BLOOMINGTON — If teachers want to know whether their students are confused, they can: (a) count the number of blank stares (b) ask them to publicly admit they don’t get it (c) wait for them to flunk the next quiz or (d) use a computer application for immediate, anonymous feedback.
The answer is (e) all of the above.
But Mark Liffiton, developer of the free TeacherTap classroom response system, sees advantages to (d), especially in large classes, rather than asking students to volunteer that they are clueless.
“Students might be a little hesitant to single themselves out like that,” said Liffiton, an assistant professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Using the TeacherTap application, a teacher can present a concept, then ask the students if they understand, or students can provide ongoing feedback throughout the class. The students have three choices: Got It; Unsure; Lost Me.
Part of the design is to let both teachers and students see the result.
“It lets students see, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one who’s lost,’ ” Liffiton said.
And it allows instructors to respond by adapting their lesson plans, or asking more questions to discover where the problem is, he said.
Theodore Rice, a visiting assistant professor of mathematics at IWU, has used the TeacherTap app in a mathematics class for nonmath majors.
While going over some concepts, Rice noticed a significant number of students indicated they were lost or somewhere in the middle.
“I said, ‘Let’s run through it again.’ Then it shifted over and everybody got it,” Rice said.
Having the feedback “justified for me doing another example. I knew I was not beating a dead horse,” he said.
There are other apps that do similar things but they are “either too expensive or too complicated,” Liffiton said. “I wanted to make it as simple as I can make it.”
He used a Google system — as much to learn a new programming language as to develop a new tool.
“I love writing code. I love making things,” Liffiton said. “You’re creating things out of nothing. If people find it useful, that’s a bonus.”
Liffiton was one of 11 recipients of the Google App Engine Education Award that gave him $1,000 in Google App Engine credits and a mention in Google’s blog. The credits take care of the cost of having the app available on Google — for now.
But the credits run out in late November. If use of the application increases beyond free limits, Liffiton said he would seek grants or other sources of funding before he would consider charging.
“That would be a last resort,” he said. “I have no desire to make a business out of this.”