Give Classes an Upgrade with Top Hat Monocle

Education Electronics Geek Culture Internet Technology

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I have a friend who teaches at a school outside Atlanta that is fairly technologically advanced. Besides computers and robotics team and smart boards in the classroom, they’re pretty proud of their private school-wide network that allows kids to use their smart phones (no tablets or laptops) to access an official school website that offers teachers a place to host files and slideshows and calendars for homework assignments. And while I think it’s pretty slick that the school has figured out a way to make mobile phones somewhat useful in the classroom, I question whether they’re really pushing the limits.

Take, for example, a new company called Top Hat Monocle. I got a hands-on session last week with the company using my iPad as they showed me a new level of interactivity that is available to instructors and students with internet-connected devices in the classroom. They have a service that allows instructors to bring real-time demos, quizzes, surveys, and more to the classroom. It’s a web-based service that helps instructors encourage discussion, get a feel for how the classroom is following a complex subject, and discover which students are mastering topics both before and after a particular lesson or presentation.

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Before I tell you a bit more about my experience with the product, let me go ahead and tell you that their list of clients is quite impressive. You can view the entire list here, but I’m quite happy to see that my alma mater, Florida State University, is on that list! Instructors are reporting higher attendance percentages along with increases in comprehension and grades earned. Given how many students likely carry a smartphone or laptop or tablet into the classroom these days, it wasn’t surprising to also learn that the company began from a graduate project in 2010 by two grad students (and current co-founders) who wanted to give instructors a way to incorporate the prevalence of smart devices they were seeing brought into the classroom.

So, how does it work?

Well, I can’t explain the actual technology, but I can tell you what I saw. In one example, I was shown how simple it is to create a fast quiz on the fly. A professor could easily lecture for 10 to 15 minutes and then provide a handful of multiple choice questions (or other varieties) to see how well the students are absorbing the material. Students can provide answers via a private website that is created for each course — there’s even a dedicated phone number so students can text-message their answers if they wish. The technology appears to be able to format itself based on the device, so anyone with a laptop, phone, or tablet will find it extremely easy to participate. (The company will even send those students without a smart device a $20 voucher to purchase a pre-paid phone.)

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Instructors can get real-time feedback on the answers from the students as well. There’s an extreme level of granularity, allowing the instructor to zoom down to the individual student level or check class-wide response percentages. What I was shown was how an instructor could have an opening quiz and a closing quiz and then see what kinds of improvements the class as a whole was showing as well as how individual students were responding to the lecture in-between.

I’d also like to add that real-time quizzing can be created super-fast. I was shown how easy it is to create a question with four possible answers and then have that question immediately pushed out. There’s even a way to add a timer countdown! I was then shown how instructors can create drag-and-drop questions where students might be asked to move answers to respective slots or images. Animated demonstrations can be pulled in that allow students to interact with imagery — think about chemistry, for example, where students could balance equations in real-time or rotate molecules as the instructor continues to lecture.

I like the polling feature, too. Instructors looking to encourage discussion can easily post a poll to test the mood of the classroom and get instant feedback on things such as what topics are giving students difficulty. There’s an anonymity here that allows students to express a concern or question without embarrassment. (Students can be given a way to submit a question that will appear on the professor’s computer.)


Of course, the service also has a feature that supports the assignment of homework and tracking of in-class grades. My guess is that this level of monitoring and interactivity is limited only by the instructor’s comfort level with the technology. I’ve known many instructors who try to stay on the cutting edge, and I can only imagine the time-saving that might be found by offloading the assigning of homework as well as the grading to an automated system.

Right now, the system is being pushed to the college/university community — the cost is free to professors and students pay $20 per semester for an unlimited number of classes. I can see the power here is in getting an entire school to sign up and have as many professors as possible using the service, but still… if I had only one professor at FSU that had used this service, I would have gladly paid the fee to have this level of interactivity in a class. Oh, and there’s almost zero IT requirements — no hardware to purchase, just WiFi and/or cellular service availability in the classroom.

The company offers 24/7 support, and I was extremely pleased to see that they’re using their blog to offer up tutorials on how to use the service. Potential users can take a look and learn how to create various types of quizzes, for example. I also found the company amazingly fast in responding to questions via email.

I don’t think it would take much of a stretch for a high school to find a way to integrate this service into its curriculum. We already know students bring their devices to school, so why not leverage that technology and put it to use? (Of course, there would have to be rules… but I seem to remember that’s what high schools are good at, isn’t it?)

I’d like to thank Mike and Andrew at Top Hat for taking the time to demo the service and answer my questions. You can hear the excitement in their voices as they talk about the existing service as well as big plans for enhancements. Remember, this company was founded by students just two years ago… they have their fingers on the pulse of the modern classroom and technology, and I do believe they’re on to something.

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