Thursday, 5 February 2009

window on the world

In the corner of my teaching room, on top of a filing cabinet, roughly at head height, there is a computer screen. This, for me, is a fundamental teaching tool, and has been for a long long time. I don't know what I'd do without it.

It's connected to the pc that sits under my desk, which also has its own screen: I used a splitter, a y-shaped one-wire-in, two-wires-out gadget, that cost me a pound or two. In its first incarnation the screen was a battered old TV set that I bought for £4 in a junk shop. I graduated to an incredibly heavy VDU which the University kindly bought for me; now, large flat LCD screens are cheap and ubiquitous, and I would use one of those.

The idea is that everyone in the room can see the screen. So, for instance, I can run PowerPoint slides on it, or demonstrate how to construct Web pages, or do practical criticism of layout of Web pages, all of which I have done at times, but that's not my everyday use.

When I teach a class I prepare a Web page in advance (a WebCT page would work fine). In a Web browser it is easy to scale up the type on the screen so that everyone in the room can read it. On the page is: anything I like.

For instance: the headings of what I am going to say, or what the class will be talking about; maybe with notes underneath. This structures the class, provides a structured summary for students who miss it, maybe provides a set of items to prepare or think about if I give out the Web page in advance: whatever. It's very simple, no slides with fancy transitions or multiple colours: just a clear simple document. Perhaps I'll put on it links to relevant material; students can follow this up later and see how the links fit in with the things discussed in the seminar. And so on.

I mostly teach literature nowadays. Texts. If you want to refer to a text in the class, as we frequently do, then there's the awkward business of finding it, and waiting for everyone, perhaps in different editions, to find it. What I do is put the text up on the screen. Pretty much all of English Literature that's out of copyright is easily available on the Web. The screen becomes a window on to a Web page, or else you can download the text, open it in Word, scale the text up, and there it is, for everyone to read.

This text is instantly searchable.
If I or a student want to talk about, or to invite talk about, Lockwood's dream in Wuthering Heights, or the tower imagery used to describe the two sisters in Goblin Market, both fertile areas for Freudian investigation, I can summon them for everyone to see in a few seconds.

It's really really useful.


  1. This reminds me of my amazement that you'll find interactive whiteboards in most(?) infant or primary school classrooms, but not in university teaching rooms.

    A few questions about practicality:
    * how many people do you have in a typical seminar? If I have fourteen students squashed into my room, I don't think they'd all be able to see
    * is it not too complicated if everybody has to look at the screen to read? I can see that keywords or headings might be feasible, but full texts?

    Perhaps I'll just have to observe you while you're doing it sometimes. It definitely sounds like an interesting idea!

  2. It does indeed sound really really useful. I used to teach literature, and I remember the seminars where the whole group of us were spending aeons searching for a particular quote...

    Any chance of links to some of the out of copyright English Literature stuff?

  3. Up to 14, as per usual. Sometimes I put the whole novel into Word, set the type size to 36 pt, space the lines a little, and everyone in the room can read it. If it's a big class I turn my computer screen a little so that those students not conveniently placed for the big monitor can look at it instead. It works...

    Bill, I just use google. It's the quickest way. Type in "goblin market" in double quotes and there you are, a one stop shop. They earn all the money they get, imho.

  4. This is a brillinat idea! I've tried to do some onscreen tasks with students (like tidying up a mocked-up terrible essay) but am faced with either crowding them around my tiny screen and arranging to book a room with a big screen (which is then all wrong for any other tasks I want to do).
    The interactive whiteboard, however, would be even nicer...

  5. Tom, when they leave do they have access to the stuff you have showed them in class?

  6. Yes, Monica, I put it all up on my website and that's what I show in the monitor on the file cabinet. So for instance I've just been teaching to this: Follow the links for the actual texts.