Professor’s Classroom iPad App Debuts at Consumer Electronics Show

iPadA professor from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is trying to turn the iPad into a new kind of classroom tool that lets students draw on a shared canvas.

The new iPad app is being shown off this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by a company called LectureTools. The company grew out of a project created by Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

For the app to be fully utilized, all of the students and the professor would need either an iPad or a laptop loaded with the software as they sit in the classroom. Then the instructor could use the iPad app to present slides that would show up on every student’s screen and allow any student in the room to annotate the slides or ask a question. For instance, students could highlight points on a map using their iPads, and the group of responses would be visible—anonymously—to the entire class. Mr. Samson said the app freed him from the podium.

An earlier version of Mr. Samson’s LectureTools software, which he first built in 2005 for a Pocket PC, evolved out of his desire to reach individual students by turning large lecture halls into small classrooms. He decided to use the laptops students already brought with them—better known for their distracting power than their use as learning enhancements—rather than invent a separate clicker tool used only during lectures. The goal, Mr. Samson said, is to occupy the devices students typically use to drift away from the learning environment.

“If we have the technology available, how can we use it in a way that’s going to keep the student engaged without them going off to Facebook?” he asked.

LectureTools can also be used to reach students remotely, through video streaming of lectures—a feature many nontraditional students appreciate, Mr. Samson said. Students without laptops or tablet computers can still participate by sending a text message with a standard cellphone. In the future, Mr. Samson said, the app will expand to include analytics functions, letting professors track classroom participation. He hoped the added features would allow professors to spot early warning signs in students who might be silently struggling with the material.

In addition to the nearly 20 classes that used LectureTools at Mr. Samson’s institution last semester, the software is also being used in classrooms at Ohio State University, Michigan State University, and others. As more professors adopt the software, which is subscription-based, Mr. Samson said faculty members across institutions might share material and engage in what he called “comfortable nudging,”—crowdsourced encouragement to improve teaching practices.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by mattbuchanan]

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