Top Hat: A different learning tool to engage students

tophat_Ryersonphysicsclass_clicker question

Students participating in clicker questions in physics class (Sissi Wang/ Ryersonian)

In some Ryerson classrooms, a new learning tool is rendering inconvenient physical clickers obsolete.

Top Hat is a software that allows students to use their mobile phones and laptops, instead of a physical clicker, to answer multiple choice questions and participate electronically in class discussions.

The system collects and assigns a mark to each student’s response according to their registered Top Hat account number, simplifying grading for teachers.

The software company offered Ryerson a one-year free pilot program in September, hoping the school will replace old personal response systems, like i-clicker,with its product by the end of the trial.

“Top Hat is much easier to use than i-clicker,” according to Danish Chaudhry, a second-year mechanical engineering student who’s used both systems. “You don’t have to worry about forgetting it at home or running out of batteries.”

Third-year industrial engineering student Rocco Scavetta believes that with more students connected to their phones and laptops today, the software provides a great way to engage with students in class.

Dr. J. Carl Kumaradas, a physics professor at Ryerson, has been using Top Hat for three years.

He says he got on board because he was interested in more active learning in the classroom.

Kumaradas uses Top Hat to give his students multiple choice questions as a way to help him and his class get feedback on their understanding of the material.

Students are quizzed on a new physics concept every 15 minutes throughout the lecture to snap awake those slipping away into a sleep, and start thinking about the problem at hand. Roughly 80 percent of his students participate.

Chaudhry is a student in Kumaradas’ class and attests to the effectiveness of this method of teaching.

“The questions are fun and get people involved. We would keep discussing questions with classmates if they’re hard.”

“It’s definitely helped with the learning of this course. Teachers now know a lot more about what students know and don’t know, and can put more emphasis on the latter,” he says.

A downside to the software is that it can suffer from poor cell phone reception in some classrooms.

Top Hat however offers three ways to access it in class to circumvent the problem. You can answer the question via text, through the Top Hat application or on their website. So if one has no cellphone reception in their building, they can try using the school’s WiFi instead.

Aside from this drawback in the technology, Top Hat has been successful rolling out its product to at least 15 universities in Canada including University of Toronto, McMaster University, University of Waterloo and many in the U.S. like Harvard University and John Hopkins University.

Top Hat account manager Paul Valenzano at their Toronto offices. (Sissi Wang / Ryersonian Staff)

Top Hat account manager Paul Valenzano at their Toronto offices. (Sissi Wang / Ryersonian Staff)

The company was created by Waterloo grads in 2001, and has grown to a mid-sized business with around 80 employees at its Toronto office.

Its other two offices are in San Francisco and Chicago.

Mickey Wu, part technical support at Top Hat, says its institutional-wide deal is $20 per semester or $38 for a five-year subscription; cheaper than an i-clicker which costs around $50.

Dr. Tetyana Antimirova, undergraduate program director for the Physics department, has done various pilot programs related to educational testing tools and shares: “the more people that like using the program, the faster it spreads.”

Out of all the learning systems she’s experimented with, she says Top Hat offers great flexibility to teaching with its wide array of options, beyond multiple choice questions, for educators to engage students in learning.

“It’s a good system.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 17, 2014.


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