By Jon Wells, The Hamilton Spectator, Jan. 6/2021
More than 200 years ago, Scotsman James Pillans hung a blackboard on a classroom wall, helping revolutionize the art of using small slate tablets and chalk to teach students.
Mike Justason makes no claim as inventor of a similarly transformative innovation in learning, but believes “the Lightboard” — a glass tablet used like a see-through whiteboard or chalkboard in online classes — may have similar impact in this age of remote learning.
Or, as he likes to say, the Lightboard means “online (learning) doesn’t have to suck.”
“I wanted to make that the tag line for the company and I was advised against it, but that’s how I really feel,” said Justason, who is an engineering professor at McMaster University.
The company, run out of the HTC (Hamilton Technology Centre) at Clappison’s Corners, started manufacturing the device last summer.
They started small, having built nearly 100 to date: Lightboards are in use at McMaster, and they have sold to schools and businesses in Ontario, and this week to a CEJEP school in Quebec.
Justason said his students rave about the device and call it “next level” teaching technology.
The software allows the teacher to write on the Lightboard glass for an online audience, and include slides or photos on the screen, and write or doodle over top of those images with a fluorescent dry erase marker.
The presenter can see themselves and the content on a monitor as a TV weather broadcaster might.
Justason drapes a black canvas on the wall at home, and speaks directly through the Lightboard into the camera, as he draws and highlights on the glass.
“Students have said ‘It looks like you are talking directly to me,’ and I love hearing that … This is about putting power back in their hands so you answer questions more like you would in the classroom.”
Each Lightboard, measuring 122 cm by 86 cm — about the size of a 55-inch TV — costs $2,000 depending on options. He says it’s far less expensive than similar technology sold by businesses in the U.S.
His dream is that school boards and education leaders in Ontario will advocate for experimenting with the technology.
“The intent is to develop an affordable solution for online teaching for everyone, and allow people to set up in their homes to deliver quality content without having to use a studio.”
Justason used Lightboard technology in the past, but the new initiative to build and market the prototype was sparked by COVID-19 and the emphasis on remote learning.
They intended to hire students last summer to build it, but the shutdown meant they could no longer work on campus. Cavalieri is the lone full-time worker since the other two are full-time profs at the university, where Justason said they have received big support from the engineering faculty.
In a sense, it’s a natural progression for Justason, who won McMaster’s President’s Award for contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.
He came to Hamilton from his native Saint John, N.B. to attend Mac 32 years ago, and worked 20 years as an engineer for Bermingham construction equipment in the city before becoming an educator.
In his home, he always kept a whiteboard hanging in the hallway, the better to teach quick lessons to his two young sons.
“A 10-year-old kid learning geometry? You have to draw it. I can’t imagine the thought of teaching my courses without the ability to draw for my students.”
This story was written by Jon Wells is a Hamilton-based reporter and feature writer for The Spectator. The story was published in The Hamilton Spectator.