Cell phone use promoted in lectures

“As engineering students we went through the university experience and found that lectures were pretty bad,” said Mike Silagadze, founder and CEO of Top Hat Monocle, an interactive learning program that utilizes computers and mobile devices to increase communication between professors and students in the classroom.

Silagadze explained that his company began as a developer for smartphone applications, but transformed after considering how the software could be brought to the classroom with the technology becoming so commonplace.

“The whole education process hasn’t changed in 100 years,” explained Silagadze, regarding his frustrations of being a student at the University of Waterloo (UW). “You go in to the university classroom and it’s like you’re travelling back in time.”

Looking for a way to update the classroom experience, Silagadze and his team, including co-founder Mohsen Shahini, spoke to different schools, professors and students to pinpoint how technology could improve learning.

The result of their research was the easy-to-use software MonocleCAT, that professors can use as part of their lecture to increase interaction between students and the course material.

“As part of the lecture, the instructor engages the students with all kinds of different activities and the student becomes part of the learning process, rather than this kind of passive observer,” explained Silagadze.

The program allows course instructors to create a platform for their class where they can develop quizzes, polls, interactive demonstrations and collaborative learning modules allowing students to respond in real time to the lecture.

There is no cost for the instructor to create and use the platform, and for students the fee for registering is currently a mere $20 per semester for an unlimited number of classes. Students are able to apply a wide range of personal technology for the program, including smartphones, laptops and iPods.

The program was used last fall by over 2,000 students, primarily at UW.

“We’ve actually just now started getting results back on the various courses we ran the system in September and it looks like the results are positive,” said Silagadze, noting that trends are showing an increase, of five to seven per cent in students grades after using MonocleCAT.

While the program has proved its success in classrooms and has growing support from professors and students alike, Top Hat Monocle has not found equal support from university administration.

The lack of interest in the technology, according to Silagadze, is due to the fact that universities are not invested in the classroom experience as much as they are with funding research and expanding their campuses.

“Fundamentally, universities are research centres and the education side of it is just diploma mills,” Silagadze reasoned, adding that the funding universities often receive are conditioned for research initiatives or infrastructure.

This model focusing on research has resulted in the ineffective lecture model of the classroom, which Silagadze described: “What it amounted to was you’d pay these huge amounts of money for tuition and what you get out of it is you show up and you have a guy talking at you for an hour; really reading the textbook to you.”

Silagadze believes universities should invest more in the learning experience of their students to ensure they excel in the classroom and take knowledge away with them. However, he is not discouraged by their lack of support thus far.

“The reason we’ve been able to be reasonably successful is by taking the grassroots approach by going directly to the professors and directly to the students to try to bring this in to the classroom,” he said.

This semester, Top Hat Monocle is expanding its service to approximately 400 students in classes at Laurier.

The company is also creating a package that will allow students to order their textbooks and subscribe to MonocleCAT for a reduced cost, ultimately merging traditional schooling with technology.