Analysis of Online Whiteboard Tools

NOTE: This post was revised considerably on 5/31/12 after a followup use with Dabbleboard proved to be awful.  Given this new development, I have to recommend Scribblar and I will plan to have a “backup” whiteboard handy in case the chosen system is “having a bad day.”

When I meet students online for office hours, it’s vitally important that we have an shared online whiteboard to use as a space to do problems.  These online whiteboard tools tend to come and go, so don’t shoot the messenger when one of the tools in the list below disappears. The good news is that these types of tools seem to pop up on the Internet all the time, so where one disappears, three others take its place.

Solving a problem in DabbleBoard

Solving a problem in Scribblar

I’ve been on a search for my “perfect” online whiteboard this week, so I thought I would run through several of the available options, and do my “math teacher analysis” for each.  I use the Chat interface in Canvas to see and hear my students, so I’m really only concerned with finding the “perfect” drawing space.  I paste the URL for the whiteboard in the text chat window, and we can all view the drawing screen from that link.

Here are some of the features I find important in an interactive whiteboard:

  • Large writing space
  • Ability to quickly clear the screen
  • Ability to add more space to the whiteboard or go quickly to a 2nd screen
  • Responsiveness of the pen with freehand drawing
  • Colored ink
  • Highlighting tools
  • Easy ability to share the board with students (ex: by pasting a URL into a chat window)
  • Ability to add a graphing grid or image

This morning I took a look at the following online whiteboard tools:

For the record, none of these tools will work on an iPad.  They all run using Flash and/or Java plugins.  The native Canvas Chat is actually Tinychat, and there is a whiteboard plugin included. However, it’s Flockdraw, and of all the tools I tested this morning, it is in the bottom two in terms of performance (toss up between Flockdraw and Google Draw for worst tool).  Here’s my detailed analysis of the six online whiteboard tools.

Analysis of Online Interactive Whiteboards (click on image to enlarge)

In the “War of the Online Whiteboards” I was torn between Dabbleboard and Scribblar.  I listed Dabbleboard as my top choice on Wednesday, but then its performance on Thursday was so horrid I’ve reversed my decision.  Scribblar has a couple of advantages: highlighter pens (the only tool I looked at that included this option for drawing) and if you do splurge for a Pro account there is a built-in WolframAlpha button which pastes the output of a WolframAlpha search directly to your screen.  The only downside of Scribblar is that students are prompted to “login” when they follow the URL to the whiteboard.  They don’t really have to login, they just have to provide a username for the board, but you will probably have to explain this to every single student that follows the link (sigh).

Guide to Dabbleboard (click on image to enlarge)

 

Guide to Scribblar (click on image to enlarge)

My recommendation for math teachers using the Instructure Canvas Chat: Ditch the Flockdraw whiteboard and create a “permanent space” in Scribblar or Dabbleboard (both will require you to create a free account for a permanent room) where you can keep a collection of all the pages you’ve used for a given class.  Create a different space for each class.  Then paste (or re-paste) the URL to the room URL  into the text chat whenever a new student arrives in Canvas Chat (since they don’t see the past history of the chat).

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Abandon the Red Pen

I have a new Teaching with Tech column published in MAA FOCUS about digital grading. In particular…

  • Why would you want to grade papers digitally?
  • What kind of hardware/software would you need?
  • How do you manage the files and workflow?
  • How to use custom stamps to give more detailed feedback (more details on that one on an older blog post)

Abandon the Red Pen, MAA FOCUS, October/November 2011

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Custom Stamps for Grading in Adobe Acrobat

Many people have asked me to give a tutorial on creating custom stamps in Adobe Acrobat for paper grading.  There’s no reason why you couldn’t do something similar in other programs by pasting images into files, but there’s no doubt that the ease of one-click access to custom stamps is a nice feature of Adobe Acrobat.

Step One:  Create the content of the Custom Stamp

You can use any program on your computer to create the content: MathType, LaTeX, Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, Maple, Sage, Word, Journal, etc.  Write the content and try to make it somewhat compact in width (aim for a square or squarish-rectangle rather than a long skinny rectangle).

Step Two: Capture an image of the Content

Use any screen capturing program to capture an image of your content.  You want to use one that has a “snipping” feature so that it’s not a screen capture of the entire screen.  Just capture the content you want in the stamp.  I usually use Jing or SnagIt to do this, although there are certainly many other options.

Step Three (optional): Make a Border

If I am making a longer comment, I like to put a border around my “stamp” content to make it clear that this was something that was added in the grading and not part of the original content of the exam or assignment.  Even free programs like Jing have the ability to add a rectangular “border” box on the image.  Save the file.

Step Four: Create the Custom Stamp

In Adobe Acrobat, open the stamp menu and choose “Create a Custom Stamp.”  Browse to find the image file you’ve created (Adobe defaults to finding PDF files, but you can use the drop-down menu to choose from other file formats).

 

 

You’ll find it helpful to have stamp categories (Limits, Derivatives, Integrals, Exam 2, etc.) to make stamps easy to find.

Step Five: Use the Custom Stamp (over and over and over and over)

At this point, you should be able to use the stamps by choosing them from Comments & Markup Tools –> Custom Stamps.


Once the custom stamp is inserted in a PDF document, it can be resized and moved all over the page.  You can use a custom stamp multiple times in the same document.

And now that notation error that requires you to explain in a lengthy comment is not such a burden to correct anymore.  I use custom stamps to explain the difference between d/dx and dy/dx, to insert missing limit notation, to explain the difference between a derivative and a differential, to explain how to rewrite an improper integral … once you can just stamp the comments, the explanations can be as clear as you want them to be.

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Math Technology to Engage, Delight, and Excite

This is the Plenary Address from MAA Michigan last week.

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Lost Pointer in Tablet Projection?

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Many of us in math (and many other technical subjects) are now using tablets (slate tablets, tablet PCs, or peripheral tablets) to teach classes. Using a tablet to project what you’re writing has several advantages over traditional whiteboards/blackboards:

1. You can face the students (instead of facing the board).
2. You can make better use of color, shading, and drawing tools (see How Tablets Enhance the Math).
3. You can save your lessons in as either images or screencaptures (videos of the computer screen with your audio recorded in sync).

There is, however, one problem. When you project the image of your journaling software onto the “big screen” in your room, the pen tip is typically projected as a black pixel. This is not so much of a problem when you’re actually writing, but is a big problem when you’re using the cursor to point at some part of the screen (nobody in the classroom can see where you’re pointing).

Luckily, there’s a simple solution. Kenrick Mock (@macharoni on twitter), from the University of Alaska Anchorage, a computer programmer and tablet PC enthusiast has written two programs that simply create a colored circle of emphasis around the cursor area. The pen tip becomes easily visible.

penattention

I’ve written Kenrick’s free PenAttention program before, but it was worth mentioning again for two reasons. First, Kenrick has just written an update for the PenAttention (for tablet computers) . Second, Kenrick also quietly wrote a program called CursorAttention, designed for those of you using peripheral tablets (external tablets that plug in to your computer via USB, like the Wacom Bamboo).

The new update has a few new features:

  • Support for mapping to extended displays (displays a highlight on extended displays like Microsoft PowerPoint in Presenter View mode or Classroom Presenter in Dual-Monitor Output Mode)
  • Support for rectangular highlight (useful for highlighting text passages or lines)
  • Right-click to toggle highlight color

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Kenrick also recorded a nice tutorial video to show you what PenAttention will do on both the native computer screen and on the projected screen.

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