Friday, 8 June 2018

Solve the right problem – dustless chalk

Here is a lesson on how not to do new tech. Make sure you know first what problem you are solving.

Chalk was the greatest educational technology ever. You can write anything with it, draw, do arbitrary mathematical notation, correct as you go.

The only real problem is that it makes a lot of dust when you erase.

So: we need dustless chalk.

Instead, they gave us whiteboards. Slightly less erasing dust, true. But walk into a room with a chalkboard and you can see instantly if you have all the equipment you need. Chalk missing? Walk next door and grab some. The whiteboard introduces a new problem: a line of pens that look inviting but all are dry.

We needed dustless chalk – that didn’t do it. So what do we get next?

The overhead projector. Works well – you can pre-make slides or write as you go (even with erasable pens). But it introduces a new problem: the burnt out bulb.

All we wanted was dustless chalk.

Next: computer presentation. No dust at all. Very pretty slideshows with animations possible. But now we have multiple points of failure – projector bulb dies, computer won’t talk to projector, slides turn out to be the wrong size for the equipment, you brought the wrong adapter … and worst of all, not even a whiteboard as a backup plan in many lecture rooms.

All we wanted was dustless chalk!

Then after all this, one day, I was giving a talk and started thinking: “If only someone would invent a presentation tool where you could edit as you were going.”

Read my paper “Teaching without technology” to see where this went. No, I didn’t mention dustless chalk. But I should have.

Remember always when designing new tech: keep your eye on the problem you’re solving.