University of Calgary

Tip of the Top Hat

UToday HomeSeptember 5, 2012

By Heath McCoy

Geography professor Darren Sjogren uses web-based teaching tool Top Hat Monocle to keep students engaged via technology rather than distracted by it. Photo by Riley BrandtGeography professor Darren Sjogren uses web-based teaching tool Top Hat Monocle to keep students engaged via technology rather than distracted by it. Photo by Riley BrandtRemember the days when passing notes in class or whispering among pupils were the biggest distractions for students in university classrooms?

Those days are gone.

In an age dominated by technology, which students typically have at their fingertips – be it on their laptops, iPads or smartphones – the hurdles to learning are now magnified. But an increasing number of University of Calgary professors are combating the problem by utilizing the potentially distracting technology students wield.

English professor Michael Ullyot made headlines across the country last fall when he used Twitter as a teaching tool to generate discussion topics in a Shakespeare class. Podcasting lectures has also become a popular method.

Now there’s Top Hat Monocle.

Geography professor Darren Sjogren, who has seen students Facebooking, texting and even watching movies during sessions, has introduced this web-based teaching tool to his classes.

Developed by two University of Waterloo students in 2009, the tool is free to professors and $20 per semester for students (or $38 for a five-year subscription), this interactive teaching console allows students to connect to a web application using their personal electronic devices. This allows them to engage with their professors, as well as their fellow students, in the form of quizzes, polls, games, and interactive demonstrations.

Sjogren, who uses Top Hat’s polling features to gauge his students’ interests and areas of difficulty, finds the tool invaluable in helping shape discussion in the class. And it’s not only the classroom extroverts that lead those discussions. Now, the more introverted students can also be heard.

“When you take a polling question and 200 people answer, with 150 of them focusing on something in particular, it’s not the extrovert who controls the class,” says Sjogren. “It’s the interests of the majority of the class.”

Sjogren also gives students review questions via Top Hat, awarding those up to the challenge with bonus marks. This helps improve attendance, he says.

“They have to be there to answer,” he says. “We were getting between 75 and 80 per cent attendance in a class of 350, which is almost unheard of.”

Maybe best of all, it’s keeping cell phones busy.

“If I spring a question, students have to be prepared with their computers or phones,” says Sjogren. “They can’t be texting or doing something else because they don’t have time to transition.”

When Sjogren first tried Top Hat Monocle for a summer class in 2011, it was only being used in a few courses on campus. It is now being used by 37 professors in nearly 50 classes, and in more than 70 universities around the world.