The power of the white board

This piece was published in a college newspaper

On Oct. 30, Wall Street Journal technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about the power of the whiteboard. He discussed how high-tech Silicon Valley companies that have been responsible for creating a vast array of sophisticated digital products ironically rely on nondigital mediums to sort through their ideas and visions. In particular, he wrote about how one of these tech companies, popular note-taking app creator Evernote, has its office walls painted in such a way that the walls function as whiteboards — or “whitewalls” — and how that helps the company boost productivity and innovation.

That got me thinking: We should have this system implemented on our campus as well. And to confirm whether this enhances student productivity, collaboration and creativity, university authorities should run a round of experiments. Imagine what having these whitewalls in McKeldin Library or any one of the dorm lounges would do to student productivity. The direct benefits of having whitewalls in our student community are as follows:

First, increased collaboration. Right now, in my experience, the model for most group assignments has been dividing a project into as many parts as there are members in the team. Each team member is responsible for completing one part of the assignment, and everyone compiles their work into the main project document for submission. Cross-sectional collaboration is minimal, and to a large extent I think the reason for that is not having a large enough canvas onto which we can throw all our ideas. The whiteboards available to us help but do not promote the level of collaboration that could be facilitated by large whitewalls.

Second, improved creativity. Tools like Google Docs that allow people to collaborate on shared documents online are great for teamwork. And most of them are free, too. But such online platforms are largely limited to text, so we can’t intuitively draw our ideas into maps, which inhibits our ability to lay out our thoughts. Besides, all of us who use these online platforms are all too familiar with the accompanying distractions of the Internet.

Finally, heightened performance and quality of work. The result of improved collaboration and creativity should lead to an improvement not only in the quality of the work we do but also enhancement of the entire learning experience.

In March 2011, The New York Times explored the science behind human intelligence, sociality and success (in comparison to lower primates). As per the survey its journalists conducted of academic studies on the subject, humans have been able to build rockets not because of big brains, but because “10,000 individuals cooperate in producing the information.” Collaboration is a human instinct. In a learning environment like our university’s, creating tools to improve that collaboration should be explored.

The cost-benefit equation on this also works out. Contrary to what you might think about the economics of such an experiment, the costs of running the whitewalls experiment will be minimal. Fifty square foot of IdeaPaint, a market leader in whitewalling, costs $225. Accounting for labor and miscellaneous costs of the project, in under $10,000, we could have 1,000 square feet of whitewalls.

I urge the university authorities to explore the possibilities of conducting this whitewalls experiment.


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