“Bring Your Own Device” Movement Turns Classroom Disruption into Pedagogy

Silagadze is on track to generate $5 million in revenue in the coming academic year. That projection doesn’t include accelerated sales he expects from reseller partnerships to be announced this summer with two major academic publishers. Long term, he says those deals will integrate text book content with Top Hat Monocle tools—a move requested by several professors using Top Hat. If it happens, it could revolutionize the development and distribution in the academic content industry.

Matthew Numer, assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has been using Top Hat for two semesters to teach a human sexuality course. “It gives a voice to students in a really large classroom that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he says. By using Top Hat to conduct anonymous surveys on sensitive topics, such as sexual orientation, Numer can show how the classroom population compares to national statistics. Students can use the platform to track their own progress in the course or calculate the score they need on a test to achieve the class grade they want.

Numer also employs Top Hat tasks to deliberately interrupt the flow of the class every 20 minutes. Research shows that’s the limit of intensive attention, so turning from lecture to a device-based task gets students to refresh and refocus.

Top Hat’s first customer was Steven Forsey, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Waterloo. He believes the tool makes his lectures “more fun and dynamic” and enhances participation in seminars where students might fear giving the wrong answer in front of a crowd. He uses it in classes of 60 and 380 people to deliver animated interactive demonstrations to students in their seats, host competitive class-wide tournaments, and create exam-prep games that let players test themselves on basic concepts repeatedly until they improve their scores.

“We need to pursue these avenues of teaching because the culture has changed,” says Forsey. “Eighteen- to twenty-year-old students have devices and they like to be able to go online and play with things. How do you engage that kind of student? Why not put learning tools and teaching tools right on their devices?”

Silagadze says the tool is a natural fit for the rapidly evolving online education space too. “There’s getting to be more and more high-quality one-directional content available in free online programs. But students in online courses feel disconnected, like they’re just consuming content,” he says. “Learning something in a silo is never as effective as learning in collaboration with others. We need to think about how to get interactivity and feedback into that experience.”

Are there any downsides to engaging students’ own devices for teaching? Bruff says surveys show that the tools are most effective when they are used to support learning. “When clickers are used just to take attendance and spring quizzes on students, it feels a little too Big Brother. Students can push back and then you’ve got negative dynamics that aren’t productive.” The key, he says, is to use the tools in a way that supports good learning practices and doesn’t become a burden for the students. Otherwise, you’ll lose them to Facebook.

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