Humanize the Classroom

A high-tech teaching tool developed in "garages, bedrooms and attics all over the Peninsula" is now destined for classrooms at prestigious schools like Harvard and Stanford.
"We've got big ideas," said Louis Abrahamson, a former aerospace researcher who heads Better Education Inc.''We think we have, if not the key, then one of the keys to the effective use of computers in education." The company has developed a computer network, called Classtalk, that lets students in large lecture halls use computers to answer teachers' questions. The system has been used at Christopher Newport University since 1988 and, over the next few months, will be tested at seven other sites across the nation.
The two-year pilot program is funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Students and teachers who have used the system say it keeps students in large classes involved with the lesson and provides an instant measure of how well students are doing. The professor asks a question, and students enter their answers on keypads shared by groups of two to four. A graph shows the number of students who picked each answer so students can see how their answers compared to their classmates. The professor has a computer screen to show which students gave which answers.
During a CNU physics class last week Classtalk was being used to help review for a test. Students chatted with each other, discussing answers. A swarm of wrong answers brings out sprinklings of laughter, applause or boos.
Abrahamson said the interaction is one of the benefits of the system. "People learn best when they're active, when they're doing some thing," Abrahamson said.
Abrahamson started working on Classtalk several years ago. "For most of us, this was just a hobby," said Abrahamson, who ran a company that did research for NASA before devoting all of his time to Classtalk. "It was put together in garages, bedrooms and attics all over the Peninsula. We found out it really works. We were surprised at how well it works."
Abrahamson came up with the initial Classtalk design in 1985. Two years later Hartline saw the system and wanted it put in a classroom, even though Abrahamson thought the system needed more work.
The system was used in a physics class at Christopher Newport in 1988. In 1990, Abrahamson started working on the project full time. The National Science Foundation grant was awarded this summer;
The company now has five employees. There's an electrical engineer, who designed portions of NASA satellite instruments, a computer programmer who immigrated from the Soviet Union, a Christopher Newport University student and a physics professor.


In addition to Harvard and Stanford, Classtalk will be installed in physics classes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Carnegie-Mellon, Ohio State University, Arizona State University and a high school. The purpose of the pilot program is to see how the system effects learning. "What we're really doing at the moment is research," Abrahamson said. "We're not out to sell the system."
The current system uses keypads that resemble adding machines. This limits questions to those that can be answered by multiple choice or with numbers. The company is working on an improved version where students will use hand-held computers, about six inches long and a few inches wide with pop up screens.
This will enable students to give answers up to a paragraph long.
" Teachers can ask people to explain their reasoning," said Fred Hartline, a CNU physics professor who is on leave and working on the system.
The hand-sized computers, with a pop-up screen, now cost about $600. Hartline expects the cost to come down as the devices, called personal digital assistants, become more popular.

Those who have already tried Classtalk, praised the system." I think it's wonderful," said George Webb, dean of physics, who has used Classtalk since 1988.
It took him a while to get used to the system, though. "Every time I went into class, I dreaded it," Webb said.
But that changed when the system stopped working for a few weeks. "I felt so bad about going to the class with the system down," Webb said. "I literally hated the way the class dynamics worked."
On days when Classtalk is down, students boo, Webb said.
Students said the system kept them involved in class.'You're able to see what you know and what you don't know," said Felicia Moore, a sophomore.
"It gives you an idea of what everybody else knows," said Danielle Orrock, a junior. "You don't feel bad because you see everybody else is getting it wrong, too."

Those developing Classtalk think its widespread use is inevitable, as cuts to higher education continue. "It's really ironic that it took a computer to humanize the classroom," Abrahamson said. "It's not something you expect from a computer system."

 

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