The Interactive Classroom Board

By: Anya Isabel Andrews

The blackboard was a revolutionary innovation in education because it opened the classroom up to simultaneous instruction and a space to gather around and learn a lesson, practice skills, and teach in an accessible space. The days of students hunched over individual tablets, clay, slate or otherwise were over. A new age of educational tools emerged with the blackboard as its catalyst. Yet, in the early morning of the 20th century, a technological boom fueled a rapid retreat from “dated” educational tools and seemed to reify them with technology developed in the race to create the first commercialized computer. And just as the blackboard was replaced with film and slide LCD projectors, whiteboards, and eventually SmartBoards, the memory of the blackboard, this once-revolutionary technology, is seemingly lost to the archives. There is another component of the emergence of the smartboard and educational technology though, that is intriguing. The novelty of the new technology and the power of its newness appeals to the School and the University. If it’s new, it’s marketable, and if it’s profitable, it’s prioritized above other technologies. Yet, the nasty side effect of this new technology is that it fuels the notion that creativity is bound to blank white interfaces donned by the our most recent technology. 

To make sense of all of this, perhaps we should start at the beginning. 

The original blackboard, or chalkboard, was born as an ancient technology: clay tablets inscribed with styluses could be easily “reset” or “erased” when wet, or  heated to make documents more permanent.[1] These smaller, personal tablets were among the oldest and most common classroom tools, yet they posed challenges to instructors. The small size meant only so much space could be used at a time, and as the number of students in classrooms increased, so did the labor of watching over each student’s work to ensure they were understanding the lesson and completing work. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that a blackboard designed for an entire classroom was introduced to classrooms in Europe and the United States. “Popular lore holds that” in the early 1800s, Scottish professor and educational reformer James Pillans “connected several handheld slates to form a single large surface.”[2] While many sources suggest he first came up with the idea by asking students to bring their small slate boards together to form a larger writing surface, Pillans doesn’t specify how he came up with the idea. In his 1856 memoir, Pillans writes about the first time he presented his students with a wall blackboard prototype,

I placed before my pupils, instead of a crowded and perplexing map, a large black board, having an unpolished non-reflecting surface, on which was inscribed in bold relief a delineation of the country… executed with chalks of different colours.[3]

The blackboard quickly became a powerful tool in classrooms with increasing numbers of students. Pillans further notes the impact of the blackboard, writing: “The very novelty of all looking on one board, instead of each on his own book, had its effect in sustaining attention.”[4] The invention opened up the classroom, lifting the heads of students to a common point, and teaching them to focus and engage for longer periods of time. In a way, the blackboard straightened the posture of a class, encouraging students and teachers alike to look up, to collaborate, and engage with one another in a common space in a way that individual work slates could not do with ease. The blackboard impacted the social, emotional, and physical realms of the student, in both positive and negative ways. The classroom opened up, and the chalk became an exciting opportunity for creative experimentation, expression, and learning. However, in some spaces, the board began to loom over the class and emerged as a tool for authoritarian-esque discipline and public shaming when answers were wrong or when students spoke out of turn. The ways in which the board transforms in the arms of the teacher is quite a powerful thing.

On a different note, when I thought about what I wanted to choose for my artifact, I already knew I was particularly invested in researching the evolution of the blackboard. I recalled watching a lecture by American Artist, a contemporary multi-media artist and, at the time, a professor at Parsons, who engaged with the evolution of commercialized, user-facing technology in a project called Black Gooey Universe. The lecture and its related art installation sought to expose how these modern, “contemporary” technologies were, in fact, deeply embedded in narratives and institutions that centered Whiteness as a site of creativity. What I found to be the most impactful, was the way American Artist approached this argument, by demystifying and contextualizing the technological landscape Silicon Valley and its “nerds” were creating. 

What does this have to do with the old classroom blackboard, you ask? I’ll bring it back to that. I promise.

American Artist identifies crucial, consequential moments in modern technology’s history that changed the (inter)face of the computers, smartphones, televisions, and even Smartboards, that we see today. For example, Xerox was the first company to create a computer with a graphic user interface, or GUI, that made the device more user-friendly.[5] However, it was Apple that took (well, bought), parts of their prototype to create the first commercial computer, the Apple Lisa. American Artist explains: “Lisa was the first commercial personal computer to include a GUI, before that, computer monitors appeared black…where lines of code were input in green or white characters… Replacing the black line interface used on computers prior to that, the GUI invited users to click on folders and windows in a white space reminiscent of office paper.”[6] Thus, Xerox and Apple effectively began shifting the concept of the “blank space” to be unconsciously associated with whiteness; a move that effectively associated creativity (the limitless potential of the blank space) with productivity (the symbolic representation of office paper). So, just as the negative space of the black line interface was transformed into a blank, white one, the early blackboards made of slate and milky, chalky, black paint became the smooth, clean whiteboard, the projector, and the infamous smartboard. Consequently, if institutions of primary, secondary, and higher education continue to emphasize these higher technology products as the future, without question, critique, or reform, they risk similarly reinforcing the limitations and parameters for creative thought, instruction, and classroom deliberation. 
The revolution of the blackboard has also shown us how the texture of learning materials has changed; the history of this technology can remind us of the significance of learning new landscapes and practicing knowledge creation on platforms beyond the google doc and the blank white page.  I confess, I am not trying to argue that the blackboard be reinstalled in every classroom from Pre-K through university. There are numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effects of smart technology in the classroom. Research has proven time and again that smart boards have a significant impact on students and provide more personalized learning and support where a teacher might not be able to. For example,

A study that examined the written comprehension of students during online reading on the computer versus reading from paper showed that online reading was more efficient and even generated higher grades (Huang, 2014). Shan (2013) investigated the introduction of tablets to the school system and their impact on students with various levels of ability, and found that the tablet enables the weaker students to hear the texts at their own pace without feeling insecure or embarrassed at having to ask the teacher to review the material…[7]

There are, evidently, many positive impacts on their grades: their comprehension of materials and ability to adapt certain skills, as well as their engagement and confidence, which is a big win for social and emotional learning. In colleges and universities, smart technology means that professors can create more versatile and scalable learning plans, and all levels of educational institutions have witnessed the importance of this flexibility during the global pandemic.

However, I think the ability to utilize the whole classroom, recenter the board as a collaborative space rather than an authoritarian one, and use ever-changing materials as “blank spaces” will ignite a new creative age in education. What if students were to reuse paper – grocery bags, construction paper, etc – for mapping out a project plan? What if the blackbaord was re-imagined as a place for mistakes without shame, and for mutual study without constant competition? What happens when students exchange (physical) places with the teacher; does the board become less estranged from the student? Less intimidating? When I was in high school, I removed my closet doors and took them outside to spraypaint them with chalkboard paint, so I could practice my math theorems and chemistry on a bigger surface. (I’ve always loved writing on the board, but I also acknowledge I was never in a class where writing on the board was used as a disciplinary tool or conduit of shame.) Imagine using all six walls of a classroom to change to geography of the learning landscape. Columns of chalkboard painted walls, rotatable projectors, whiteboard tiles for sections of the floor… These are the kinds of radical dreams we need. It cannot always be about what is new. The process of re-imagining education must consider engagement with a wide variety of tools, materials, and learning styles; give students the opportunity to explore “old” landscapes in new ways, and they will grow and flourish in ways we may have never imagined.

a mini manifesto.

the interactive board truly needs to be interactive. 

the blank, white space cannot remain the ideal imaginative landscape.

consistent and meaningful work towards educational accessibility requires flexibility and the ability to work with various materials. 

Figures B(oard)and S(tudent) are twin whiteboard sketches I made inspired by some of my 3rd grade student who often doodle on their work, individual whiteboards, tape on the walls, and anything else the can find. They play with lines and shapes effortlessly, and I’m sure art critics could spend hours engaging with the little details which they draw with such confidence, ease, and nonchalance. To accompany this essay, I wanted to highlight the power of the board to do one of two things: prioritize the board as a place meant for precision or as a site of freedom of expression. Figure B(oard) shows the student against the blue, the board is the central focus, rather than the student. In Figure S(tudent), the student is the center, the board is messier, the numbers are written larger, (the “9” has a top hat). In both, the designs around the student and the board represent the imagination of the student, (how might the student think?). In Figure S(tudent), the student, now in blue, has the power, and the work on the board blends in with the imaginative designs that surround them.

Figure (B)oard
Figure (S)tudent
Figure Color

  1. “History of the Classroom Blackboard: Resilient Educator.”, May 21, 2020. 
  2. Kankiewicz, Kim. “There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, October 13, 2016. 
  3. PILLANS, James. Contributions to the cause of Education. United Kingdom: n.p., 1856.
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Black Gooey Universe. Vimeo, 2020. 
  6. Ibid.
  7. Davidovitch, Nitza, and Roman Yavich. “The Effect of Smart Boards on the Cognition and Motivation of Students.” Higher Education Studies 7, no. 1 (2017): 60-68.