Bright Idea: Data science professors take a shine to luminous technology for online learning

Craig Keller, In the Loop: Fall 2019

female using a illuminated whiteboard 

John McDonald, an associate professor in CDM’s School of Computing (SoC), draws math equations in midair. They glow in the dark as he expounds on linear algebra in data analysis.

“We will transform and measure our data set in new ways by actually rotating it,” says McDonald. He makes a twisting gesture with one hand, and the symbols and numbers swirl in space. Then he clones himself: one McDonald lectures, the other calculates.

A class for Hogwarts transfer students? Nope, it’s a video made using lightboard technology in a new production studio run by DePaul’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The Loop campus studio is a jointly funded collaboration between CDM and CTL, which helps faculty design online courses. Its pilot phase this fall comprises five data-science videos, including this one for McDonald’s Advanced Data Analysis course.

So what’s a lightboard?

A lightboard is a next-generation whiteboard that can be used by educators to write information for display to an entire class. Two sheets of low-iron, architectural glass are set inside a metal frame lined with an LED strip on its inner edge. Light from the LEDs is trapped and evenly distributed between the glass sheets. In a dark room, when someone writes on the illuminated board with a fluorescent, wet-erase marker, the markings appear to hover in space.

Michael Peshkin, a Northwestern University mechanical engineering professor, devised the technology, which is ideal for instructional videos. A handful of other institutions are now using it in this way. It’s safe to assume DePaul’s dedicated studio—designed by School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) faculty who work at Cinespace, a professional film production facility that includes DePaul-operated stages—is among the most sophisticated.

Improving online courses

The lightboard videos add a high-production, competitive edge to SoC’s online graduate data-science program. Ahead of the curve when it debuted in 2010, it now has more competition from other universities that offer online degrees in the popular field.

In 2018, CDM Associate Deans Raffaella Settimi-Woods and Terry Steinbach and Associate Provost GianMario Besana secured a grant from DePaul’s Academic Growth and Innovation Fund to bolster the program’s assets while helping CTL build a unique teaching tool all DePaul colleges and departments can utilize for online courses and initiatives.

CTL’s newest studios also include one with a large touchscreen and one with a green screen for adding background scenes. Lightboard videos are part of this resource expansion. They don’t replace computer-screen recordings of complex data-science lessons or videos of complete classroom lectures shared via DePaul’s Desire2Learn (D2L) web portal. But they do provide more personalized interaction between professors and students than a PowerPoint slide or an instructor repeatedly turning around to write on a whiteboard.

“Students are more engaged when they see an instructor looking directly at them while working through the different steps of an equation,” says Settimi-Woods.

Creating the studio

The lightboard studio came together quickly thanks to efficient collaboration. In November 2018, the project team started testing production configurations in a large space at DePaul’s Daley Building. In January, they began building out a smaller space that fit their setup better: a former classroom on the lower level of the DePaul Center. By June, they were online and planning shoots.

John Corba, director of Cinespace, drew up specs for the lightboard and assembled it. Pete Biagi, SCA’s cinematographer in residence, assisted with the set design and placement of the digital cinema camera. Joe Lyons, associate director of Cinespace, rigged the studio’s additional lighting. A dimmer on the lightboard’s LED strip also adjusts light levels. Part of the room was painted black, and a black curtain was hung as a triangular border around the shooting area. The camera peeks through one corner while the instructor, wearing a wireless lavalier microphone that records high-end audio, speaks and draws on the lightboard’s opposite side.

“This is where the wizardry happens,” says Kevin Lyon (LAS ’09, MA ’11), a CTL senior instructional designer who oversees the studio. “In our productions, the background and glass completely disappear. It’s just the instructor and the text, which really pops off the glass.”

Postproduction editing is an essential part of the process. Shannon Lynott (CDM MFA ’19), who was hired as videographer and editor, flips the image horizontally, since writing on the lightboard is backward from the camera’s POV. The best takes from the shoot are selected and cut together. Equation writing is sped up, numerals animated. Clones are produced. It’s also possible to superimpose PowerPoint graphics on areas of the lightboard through a color-swapping technique similar to a green-screen process. Videos will also be professionally captioned to highlight key lecture points and aid English-language learners.

Lyon helps faculty choreograph their performance on a practice whiteboard that’s the same size as the lightboard.

“Most of them are probably used to standing directly in front of what they’re writing and then moving out of the way,” says Lyon. “We teach them to move from left to right, top to bottom, leave a space in the middle for themselves and write in that space last.”

The bottom line

The bigger picture, says Lyon, is how the lightboard videos “affect student attainment, student success on the course, and use that as a model to roll it out for other courses.”

The Department of Environmental Science and Studies is interested in using the lightboard to help teach organic chemistry. The College of Communication, which has made use of its own smaller, tabletop lightboard, is another likely participant.

“We want to show people how the work we do here has a direct impact on student learning,” says Lyon, “and on the university’s success overall.”