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Turning a classroom distraction into interaction

Professors can now have students turn their cellphones into a classroom response system.


Professors typically see laptops, cellphones and other mobile devices as an unavoidable distraction in the classroom. But they can now have students turn these devices into interactive teaching tools using a classroom response system developed by two University of Waterloo graduates.

Mohsen Shahini and Mike Silagadze, co-founders of the company Top Hat Monocle, launched the online platform, called monocleCAT, this past fall. About 4,500 students at five Ontario universities – Brock, Guelph, Western, Waterloo and Toronto – are currently using the tool in 25 different courses.

The technology is similar in concept to the “clicker” response systems used at some universities. However, instead of having to purchase the clickers, students answer multiple-choice questions using their own personal devices such as a Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, laptop or cellphone.

The system also allows students to download files and participate in open-ended questions and other interactive exercises. There’s no cost to the instructor, but students do have to pay a $20 fee per semester to use the service.

Mr. Shahini, who came up with the initial idea, says his aim has been to make the learning experience more engaging. “As a teaching assistant, I was always wondering why the students were not really participating and seemed just kind of bored.”

The two co-founders started the company in Mr. Silagadze’s living room in March 2009. The business has since expanded and moved into the Accelerator Centre on the University of Waterloo campus.

Elliot Currie, an associate professor in the department of business at the University of Guelph, says he’s found the tool very helpful for his students. “They’re not just listening and seeing, but actually doing something,” he says.

Dr. Currie explains that he often completes the first part of a question on the projector, and then asks the students to complete the second part on their devices. MonocleCAT then processes and graphs the class results so that the instructor immediately knows if the students understood the material. “If only 53 percent of them got it right,” he says, “we’ll go over it again.”

Dr. Currie says he sees monocleCAT as an effective way to teach this generation of students. “Let’s use the way they know how to communicate,” he says. “Facilitating them to participate in a manner that they’re comfortable with can only make [learning] better for everybody.”

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  1. Zarko / March 24, 2011 at 07:59

    Unfortunately, this does not resolve the issue of distractions at a more fundamental level. In essence, what this solution proposes is to attempt to pander or “cozen” students into knowledge (to borrow John Locke’s phrase). The tendency for the abuse of these devices will still be present, and the only solution at this point would seem to find a way of blocking signals or banning these devices outright to instill basic rules of courtesy. We need to take back our classrooms and not send mixed messages that “it is okay to use these devices under conditions x, y, z.” We shouldn’t have to cater to an addiction that is disruptive and counter to a proper learning environment. We should stand in solidarity against these devices in our classrooms

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