U. of Michigan Professor Designs Software for Student Engagement

Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, liked the concept of personal “clickers” in class, but he felt that they weren’t dynamic enough for the kinds of questions he wanted to ask in his meteorology courses. So he created Web-based software that combine personal-response technology with other kinds of interactive tools that students can use on their laptops in classrooms.

Lecture Tools, the system Mr. Samson created, lets students use their computers during classes to pose anonymous questions, mark up lecture slides, and answer questions posed by the instructor in real time. For meteorology courses, students can answer questions by pinpointing a location on a weather map on their screens, and the answers all show up—anonymously—for everyone to see. He started using the system about five years ago, and now 30 other instructors at Michigan use it, too. It’s most popular among English, political-science, and nursing instructors.

In a study that Mr. Samson based on a survey of about 200 students he taught, he found that about half said that having a laptop in class increased the amount of time they spent on activities unrelated to the lecture. Still, 78 percent said that laptops with the interactive technology made them more engaged in class over all. The study was published in this month’s edition of Computers & Education.

“If the lecture is boring, students are good at understanding when they don’t need to listen,” he said. “I take my laptop to faculty meetings for the same reason.”

Instructors at any institution can download and use Lecture Tools, and while it is currently free, it may not stay that way, Mr. Samson said. Instructors at more than 400 colleges have accounts, though Mr. Samson said he doesn’t know how many of them actually use it.


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