Oct 05

How Technology is Re-defining the Modern Classroom: An Innovative Perspective from the Oldest American Academic Institution


Many of us can remember times in college when we were sitting in class listening to a professor reciting verbatim the exact content found in our textbook.  Others of us, myself included, can remember cramming to learn a concept to pass a test, but subsequently forgetting the concept and its applications.  These inefficiencies and limitations of the current system inspired Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University, to develop a new pedagogical technique for teaching large classes.

Roots of Peer Instruction

Eric noticed that when students talked about a question with fellow classmates they were much more likely to obtain a correct answer to the question and a deeper understanding of the concept, as compared just listening to an explanation directly from the instructor. Peer instruction—the teaching methodology he developed as a result of this observation—helps students correct their intuitions and develop reasoning skills much better than memorization and rote learning.

Eric started teaching using peer instruction in 1991 and research by Eric and others over the last 20 years has shown that the method is much more effective than the traditional lecture.  More recently, Eric has begun collaborating with Professor Todd Zickler in the computer science department at Harvard and a team of postdocs and Ph.D. students to install microphones and video cameras in a lecture hall where peer instruction is being used and use the resulting data to better understand how students learn through peer instruction. Through this research, Eric and the team are learning what methods are most effective in higher education.

The Birth of a Startup 

Over the course of 20 years of teaching using peer instruction, Eric noticed that there were several areas for improvement. Clickers are an extra expense for students or schools to purchase, and they allow the instructor little freedom to go beyond asking standard multiple-choice questions.  Further, grouping students to discuss their responses to questions often proves inefficient, as some students learn a lot from their discussions while others end up having unproductive conversations.

Eric and his postdoc Brian Lukoff decided to prototype a new web-based system with added features that would make the class more dynamic and provide the teacher with a whole new toolbox to improve the classroom. Their model was built to work with all smartphones, computers, current generation iPods, and tablets.  While experimenting with an early version of the system in one class last spring, visiting professors observing the class would frequently ask to use the system in their classes.  With their initial success and positive feedback and interest across the education community, Brian and Eric joined with Gary King, a Harvard professor and expert in statistical methodology, to found Learning Catalytics.

Features & Options with a New Methodology: Real-Time teaching, and Flip Classroom Application 

The software allows the student to draw graphs, enter mathematical expressions, enter free text and share their thoughts and opinions directly with the teacher.  The teacher benefits by knowing which students understand what concepts, and what their general and specific weaknesses are.  The teacher can group the students based on need, emphasize weaknesses and points of interest and thereby customize the lessons accordingly. The software is to be used in conjunction with peer instruction to provide a lasting and meaningful learning experience.

The goal is to encourage teachers to move away from simply delivering content in class, instead “flipping” the classroom by moving content delivery outside of the classroom—by having students read the textbook, or watch video lectures before class—and using the newfound in-class time to allow the students to engage and truly learn through reasoning and interactive questioning in class.

The Future for Learning Catalytics  

Learning Catalytics just launched their product to academic institutions this summer, and it is currently being used at both the college and high school levels.  At the same time, the Learning Catalytics team is using the ongoing research at Harvard to continuously improve the system. Eventually the company would like Learning Catalytics to be used across educational institutions from universities to elementary schools. With the advent of modern technology, interactive learning is still in its infancy.

The hope is that Learning Catalytics will continue their momentum and redefine what it means to learn in the classroom.  At the very least they will provide a new way of learning and a new perspective for teachers to consider,.



1 comment

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    I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

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