Mini-series: Chalk, Talk and Tech: Blending technology and tradition

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It has long been one of the toughest technological nuts to crack: How to successfully capture chalkboard surfaces in lecture recording. In this blog post, Euan Murray, head of the Learning Spaces Technology team, shares the ingenious solution developed here at Edinburgh to solve this long- standing challenge…  

With the use of chalkboards and other writing surfaces serving as a fundamental element of the learning process for students studying Maths, Physics and Astronomy, finding a solution that delivers a top quality experience for students was one of the priorities for the Learning Spaces Technology team in support of the rollout of lecture recording.

We approached the challenge by engaging with potential users – those tutors delivering complex visual content – to find out what was on their wish list, and what would make them choose to use lecture recording in their teaching.

What we discovered is that lecturers are concerned about the quality of the recording and wanted to feel confident that the video pick-up was of sufficient quality to make the recording a useful tool for students. They also wanted the system to be intuitive so that they didn’t have to spend time tweaking the recording technology or adjusting camera angles before they even got started, especially when faced with a lecture hall full of students.

The solution we created means a lecturer can just walk into a theatre, pick up the microphone, and start writing on the chalkboard straight away, and everything that’s written there will be recorded.  When the projectors are switched off, it automatically goes to chalkboard recording mode, and the cameras point at the writing space being used.

Simple, but ingenious.

Chalkboards are very popular for teaching maths and physics, however this type of teaching does not lend itself to lecture recording due to the technological challenges of successfully capturing often very complex equations or diagrams on a shiny black surface, written in chalk.  In response to these challenges, the Media Hopper Replay team has developed an ingenious solution by deploying very high resolution cameras capable of very high contrast levels.  Offering lecture recordings to our students to such a high quality means that the recordings become an easy to view way of checking exactly what a complex equation said, or how a diagram was drawn. I can honestly say this is the best lecture capture chalkboard solution I have seen anywhere.

– Ross Galloway, Senior Teaching Development Officer, School of Physics and Astronomy

Another challenge faced by the team was recording lectures that use more than one resource, for example, an electronic presentation as well as chalkboard content.

The way we tackled this was by using automation. The system will determine the correct combination of sources to record. Students will get a recording of the lecturer’s presentation, as well as the equations written on the chalkboard.

Each lecturer has a different way of working, and the system accommodates this by recording from two sources, which might be a combination of the lecturer’s PC, laptop, the teaching desk, or the chalkboard.

This gives us the flexibility to provide students with all the information from a lecture, in which ever method the instructor chooses to deliver it. There is no need for them to adjust their teaching style to suit the technology.

The teaching of maths and physics requires the presentation of complex arguments that involve diagrams or equations. Presenting these visually, and in real time, enables students to build up their understanding by taking them through the thought processes and unfolding a narrative to support their learning. Having the ability to record chalkboards to such a high quality has enhanced the way I teach as I can focus on really key information, in the knowledge that the visual workings and process of construction can be reviewed by students in their own time to help build up their understanding of the subject.

– Richard Blythe, Reader, School of Physics and Astronomy

The solution is generating interest at other HE institutions, who are adopting lecture capture or developing their capabilities. However, the most rewarding thing for me is the knowledge that our lecturers are confident in the solution we’ve devised, and their students now have easy access to the vital, handwritten elements of their lectures, which had previously been difficult to capture, giving them a complete record of everything that was delivered in a lecture.

As we move into the third and final phase of the Lecture Recording Programme for the 2019/20 Academic year, I’m interested to hear from others who may have specific requirements of the service.  Our goal is to see lecture recording used effectively and successfully across Schools and disciplines, regardless of teaching or technological variables.

Euan Murray

Euan Murray is the head of the Learning Spaces Technology team in the University of Edinburgh. His team manages and supports over 400 central teaching spaces, from design and project management to day to day support and maintenance. He has a background in audio visual design and automation and a passion for innovation.

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