Why do they call it a ‘blackboard’, he asked as I ran a noxious wet marker over the white melamine board in the front of the room. Before you were in school, I replied, teachers used chalk to write on black pieces of slate, so they called them blackboards. Why don’t we still use blackboards? he wondered. I thought about mentioning the bold bright colors and better contrast, but just settled for, they’re just cheaper I guess.

I didn’t want to spend time discussing the efficiency of white vs. black boards. I’m sure an argument can be made for the use of either. But this exchange did get me thinking about the topic of change. Change, if it leads to improvement, is a good and desirable thing. Change, when it is the offspring only of modernity and convenience, is not.

Merely entertaining the idea that not all modern technology is worthwhile puts me squarely in the camp of the old-fashioned, or codgerly. Let me state clearly that I have nothing against modern conveniences. Things that save effort and money are superior, IF, they can do it better than what they replace. For example, I love my laptop and particularly, I love its word (and image) processing ability. I have no desire to return to a typewriter. A word processor is faster, easier, and the end product is better.

No one would argue that email has enhanced our ability to communicate, especially in real time. But when emails are received by the hundreds each day, are used to reply ‘Thanks’ to dozens of recipients, or are sent with the expectation of an immediate reply, that is no improvement over other forms of interaction. If email prevents co-workers from communicating face to face, where is the efficiency in that? It can lead to alienation and even miscommunication.

Used as symbols of tools, chalk and slate are both very elegant in their simplicity. They were used for a long time because they were efficient and easy to obtain/use. One argument against chalk and boards is that the dust created is irritating to sensitive technological equipment. But the smell from dry erase markers? Any thoughts on its irritant value?

I know that technology has but one gear and it is forward. But before we pledge ourselves to advancing our teaching or the presentation of our teaching, let’s make sure that it is a better process. Sometimes tools are so simple because they were perfectly made.