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New program, Top Hat, used in classes in place of clickers

If students pull out their phones to text in class, they may not get the usual warning from their professor, instead, they may see their texts displayed on the screen overhead.

It’s not a new form of humiliation, they’re punching the keypad and sending a text to a special code to tell the professor they’re present in class and that they know the answer to a question.

The students are using Top Hat, a program that allows students to use their phones, or another device, in class to engage in the classroom. It’s what Chief Information Officer John Ellinger calls a “soft version of the clicker.”

Top Hat can do the same things a clicker does, but it’s not as costly and it’s not another thing students must remember to bring to class.

“When you had physical clickers, you had to buy and keep track of something,” Ellinger said. “It now means you don’t have to have those physical clickers if you don’t want to.”

The University has been using Turning Point clickers for the past few years, which cost students about $40. Students at the University can get Top Hat for $16 for a semester or $32 for five years, said Andrew D’Souza, chief operating officer at Top Hat.

Junior Thyran Nowden uses the program for his accounting class and said he thinks there are pros and cons to it.

“I think it works fine,” he said. “I think we should get it free, I think it’s a rip-off to pay for it. I don’t think I’ll ever use it again.”

The program doesn’t cost anything to the University or the professors, D’Souza said.

“It’s essentially kind of a mobile solution to help students participate in class,” D’Souza said. “I think it’s going to end up replacing clickers, we’re already seeing that start to happen. We’re really just trying to help professors be more effective in engaging students, save time and do more.”

One way Top Hat can help teachers engage students is that more than one person can participate, D’Souza said.

“Everyone can think about it and respond,” he said.

The program also allows for class discussions, asking word questions and taking attendance.

Sarah Rainey, an assistant professor, started using the program this fall in her Women’s Studies 2000 class, which is a large lecture class.

“With a class of 120 students, it’s impossible for everyone to have a voice in class,” Rainey said. “[When I ask a question] I immediately see 120 responses, in a traditional classroom, I’d ask that question and students would just speak up.”

The Toronto based company began about four years ago when the co-founders wanted to try to “improve the university experience,” D’Souza said.

“We started to see that everyone had a cell phone or mobile device and the opportunity to take advantage of those and … use it to improve the learning experience,” he said.

As far as students using their phones or devices for other things during class time, Rainey said it would be difficult. “They have to have it up and running in order to react,” she said. “I think it uses the technology instead of making it something covert and secretive.”

About 450 universities worldwide use Top Hat now to do activities such as student tournaments, exam review, discussion, tests, taking attendance and even doing activities outside of the classroom, D’Souza said.

“You can just do way more things,” he said. “You also know what your grades are, you can access it on whatever device.”

Soon, Top Hat will also be connected to Canvas and students can check their grades through it.

“It’s kind of the next generation of [the clicker],” D’Souza said.

Though Rainey is still learning Top Hat, she said she thinks ”it’s going to work well for us.”

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