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Monocle Harnesses BYOD In Classrooms

Top Hat Monocle tool turns flood of student-introduced smartphones and tablets into teaching devices.

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Are students reading text messages or updating posts on social media instead of listening to the professor during the lecture?

It's an oft-heard lament among professors: Smartphones, laptops and tablets can be a tempting distraction that steals student attention and decreases classroom participation.

Enter Top Hat Monocle, a company that says its platform, Monocle, can harness all those BYOD -- "bring your own device" -- gadgets in productive ways.

Top Hat Monocle claims that around 200,000 students and 285 postsecondary institutions, mostly in the U.S., have used its two-year-old Monocle product. A Web- and mobile-based system, Monocle connects students and professors and offers an array of features, from simple attendance checks to polls, discussions and tournaments.

[ Online learning has its own fans and detractors. Read Online Education Policy Draws Fire In California. ]

"Every professor ends up using it differently," Top Hat Monocle CEO Michael Silagadze told InformationWeek in a phone call. Science teachers tend to focus on tests, while humanity teachers use the product during in-class discussions.

Why would a teacher would use the product during a live, in-class discussion? "Ideas in class vaporize," Silagadze said. "This keeps track of discussions, comments, and votes." He said the record can be useful to the student for studying and to the teacher for grading.

And because Monocle polls can be anonymized, results might be more accurate than other means. For instance, at Harvard one professor who teaches a popular justice course uses Monocle to have students vote on an especially thorny ethical dilemma.

A popular new feature are tournaments, whereby a pair of students compete in a timed test, with the winners moving on to the next round. The entire class can then be ranked.

Monocle, which works on cell phone, smartphones, laptops and iPods, also integrates with popular learning management systems (LMSs), such as Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai and Desire2Learn. Integrations include single sign-on, as well as automatic grade transfer from Monocle into the LMS.

Of course, not everyone is enamored of classroom BYOD.

One college professor reached via email for an opinion about Monocle replied, "Does the system disable all functions other than its own?" He then added, "More & more faculty are instituting policies that prohibit use of electronic devices in class because students refuse to self-monitor, turn off alerts, etc."

This professor, who revealed he once encouraged students to be online during class, wrote his own policy about electronic devices. It reads: "Students must refrain from using any electronic devices (cell phone, laptop, iPad, etc.) for any purpose during class. All electronic devices must be OFF (not on vibrate, "mosquito," etc.). The use of electronic devices distracts both faculty & students. Students who use electronic devices in class will be asked to leave class & will not receive credit for attending class."

Asked about objections of this sort, Silagadze said they were a rarity. Besides, he quipped, "You can't close Pandora's box." More to the point, Silagadze contends his system adds to the learning environment. For example, tournaments and ranking add a "gaming element" to a classroom, making it much more compelling and engaging, he said.

Top Hat Monocle has some evidence to back up this claim, based on its own research with some participating professors. Classes using Monocle saw grades increase by 5% and student understanding of material increased by 23%, and saw an increase in classroom attendance, according to the company. "We are working on doing more systematic studies," Silagadze said.

Top Hat Monocle is free to professors. Students are asked to pay a suggested $20 per semester for an unlimited number of courses. A handful of institutions have purchased a site license for Monocle and are offering the service for free to all students, Silagaze said.

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)

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