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 is about as far away as they can be in this room).

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 using the projector to double as my whiteboard. This required software that would allow me to annotate screen content and a “whiteboard” mode — a blank screen that would cover other content.  I would also need a 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 several annotation applications (listed on my instructional aids page). Choosing an annotation application is largely a matter of preference and budget.  There are several good options ranging in price from $120 to free. In the end, I settled StarBoard Licensed Edition due to its responsiveness and its gallery option. However, there are several good options (my second choice is the free Ipevo Annotator) and not all users will find the same features to be worthwhile. All annotation programs take a little getting used to, but they are fairly straightforward to use.

There are a lot of options for a pen interface. 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, such as the Dell 7000 series, but did not find a stylus option that really felt like a pen. The Microsoft Surface has a great stylus but has matched a UHD resolution to a really small screen making it far less desirable. Using the built-in display also make the extended/mirrored system that I used impossible, so I would have to be satisfied with a single display. I also looked at services like Splashtop that would allow me to use a tablet and even 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 $400 (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. Overall, I am pretty happy with my choice, though a larger screen would be nice. As prices on these displays drop, I may spring for an upgrade.

My first thought was to mirror my computer screen to the Pen Display and the projector, but I wanted to be able to use presentation mode in PowerPoint and also use my main screen for quick lookups, checking files and looking at documents without displaying that content to my students. Windows allows me to extend the display across three monitors (laptop, pen display, and projector), but I really needed to have a two monitor extended display and to have the second monitor mirrored to the projector. My solution was to extend the display to an HDMI splitter connecting both the pen display and projector while 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. It is also important to have the same native resolution on both the pen display and the projector.

Originally, the pen display sat on a media cart with my laptop on a desk beside it. I then tried a low-cost standing desk with a 48″ wide top, but fund the height to be less than optimal and the top to be a little small for all of my material and equipment. Now I have a 6′ desktop mounted on motorized stand-up desk legs. This gives me enough space and the desk can be lowered to normal table height when I am not presenting.

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 capability makes discussing worksheets and lab notes much more engaging. Everyone also likes the fact that everything high enough so that even the bottom of the screen is 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 and I can’t be sure that any trade-offs are acceptable without actually buying one. If I get a chance to try one out, I will be sure to write a review.

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. I do occasionally catch myself pointing at the display or making gestures over it as though I were in front of a whiteboard. These habits are ingrained and retraining myself will require a certain level of commitment.

There are only a few gotchas with this system. The big one is that even though it is a lot like writing with a pen, there is still a definite learning curve. It is not harder than learning to use a whiteboard, but it is different and because of that many educators have refused to embrace this type of setup. Another issue is that pen display drivers from different manufacturers do not play together. If you start using another brand, you must completely uninstall the old drivers. This means that if the system is deployed in multiple classrooms they will all have to be the same brand if you want every instructor to be able to use the rooms interchangably.

Overall, the system works well, my students love it and didn’t break the bank. Even better, it is more than a whiteboard since I can 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:

05/16/2017 

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.

02/10/2018

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.

10/13/2018

After almost two years, this system has moved beyond the proof of concept stage and is being adopted throughout our training center. This should be especially valuable in our auditorium which is a little too big for a traditional whiteboard to be completely effective. The auditorium might also be a good test bed for black projection screens. Since the screen isn’t blocking a writing surface, solid panel screens could be mounted rather than a motorized (expensive) roll-down unit.

   

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