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Faculty Sandbox: A Real Tech Playground

New Resource Trains Faculty for 21st-Century Classroom

Faculty Sandbox

Mechanical engineering Prof. James Sherwood, left, tries his hand at the new Faculty Sandbox Lightboard as Senior Instructional Technologist Randy Tyndall looks on.

By Ed Brennen

The word “sandbox” may conjure up childhood memories of toy shovels and Tonka trucks, but in the computing world a “sandbox” is a secure environment in which developers can create and test new software.

That’s more in line with the university’s new Faculty Sandbox, which the Information Technology Office opened in October at O’Leary Library. Located in Room 324, the Sandbox is a place where faculty can learn about cutting-edge academic technology and explore ways to incorporate it into the classroom to enhance instruction.

“It’s a room we envision that faculty can come in, work on materials or explore new methods of teaching,” says Senior Instructional Technologist Randy Tyndall, who helped develop the Faculty Sandbox along with Michael Lucas, director of instructional technology support.

Accessible to all faculty members by keycard during library business hours, the Faculty Sandbox includes a standard teaching podium for training and recording on the Echo360 lecture capture platform, which is now available in more than half (92) of the classrooms on campus. An increasing number of faculty members are using the platform, especially those seeking to use the flipped classroom model, where students watch recorded lectures outside of class and participate in discussion or group projects in the classroom.


Faculty who want to learn how to edit or enhance their lecture recordings with Camtasia or Brainshark software can do so — alongside an IT mentor — on one of the Sandbox’s two multimedia computers (one Mac, one PC). The room is also equipped with videoconferencing technology for faculty who want to conduct live webinars. 

The Faculty Sandbox’s main attraction, however, is the custom-built Lightboard presentation system. Originally developed by Northwestern University Prof. Michael Peshkin, the Lightboard is a 4-foot-by-8-foot pane of glass with strips of white LEDs on the top and bottom that illuminate whatever the user writes in fluorescent marker. 

The real magic of the Lightboard, though, is in the camera software. Since the user looks at the camera through the glass while recording, whatever they write appears backward. The camera inverts the image so the viewer can read the writing and see the instructor’s face at the same time.

“It hasn’t been commercialized yet, so you can’t just go out and buy one. You have to have some MacGyvers on staff to build it,” says Lucas, who estimates that the Lightboard cost around $2,500 to assemble.

Mechanical engineering Prof. Chris Hansen, who has seen the Lightboard featured in online videos, calls it the “gold standard” of academic technology.

“People really say it enables their learning, and the fact that we have such a custom setup here on campus is really a big draw,” says Hansen, who toured the Faculty Sandbox during its Oct. 1 grand opening with fellow members of the Academic Technology Committee. “As a faculty member, it’s something I’m really going to benefit from.”

Faculty can also experiment with the SMART kapp interactive whiteboard, which electronically captures what’s written on the board and then syncs it with students’ iPhone or Android devices.

“Rather than have total integration in classrooms, we want to be able to have these in faculty’s hands and have them thinking about ways to use it,” says Lucas, who adds that the only other SMART kapp whiteboards currently on campus are in the new DifferenceMaker Innovation Hub. “We think it might work, but faculty members are the ones that are actually going to be working with it and interfacing with it, so we want their input.”

Lucas and his team also want to see what faculty think of Echo360’s new Active Learning Platform, a cloud-based system that incorporates lecture capture, learning analytics, content management and student engagement tools.  

“Students can open up the presentation during class, make notes, ask questions and get real-time response,” Lucas explains. “When they review they have all their notes specific to them on the recording.”

Clinical Assoc. Prof. Michelle Scribner-MacLean, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education, sees the Faculty Sandbox as an ideal space to prepare educators-to-be for what they may see in the classroom.

“They can walk into a school and say, ‘I’ve taught with a Lightboard or used a SMART board,'so it’s really exciting to give them that edge,” says Scribner-MacLean, who plans to use the Faculty Sandbox to produce her own short videos for an online class this spring.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Charlotte Mandell, co-chair of the 2020 Transformational Education Committee, would like to see another Faculty Sandbox open on North Campus.

“It’s remarkable how quickly the technology changes,” says Mandell, who marveled at the eye-catching Lightboard during the opening tour. “The challenge is making sure faculty know how to use it.