Education in chemistry is one of the most worthwhile goals that someone can pursue. I believe with all of my heart that someone with not only an interest, but a working knowledge, of chemistry will live a better life. As a chemical educator, I therefore take my job very seriously, and living as I am at the forefront of technology and improvements to not only “gadgets” but also the Internet, I take note of new technologies as they come along. I try to gauge them and see how they can be used to make my job, as an educator, not only easier but also more productive for my students.
Chemistry is a visual science, requiring a lot of diagrams and “doodling” in order to come to an understanding of the subject. As a result, the chalkboard often fills up quite quickly, and the handwriting of the teacher is important. This is particular important in organic chemistry, where 80% of the subject is learning precisely how electrons “flow” from one location to another. This flow is designated by the precise use of certain curved arrows, and the starting location / final location needs to be precise in order to be scientifically correct.
When it comes to chalkboards vs. normal (physical) whiteboards, I much prefer whiteboards. These are the hard white writing surfaces that can be written on with (non-permanent) markers in a variety of colors, and are easily erased without a lot of chalk dust going everywhere. They offer high contrast and the choice of color makes illustrating certain complex topics much easier. Chemistry classes are becoming more and more commonly presented via Powerpoint; this is a result of the class size inflation. What was once a class of 15-20 people is now taught in a lecture hall with 80-90 students; the only way for all the students to view the teachers writing is to project the class notes on huge screens which drop down. So, many teachers have already switched over to completely computerized lectures.
Students have therefore already adopted this shift in teaching method and are perfectly ok with electronic methods of teaching. When it comes to private tutoring, it would make sense to continue to use online technology to continue the teaching process. There are websites – I won’t list them, there are lots to choose from and I don’t want to endorse any of them – whereby you can register and setup a “virtual” whiteboard, password protected with a unique URL. You and your student can then login to the website during a “virtual” (non face-to-face) tutoring session and you have a virtual whiteboard to share. You can both draw on the whiteboard using the point and click interface, or type and have both teacher and student see it arrive on the screen in real time. You can paste graphics onto the screen and have the student see them automatically. Combined with a VoIP service like Skype or even an Instant Messaging service, we have the potential for a virtual tutoring session.
Having tried this strategy not only in mock sessions but also with a student who lived in another State but really wanted me as her tutor, I have to say, it just doesn’t work. Not yet. The potential is there. Technology is advancing in a remarkable fashion, and it won’t be long before everything is worked out, but right now, virtual whiteboards for chemistry education simply don’t work as well as pen / paper / face-to-face sessions. There are several reasons for this. Only a few computer users (graphic artist students, etc) have the electronic pad / pen combination for their computer which makes using the virtual whiteboards easier; without this (approx. $100) accessory, the writing and diagrams look like chicken-scratch. In a precise subject like chemistry, that simply isn’t good enough – it’s not right, and teaching your students in that fashion is doing them a disservice.
Virtual whiteboard technology is a fantastic idea and its time will come, of that I have no doubt. For now, however, there is no substitute for a piece of paper, a pencil, and a student sitting across from you. Eye-to-eye contact is very important to forming an emotional connection, and if you can’t fill your student with the enthusiasm and passion that you yourself have for the subject, the battle of education is really over before it even begins.