This article about a company that produces classroom engagement technologies such as in-class polls, discussion forums, and homework tournaments is making my head spin. I can get behind the value of in-class polls or quizzes, where students get immediate feedback, and professors get an immediate sense of what they sank in or not. But this:

Top Hat offers an SMS-based response system, while all others access its platform through the web. Students can ask questions during lectures without interrupting teachers and get instant feedback from other students.

Why would we even bother all getting together in the same room, if the discussion is just going to be taken on-line, and away from the professor? And, given my experiences with students having side-conversations to clarify issues in class, at least half the time it seems that these discussions lead students to miss my giving exactly the explanation that they are looking for. This sounds like it turns class into a backdrop that students may tune in and out of, like a television program, while they do other things in parallel.

And then there is this feature of the system:

Professors set up a question bank and a tournament question bank, and leading up the tournament (let’s say at the end of the week), students practice questions from the first set and receive practice scores. On the day of the tournament, students log in and are automatically paired with other students at their level of ability, proceeding through rounds of problem solving, until there’s a winner. The top five are publicly displayed. While this may irk some, the idea is that knowing that they will be publicly competing with winners to be displayed on a class scoreboard incentivizes students to actually practice problem sets and learn the material.

Indeed, I believe this would “irk some”. I am sure that it motivates some students – but I’m concerned about who it would demotivate. Particularly in a course where students enter with a diversity of prior knowledge and skills, a student who has improved more than anybody else in the course could still be faced with a constant reminder that they just don’t measure up, in a very public manner. But beyond that, how much time is being spent coming up with *two* complete question sets to enable this process? And how interesting can these questions be, if they are automatically scored by a system (I can’t imagine how this would be tractable if there are actual professors or TAs doing this grading behind the scenes)? I cannot think of a single assignment I give that could be translated into this setting without losing depth.

In the end, I come back to what I usually come back to when I read these articles and my mind starts to boggle – these systems aren’t meant for a classroom with twenty students and where the amount of “lecture” taking place is minimal, as compared to group discussion and problem solving. These are attempts to use technology to recreate the level of engagement of a small class where everybody knows each other, in a room of potentially a hundred students or more. So I’ll feel free to continue preferring that my students direct their questions about course content to the entire class, rather than texting the friend sitting next to them.