In college classrooms where innovations like smart phones and Facebook are getting in the way of learning, some tech-savvy professors are taking an “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” approach. They’re asking students to bring their web-enabled mobile devices to class and keep them turned on.
A crop of new web-based teaching platforms is enabling professors to engage students in social and competitive activities that are believed to enhance learning. Student users claim to love the tools, and instructors say they hold students’ attention, improve their retention of information, and make teaching easier. The tools are especially transformative for huge lectures, where hundreds of students can now interact with the instructor and each other in real time.
Among the early entrants to the so-called “bring your own device” educational technology space are Lecture Tools, created by a University of Michigan atmospheric sciences professor; Socrative, from a Harvard Graduate School of Education entrepreneur; and Learning Catalytics, created by a Harvard physics professor.
Leading the pack is Toronto company Top Hat Monocle, whose service is now in use on 130 campuses worldwide, from Harvard University to Highline Community College.
To be sure, classroom response systems are not new. If you’ve been in a college seminar within the past six years, you’ve likely encountered a “clicker” — a handheld remote device that lets students log attendance, respond to polls, and take multiple-choice quizzes. Clickers served a purpose in the days before 100 percent of college students carried web-enabled portable devices and every room on campus had wifi access. But now “bring your own device” tools like Top Hat Monocle are poised to displace clickers.
BYOD-based tools are more cost effective than purchasing hardware for every student. A student is less likely to misplace or forget their cell phone than a clicker. And with in- and out-of-class gaming, social functions, and its content delivery mechanisms, services like Top Hat Monocle are far more useful than a clicker.
Derek Bruff, Director of the Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in mathematics at Vanderbilt University, says there’s value in leveraging students’ own devices for teaching. “If the student’s only job is to show up and take notes, they have a lot of mental bandwidth left to check Facebook or read ESPN. Instructors report that students get distracted less if they’re doing something active and on-topic in class—it converts the devices from distractions to productive learning tools.”
Plus, Bruff says, sophisticated use of technology by instructors is increasingly expected of today’s students. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have the portability, the wifi, the tablets. Tech support teams on campus were focused on keeping the projectors running,” he says. “I wonder if students who don’t see any savvy use of technology in a classroom today think they’ve walked through a time machine.”
That is, in fact, what inspired the invention of Top Hat Monocle. Mike Silagadze, founder of the 46-person company, was an engineering major at the University of Waterloo in Ontario five years ago. He found lectures to be “minimally useful and not particularly engaging.” Many of his classmates skipped them altogether. “Learning experiences outside the classroom were getting better, but going into a classroom was like going back in time,” he says.
Silagadze “saw it as a huge problem” and gave up graduate school to engineer a solution in his living room.
His easy-to-use platform lets students subscribe online or in their school bookstore, and simply log in from a smartphone, iPad, or laptop, as they would to Facebook. Professors use Top Hat to share content, pose questions, conduct surveys, and track grades and scores. Students use it to participate in class, provide feedback instantly, or even team up remotely to collaborate on homework assignments. Silagadze says a tournament module, unique to Top Hat Monocle, capitalizes on the current generation’s addiction to gaming and turns homework from a solitary practice to “a social, competitive experience that will result in much more engagement and a better learning experience.”
Top Hat debuted in September 2010, and is supported by $9.5 million in angel funding. A majority of the more than 60,000 students who subscribe to Top Hat Monocle for $20 per semester are at US colleges, where it is used in a variety of courses including aviation at the University of Alaska, evolution at UCLA, food science at Iowa State, and nursing at Johns Hopkins. Educators use the tool for free.