Once a classroom staple, chalkboards now biting the dust

Chalk it up to progress: Cleaner, more versatile whiteboards are quickly replacing traditional dust-clad chalkboards as a preferred tool for instruction.

While the old-fashioned chalkboard remains a fixture in most American classrooms, school designers have all but eliminated it from newer buildings. Emulating practices in the business world, they’re outfitting most new and remodeled schools with whiteboards, in many cases installing high-tech devices that effectively turn them into jumbo computer screens.

Teachers then can surf the internet in front of class, save and print out lessons, or even create animated diagrams that students can review on a home computer.

Whiteboards have “helped us to teach the way we’ve always wanted the class to go,” said Albert Throckmorton, director of curriculum technology at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.

Even before such gee-whiz devices came along, educators say, the chalkboard was on the way out, killed by computers. Chalk is compressed dust, after all, and dust is the enemy of computers. To a lesser degree, schools also worry about dust allergies.

Nancy Myers, an Indiana school planner, said that people in her firm “don’t even consider chalkboards in most cases” and that schools like the modern, businesslike look of whiteboards.

The dust-and-computers problem might be a bit overblown, she said. “The truth is, unless the computers are sitting right on top of the chalkboards, there isn’t going to be an issue.”

Myers’ firm is not alone. The demand for whiteboards has become so prevalent that most school design firms today no longer think in terms of dusty, old chalkboards.

“I’d say some 98 percent of [newly constructed] schools are going with whiteboards. There are very few chalkboards anymore,” said Angelina Burklo, an interior designer for Fanning/Howey Associates Inc.

Burklo, who works out of the company’s office in Celina, Ohio, said her branch has helped design between 30 and 50 schools over the last year. “A lot of times [school leaders] make a district-wide decision to go with all whiteboards,” she said.

Last year, school design firm SHW Group Inc. worked on more than 300 school projects, mostly in Texas.

“It is far and away the request of schools that we work to provide whiteboards over chalkboards,” said Bob Marcussen, SHW’s chief of specifications.

A few companies sell devices that turn whiteboards into oversized computer screens.

For $600, Electronics for Imaging Inc. offers eBeam, a portable system and various accessories that help capture images drawn on a classroom whiteboard for reference on the desktop computer or at home.

For about $3,000, SMART Technologies Inc. sells a more advanced camera system called Camfire. The device allows teachers to draw on a whiteboard, hit a button, and print copies on a laser printer—or save text and drawings to a hard drive or web server.

The mimio Xi, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Virtual Ink Corp., saves words or drawings stroke-by-stroke into a computer file, allowing teachers to create a digital movie of a lesson. Students can download and review the movie using a VCR-like program.

At Episcopal, a coed boarding school near Washington, D.C., Throckmorton bought four mimio Xi devices for $1,500. He said students are now “liberated to participate and understand more in class” because they know they can replay the lesson—which is especially helpful in understanding mathematical proofs, supply-and-demand curves, cell diagrams, and electron cycles, he said.

“In the classes where the board is used frequently, especially in our science department, we’ve discovered that students are more interested in participating in class and not be so bound to the manual task of note-taking,” he said. A few schools use a microphone so the teacher’s comments accompany the animation.

Pam Henry, advertising manager for Claridge Products and Equipment Inc.—a major supplier of chalkboard and whiteboard tools to schools—said one reason whiteboards have become such an attractive alternative is that, despite their technological advantages, they give up very little in terms of cost.

In fact, Claridge sells a 4-foot by 12-foot, classroom-sized whiteboard for $624. The same size traditional porcelain chalkboard sells for $598.

“There are still some old diehards out there requesting chalkboards,” Henry said. “But it’s not because of cost constraints.” Henry estimates that 75 percent of the orders she receives from schools today favor whiteboards.

Even with such advances, said Henry Ruggiero, president of New York Blackboard of New Jersey, a major blackboard manufacturer, teachers often plead with him not to replace their chalkboards. The grit offers just enough resistance for writing. “It seems to help the children with their handwriting,” he said.

Indeed, a common complaint of whiteboards is that they’re so slick students end up writing faster than their brains can think.

Ohio industrial designer Sandy Kate said many teachers simply like the feel of chalk. “I think it’s just one of those things,” she said. “People get used to something and don’t want to give it up.”

Kate gives chalkboards five years at most—making for a brighter, whiter future, but without the simple joy of clapping dusty erasers on the side of the school building.

“I do wonder what’s going to happen to all the youth who were sent forward to clean erasers,” Kidwell said. “That always seemed like a good use of youthful energy.”

Related links:
Episcopal High School

Fanning/Howey Associates Inc.

SHW Group Inc.

Claridge Products and Equipment Inc.

New York Blackboard of New Jersey Inc.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.