Sometimes the old ways are best

By Brian Kernighan

Published: Monday, September 17th, 2007

Last week I went to check out the room where I’m teaching this fall. It’s the same one as last year, so its quirks are mostly familiar. The tangle of wires at the front is the same, but I got pretty good at dodging them last time, a skill that should come back quickly. The spotlights that shine directly on the bottom half of the screen seem to be aimed a bit higher than last time, so projecting while using the board might be harder. The room lighting level remains so dim that the back rows disappear into the gloom, which makes them great for napping, but less so for pedagogy. The laptop projector and my new Mac came to only a fuzzy agreement on what to display, so I’ll probably wind up using my ancient PC.

Last year I was on a panel to discuss technology in education. The purpose was presumably to look forward to new and better gadgetry for teaching, but I was not the right person to lead the charge: In spite of being in a high-tech field, I’m basically a reluctant late follower for most aspects of technology, and especially in the classroom. I’ve never tried clickers. I don’t blog or chat. My first life is busy enough that I couldn’t cope with a second one. I use Blackboard only under duress: It’s the only way to get pictures of the people in my classes. (Note to students: Please update your high school yearbook shots — you don’t look like that now.)

I do like to use a variety of media in class. Foils on an overhead projector are usually best because I can change the sequence, slide them up and down for better visibility, play peekaboo and write on them. Powerpoint is deadly, but a laptop is good for pictures, demos, experiments or anything dynamic. And the board remains best for answering questions, elaborating on some topic or making rough sketches. (As anyone who has been in my class will attest, rough is as good as it gets.)

As I thought about the panel, it became clear that what we really need is not new technology, but simple old-fashioned technology that works. For example, I’d like a whiteboard that’s well lit, though I could live with a decent blackboard, which is preferred by colleagues who are even more backward-looking. I’d like an overhead projector that shows a bright sharp image that can be seen from anywhere in the room; the field of optics has been around for over 300 years, and by now we ought to be able to make a projector that will focus the entire image, rather than forcing me to choose which part will be too blurry to read. I’d like a bright sharp laptop projector, and it would be wonderful if both projectors could be used at the same time.

There should be light on the board so my scribbles can be seen, but no light on the screen so the images aren’t washed out. I want the students in bright light too so I can see them — keeping students in the dark literally as well as figuratively is a bad plan, since it puts them to sleep.

The hard part, of course, is that I want all of these simultaneously, so I don’t have to keep fiddling, especially not moving the screen up and down. It would also be great if there were no noise from fans, air conditioners and projectors, so we can hear each other.

There’s another old technology that would be a big help: complete information about who’s there. Though I can never aspire to the level attained by my colleague Joshua Katz, who knows everyone by the end of the first week, I do want to know who my students are. As a minimum, I’d like name (including preferred name, in case Jonathan Pippington Squeak III prefers “Pip” to “Jon”), netid so I can send spam, picture (a current one would be nice), year, and perhaps major and/or residential college. It would also be helpful to know gender, since that can’t always be determined by name alone.

I can get some of this from Blackboard, though only by scraping the screen. Some comes from the registrar, but only in PDF. Peoplesoft reveals a bit more, but only when I submit grades. And I find out gender reliably only when I meet someone in person. It’s not rocket science to provide all of these from a single source, in a useful form (not paper!) and continually updated, but we’re not there yet.

I’m no Luddite (after all, Ned Ludd went around breaking machines intentionally, and I only do that accidentally when I trip over the wires), but on balance, I don’t need a lot of classroom technology. I’d be almost content if I could see my students, and they could see a screen and the board at the same time.

Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at