Skip to main content
Move the World.
lightboard

Lead Image courtesy of Emily Nix

When Emily Nix found out she would be teaching her University of Southern California economics course online this fall, she was worried.

"I had invested a lot of time to make my in-person class a good experience. I was most nervous about how to achieve the same level of engagement and enjoyment for the students but in an online environment," she said. 

Moving to an online classroom isn't easy. Teachers can spend months preparing the materials and lesson plans for a course. Nix had already put a lot of effort into the class she teaches and refined over the years. She didn't have time to start over. And she didn't want to reinvent the course entirely. 

Nix needed to find a solution — fast.

"I needed something that would be visually appealing, stimulate engagement, but be feasible to do in a reasonable amount of time."

Emily Nix

So, she studied evaluations from former students and reviewed videos taken of her while teaching to understand what works well. She found that she does a lot of "chalk and talk" — facilitating discussions while she writes on the blackboard — and began looking into options to recreate that.

lightboard

Emily Nix tries the lightboard for the first time from her home classroom. Credit: Emily Nix

One solution she looked into involved using an iPad to draw what she usually draws on the chalkboard. The students would see what she draws but have less face to face time. But that wasn't good enough. According to Nix, seeing the individual while they are writing "adds so much dynamism." 

"I needed something that would be visually appealing, stimulate engagement, but be feasible to do in a reasonable amount of time," she said. 

Nix did what many people do when they are in a bind — she Googled. That is when she found the lightboard — a plexiglass sheet lit with LED lights. When Nix draws on the board, the words appear to glow in front of her. But, despite the simple design, a lightboard is expensive — as much as $8,000.

So, with only $60 in materials, Nix set out to build one of her own. She posted a short video of the results to her Twitter feed, which amassed a significant response. She has received messages from other professors seeking to create a lightboard of their own.

So far, the response to the lightboard has been positive, and Nix found that online teaching has unexpected upsides.

"There actually seems to be even more engagement and participation from students. With the online format, they can participate in many different ways. They can still speak "in person", but they can also answer polls or type questions and answers in the chat," she says.

"In the past, when I posed a question to the room maybe ten hands would go up, now if I pose a question and ask them to answer in the chat, I get something closer to 50% responding. That is incredible," she says.

For Nix, the challenge of online teaching hasn't stopped her from aiming high.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Virtual Reality
For the Disabled, Using Virtual Reality for Education Opens Up New Possibilities
For the Disabled, Using Virtual Reality for Education Opens Up New Possibilities
Virtual Reality
For the Disabled, Using Virtual Reality for Education Opens Up New Possibilities
His daughter couldn’t go on school field trips with her classmates, so Craig Chaytor designed a virtual reality...

His daughter couldn’t go on school field trips with her classmates, so Craig Chaytor designed a virtual reality adventure just for her.

Relentless
How Hamish Brewer is Changing the Game
The Tattooed, Skater Principal Making Education Fun Again
Watch Now
Relentless
How Hamish Brewer is Changing the Game
The Tattooed, Skater Principal Making Education Fun Again
Watch Now

To hear Hamish Brewer speak is to be inspired. About education. About life. About the possibilities of it all. And for disadvantaged youths that come from poverty and broken homes, the New Zealander with an infectious energy works hard to encourage them to excel, not only in school, but in life. About Hamish Brewer With a shaved head, tattoos, and one of those loud, larger-than-life personalities, Hamish Brewer is hard to...

Future of Healthcare
Your New Sex Ed Teacher is a Chatbot
sex education
Future of Healthcare
Your New Sex Ed Teacher is a Chatbot
This chatbot is filling in gaps in sex education by talking with teens to answer awkward questions about topics like health, sexuality, and identity.

This chatbot is filling in gaps in sex education by talking with teens to answer awkward questions about topics like health, sexuality, and identity.

Virtual Reality
John Legend, Tinashe, and Travis Scott Give Virtual Concerts to Connect with Fans
virtual concerts
Virtual Reality
John Legend, Tinashe, and Travis Scott Give Virtual Concerts to Connect with Fans
Musicians are performing as digital avatars during virtual concerts as a way to take live streaming to a new level.

Musicians are performing as digital avatars during virtual concerts as a way to take live streaming to a new level.

Helping Moms in Prison Read to Their Kids
Helping Moms in Prison Read to Their Kids
Watch Now
Helping Moms in Prison Read to Their Kids
Meet the people helping incarcerated mothers read to their kids.
Watch Now

Having a parent in prison is incredibly hard for families. The Women’s Storybook Project is trying to relieve some of the stress on kids and moms alike by simply enabling mothers to read to their kids. Volunteers in central and east Texas visit women’s prisons once a month to record the mothers reading stories, then bring the recordings - along with the books - to the families. Founded in 2003, it’s now grown to include...

Dispatches
Mental Training Can Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries (and Reduce Depression)
how to heal the brain
Dispatches
Mental Training Can Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries (and Reduce Depression)
Millions of people are dealing with traumatic head injuries; brain scans show that cognitive training could...

Millions of people are dealing with traumatic head injuries; brain scans show that cognitive training could actually repair damaged neural connections.