change. I have now switched to using Epic Pen for markups. I still wish that it had more features, but it is so much more responsive to the pressure sensitive pen display that I find it easier to work with. I now have a beta of the newest version which adds a basic whiteboard mode. Epic Pen’s whiteboard still needs some work, but it is better than nothing.  It is also possible to just open notepad and use the blank window as my writing surface. It’s a little clunky, but it works. Hopefully, the good folks at Epic Pen will release a better whiteboard in a future release.

   

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